Postcards from a PhD
While being in a position where I get to spend a lot of time reading and writing about music is nothing but a joy, it is a rather solitary -and quiet- activity, so the opportunity to get out and meet people and actually make some electronic music is always welcome. It was this change of pace that led me, this weekend, to an Introduction to Live Coding Performance with Shelly Knotts and Joanne Armitage, a Yorkshire Sound Women Network workshop funded by the AHRC Live Coding Research Network.
My most recent coding experience dates back to the late 1980s when I would spend hours after school painstakingly typing instructions into the family Toshiba. With enough time and attention to detail eventually I would reach a point where I had programmed a couple of small lines to appear on the screen which I could then move around in a lacklustre imitation of a ‘ski slalom’. I decided quite quickly that this wasn’t really a very good use of my time and abandoned the whole thing, though I have wondered every now and again whether had I kept it up I would ever have become any good at it. Well, I hope it’s not a spoiler to admit now that if I have taken anything away from this weekend’s experience it is that I am no great loss to the world of coding.
My lack of experience was not to be a problem, however, the workshop was pitched firmly at beginners, which everyone was. That’s not to say that those in attendance weren’t an impressive bunch, as we went round the room introducing ourselves it emerged that most of the women there were involved in studying, teaching or performing electronic music in some form, or came from creative backgrounds with an overlap. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, it felt very exciting just to be in a room with these people, and as with the previous YSWN event I attended it was a super-friendly and really supportive environment in which to have a go at learning something new.
Women are very underrepresented in live coding performance in the UK, so much so that the workshop was presented by the only two women currently active in the field, Shelly Knotts and Joanne Armitage. They joked at the beginning about being the UK number 1 and 2 by default, but this was of course modestly disingenuous. What emerged from my experience of the workshop is that live coding for performance is uniquely challenging and learning the tools of the trade is only a small part of it. Confidence, inventiveness, focus and staying calm under pressure are all as central to being a live coder as the code itself and both Shelly and Joanne had these attributes in spades. Luckily for us these are also attributes that make a person very good at delivering workshops.
We spent the morning getting an overview of the history of live coding for performance, which having emerged from an academic performative background is now more often a club based practice, spawning the ‘algorave’, events based around dance music generated from algorithms. We moved into a Mac lab to have a go at generating some music patterns with ixi lang, a simple musical coding software. We all trooped off to lunch feeling very pleased with ourselves after this. It was a great beginners’ programme and everyone had had some success generating music and had enjoyed the immediacy of the process. In the afternoon we were introduced to supercollider, a more powerful and involved coding environment. There was a lot more to take in with this session and I certainly felt a little overwhelmed by it, but have picked up enough of the basics to have a go at home at my own pace.
Overall it was a great day and one which is likely to have a really positive effect on the representation of women in live coding performance. Part of the ethos of the YWSN is to support the expansion of women in electronic music and there are already plans afoot for secondary meet-ups to develop confidence in live coding performance gradually with an aim to setting up a mentoring programme for girls and female led live coding events. In a few years’ time I fully expect to see some of the women I spent the day with active in live coding performance. I don’t think I’ll be one of them, but hey, someone has to be in the audience and I will certainly appreciate the experience all the more for the background knowledge I gained at the workshop.