This is an interview with Renick Bell, a pioneer of “algorave”. We asked him about this international music trend. Following part 1 where we talked about some of the basic points about algorave, let’s go further down the path of algorave! We asked him about the domestic and international trends, some advice for novices, and how it’s connected with society.
——Algorave was coined by Alex McLean and Nick Collins back in 2012, but how has it evolved since then?
Renick Bell：The number of algoraves and the diversity of locations is increasing every year. So it started in the UK, and pretty quickly there became a significant scene in Mexico City. And then after that it started to expand in other countries of Europe and in Asia. And they’re in Australia now and in South America. I think I haven’t heard of an algorave yet in Africa so that’s something to target. But yes, the number of algoraves is growing and of course, that means the number of people doing algorithmic music is growing and the profile of algorave is increasing.
So this year there was a documentary on RA, Resident Advisor about algorave. And so that was, I think, a big sign of how far algorave has come. There have been events this year at famous cool venues in London, and Berlin and here in Tokyo. So, I think before it was often held in DIY spaces or small art galleries, and now it has entered the proper club world. And so that’s encouraging.
And I hope One of the difficult points of algorave is that, because it’s possible to make this very new music it also may be hard for some people to listen to. But I think that the way culture works is, people are exposed to something and if they have a surprising experience, even if they can’t quite understand the first time, then they leave, and they think about it. And their thinking has changed and their taste has changed. And so I think the fact that we have made it into Resident Advisor, or these mainstream clubs, means that the general landscape of electronic music is changing somewhat as a result of algorave.
——Could you tell us more about algorave scenes around the world and interesting algorave artists?
Renick Bell：It’s dangerous because they’re all my friends! There are a lot of interesting ones. Who do I mention? Okay, well, so, Alex McLean, he of course, he’s very important algoraver, right? Because he originated the term, and he has also made a very important tool for producing algorithmic music called TidalCycles. This is one of the most popular tools for performing algorithms, and so his performance is very interesting. Because as the designer, the inventor of the tool, naturally he can use it better than almost anyone. So his performances are fabulous.
If we follow this thread, TidalCycles is one of the most most widely used live-coding tools. In America, there’s a guy called Kindohm, Mike Hodnick, and he is a really advanced user of TidalCycles. He uses it in a different way from Alex. He has been using it long enough and developed his own style, which visually looks quite different from Alex’ style, and also sounds very different. And the quality of his music is really very high, I think. So he’s another interesting person to check. His artist name is Kindohm, K-I-N-D-O-H-M.
So if we just take this tool approach, one of the other very popular tools for live-coding is SuperCollider, and a woman named Shelly Knotts has been using SuperCollider for a long time. Because she has been using it for so long, her skill level is very, very high. And so, she produces very interesting music, using SuperCollider.
SuperCollider is a big part of why the scene in Mexico City grew so rapidly. But now, I guess, there are people using both SuperCollider and TidalCycles in Mexico City. One of the outstanding users in Mexico City is an artist. I’ll get her name wrong It’s CNDSD her name is Malitzin (Cortes). So she’s a great user of TidalCycles in Mexico City.
——Who developed SuperCollider?
Renick Bell：Who made Super Collider? SuperCollider was developed by a Texan called James McCartney, and I think it was originally developed in the the very first version was in the late nineties. So it’s a much more mature tool than TidalCycles, but it’s more complex for users, too. That’s one of the nice points, I guess, about Tidal Cycles: that beginners can start with it within a day and be producing musical results, whereas TidalCycles is more difficult to do so.
——How about algorave scenes in Japan?
Renick Bell：Okay. I think one of the very interesting points about many algorave performers in Japan, is that they are extending the tools with their own software, which is maybe more I feel maybe it’s more common in Japan than in other parts of the world. So, for example, Moxus has used TidalCycles with SuperCollider together and developed special tools that only he uses for his performance, and that give him a very unique sound.
There’s another performer who will perform here tomorrow night, called Naoki Nomoto. And he has developed software, some code, that allows him to control a modular synthesizer using TidalCycles. And he shared with his code with me and I used that in tonight’s performance. And he also makes very interesting music as a result of this.
There’s another group called AI Step that have used TidalCycles, but automated it so that much of the code is changing automatically according to another program that they have written, which also produces, yet again, a very unique style of music. So I think that there are a lot of advanced programmers in Japan who are doing this, that then get very unique results as a result.
And also there’s Tadokoro sensei. So he’s doing the same, using TidalCycles and adding his own software to that, so that it becomes very visual. And it becomes possible to understand not just the code but to understand visually what is happening in the music. And he’s also, I think, important because he has been very active in teaching these tools. So another there’s another very major tool that I left out called “Sonic Pi”. And so, Tadokoro sensei has been teaching Sonic Pi and TidalCycles to students at many universities in Japan and in workshops. And so I think he’s playing a very important role. And he also creates very high quality music.
How to start “algorave”
——If someone wants to start algorave, what do kind of equipments or training do they need?
Renick Bell：All you need is a computer – just a computer connected to the internet. So you could go through the tutorial for Sonic Pi or TidalCycles – that would get you started. Attending a workshop is probably an easier way. One of the hardest parts about because the software is new, the install process can be a little challenging for some people, for various technical reasons. And so if you go to a workshop, there will be some kind of facilitator there. who can help you to get the software installed and who understands the basics of how to use it. So that’s probably the best way to get started.
But there’s another important point, I guess. So the alogorave community is very focused on being open, and that extends to software. So almost all the software is open source software. And that’s important for two reasons. One is that we can look at the soure code. We see all the source code, and change it if we want, which is different from software like Windows or Ableton Live, which is closed software. So even if we wanted to see inside, we can’t. The companies don’t allow us to see how the software is built. So with the software that’s used in the algorave community, it’s open source. We can look inside and change it if we want.
But then another very practical benefits of this is that software is all free. So that makes it very easy to get started doing algorave right? Because you can just download the software for free. You don’t need to pay.
——You create music by working on various codes in real time, but what are important things in this process?
Renick Bell：I have to think about a lot of things. So one of the most fundamental things is I have to avoid writing a bug, or doing something that causes an error that would then cause the system to crash and all of the music would stop. Actually, this is kind of a common occurrence in algoraves. So I think at nearly every algorave, there’s at least one performer who manages to do something that causes the computer to crash, or at least the program to crash, and the music stops. But everyone is familiar with this, and they all applaud and cheer for the performer, and the performer restarts the software and begins again.
So this is the first thing, I guess, that I have to think about, and be careful about.
I’m also thinking about I personally I’m interested in music that changes very quickly. And so I’m trying to think about the difference between ‘programmer time’ and ‘audience time’. And I think if this scene has any challenges, problems that it has to deal with, one of one of the difficult areas is the difference in how a programmer feels time and how an audience member feels time.
So when a programmer is dealing with some difficult code, they may be very focused on one or two lines, and they can think about it very deeply, and sometimes they can think about it for a pretty long time. But while they’re thinking about this code, the music is continuing on the audience is listening right? And I think there are cases when there’s a gap between the feeling of the interest of the programmer in the code, and and the interest, or falling interest, of the audience in the music because the music hasn’t changed. And so personally, it’s one of the points that I’m always trying to think about – how to keep the music changing rapidly.
And then, I guess, because it’s an algorave, I’m usually looking for some kind of groove. I want the music to somehow be danceable. So this is connected with . that cultural developing the culture from before – changing people’s tastes. So algorithms can create these new rhythms that we’ve never heard before. And that means that people might have trouble dancing to them. So I’m searching, I’m always looking for something that creates some kind of groove and I hope that, even if it’s new, someone the audience can try to find a way to dance to it. So I’m always searching for this, and trying to find a balance between something very fresh and new, but somehow still can make people respond with their bodies.
——Next, could you tell us about your future plans or personal goals?
Renick Bell：Yeah, so I have my own software that I use for live-coding. When I started, I was watching Alex develop his software, and I had made my algorithmic music system based on SuperCollider, but then I had switched and I wanted to try a new system with some new ideas. And I was watching Alex develop his, and I asked him at that time, before TidalCylces even had a name. And this looks very interesting. I want to use it, and he said “Thanks, but it’s not ready yet”.
And so at that time, I started to develop my own software. And I have been developing it continuously over the years. Now, so my software is also open source software, but I haven’t made a public version available in a long time. And so, right now I’m looking for an institution to help me to get some time I’m looking for. I want to be able to work on it full time so that I can develop a new version of the software and then make it publicly available and share it to other people, so that more people could use it for live-coding along with TidalCyles or SuperCollider.
So one of the things that I’m targeting very seriously right now, is finding an institution that can support my research and development of my own software, which is called “Conductive”
——So it’s not public yet?
Renick Bell：It is public, but this is a very old version, and it would be almost impossible for someone to use it because there’s no instructions for how to use it. The code is available, but if they download it, they might say “How do I use this?” There’s no instructions, There’s no tutorials. And I need time. After all, it takes time to develop a manual for your software. And so I hope some institution in the next year will help me to do so.
——Last, any message for those who are willing to start algorave ?
Renick Bell：I have two messages. So, for people that want to perform at an algorave themselves, they just have to start to practice. Like anything, it takes time. You’re learning a new skill, programming-languages are languages. So, like a language, it takes time, it takes effort, it takes regular practice. So, I encourage anybody that wants to do that to download and install the tools, and then try to make a daily practice of it. Eventually, they will develop the skill to be able to perform.
And then to show their work regularly. It’s often difficult to find time to practice, so I think that one way to force yourself to practice is, before you’re ready, to sign up for an event, and begin to perform. So I tell people often, because I’m working, I don’t have time to practice. So performance has become my practice. And if I made mistakes in a performance, it’s okay. You know, everybody’s making mistakes in performances. Like I said earlier, it’s often the case that one or two performers crashes in the middle of the performance, and audiences are aware of this and supportive. So I think rather than being shy about it, it’s better just to join an event and perform and make mistakes and learn from them and develop the culture together this way. So that’s one of the messages.
The other important message that I’m telling everyone is this message about openness. Algorithms are taking an increasingly important place in our lives. So more and more our lives are mediated by algorithms, so that we interact with other people through algorithms, or we conduct business through algorithms. And it means that algorithms’ importance is increasing day by day.
But if we don’t have the skills to evaluate these algorithms, then we will lose a kind of control. And if those algorithms are not made open for us to look inside, then we’ve also lost control. And that’s dangerous for a lot of reasons. For business reasons, you may lose money. As a citizen, you may lose freedom or we may lose our culture. So it’s important for people to demand from corporations, and from the government, that the algorithms that are being used are made open for us to see. And then we have to develop the skills to be able to reason about these algorithms, to be able to understand them. Otherwise, I think our society is going in a dangerous direction.
So it’s my hope that, through algorave, we are encouraging a kind of resistance to this other negative direction that society could go. And so I would encourage people to demand open algorithms from society and to develop the skills to be able to understand them.