A group of people stands in a darkened room staring at a blank screen. A line of code appears, and then another, and another. Disjointed electronic sounds emanate from speakers as a coder behind a laptop onstage builds the code methodically into a coherent rhythm, the code growing more layered and complex with each passing moment. The live coder’s cursor moves frantically from line to line. The audience, their eyes transfixed on the screen, begins to dance.

What’s happening is called an algorave, or at least the first few minutes of one. Algorithmic raves, an offshoot of a type of improvised algorithmic composition known as live coding, are a growing movement among both programmers and musicians. Over the past few years across western Europe and in places like Mexico, Australia, Japan and even as close as Canada, live-coded performances have given electronic artists and bands a way to break through the stand-around DJ culture of today’s electronic music in live, messy fashion.

Live coding isn’t supposed to be completely smooth. Performers are writing code on the fly, often in a programming environment built for live coding or using custom software they’ve created themselves. And by projecting their screen, audience members get to see the sound, and even become active participants, as the performance is created.

“Live coding comes from a reaction against laptop performance in music, where people won’t be projecting their screen, they’ll just be operating software to create music,” said Dave Griffiths, a member of the live coding band Slub who also goes by the stage name NeboGeo. “Half the time they’re playing MP3s and there’s absolutely no engagement with the audience at all. It’s very passive.

“The idea of live coding is to confront that, so when things go wrong, you get a very interesting effect with the audience. Everything goes silent, you see the performer panicking, their mouse is shooting around the code scrolling up and down like, ‘What did I do?’ Then everyone starts looking at the screen and trying to help. I’ve been in performances where people will scream out, ‘You’ve missed a semicolon!’ ”

Slub has been live coding since 2000 with original members Alex McLean and Adrian Ward, and transitioned exclusively to live coding in 2005 after Griffiths joined the band. The commitment to live-coding performances was a way to shift the audience’s focus onto the algorithms creating the art rather than the artists. Audience members seeing a single line of code evolve into complex sound can more easily relate what they’re seeing with what they’re hearing.

Algorave McLEan
McLean (center) dancing at an algorave (photo courtesy of www.underyourskinphoto.uk)

“It’s such a ridiculous thing to do, to be in a nightclub, writing software with your screen projected,” Griffiths said. “Actually one of the things I find fascinating is the response you get from other programmers is really like, ‘What’s the point? Why are you doing this? People shouldn’t see this.’ Whereas people who are not programmers, especially musicians or artistic people, are fascinated because they’ve never really seen the process of writing software and they don’t understand that it’s a creative thing.”

Each member of Slub uses his own self-built coding environment. Griffiths, whose background is in computer graphics, uses a custom visual programming language that creates schemes of Lisp code. Instead of using parentheses, it uses custom structures to encapsulate different sections of the code.

Slub performing live at the Electro Anthro Visceral Intensity concert in London in November 2013