Cyber songs produced on the spot during faculty concert
The Santa Clara
February 15, 2018
There is a touching moment in the 2013 film “Her” where the AI main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, inexplicably writes a little ukulele jam in ode to the moon. Its incredulity came from its imperfection—whether computers can create art is one question, but the idea of computers making art instilled with such humanity is worrying on another level.
Some already embrace the computer’s role as artistic creator: in the audience of Assistant Professor Bruno Ruviaro’s faculty recital last Friday, you got the idea that the hum of his laptop’s power supply was as essential to the evening as the music itself. Elsewhere in his oeuvre, he has experimented with cell phone or laptop speakers and heavy sampling of audio fragments. Ruviaro, however, is an artist in the traditional sense, and his art is live coding: classical composition bathed in blue light.
For those unfamiliar with “live coding,” it is a form of musical performance which uses computer language as an instrument. Think of the computer itself as the violin, and the keyboard as the bow. The music is live, improvisational and relies on the artist to think creatively and quickly.
Oftentimes, as was the case Friday, the performer’s code is projected to the audience, which is rewarding to watch even if you don’t understand programming. Ruviaro’s revelatory performance used live coding to question the role of rationality in music, and his medium of expression stripped bare the aesthetic process.
First, it might help to understand the basics of this new way of creating. The practice of live coding as artistic expression is outlined nicely in a manifesto by TOPLAP, or The (Temporary|Transnational|Terres trial|Transdimensional) Organisation for the (Promotion|Prolifera tion|Permanence|Purity) of Live (Algorithm|Audio|Art|Artistic) Programming. Needless to say, this group takes itself very seriously.
The manifesto “demands” that the performer project their screen in order to “give us access to the performer’s mind, to the whole human instrument.” In other words, not sharing the code with the audience would be like Slash hiding behind a curtain while he’s shredding on the guitar.
Indeed, Ruviaro’s instrument could even, if he chose, take the timbre of a guitar—so goes the power of computer driven music systems. Live coding isn’t concerned so much with the specific sounds in a piece as it is with the general complexity of composition. In this way, the music of the night was very much in line with 20th century minimalism, which is marked by layered, repeating musical patterns.
As Ruviaro coded, he essentially rendered the elements of these patterns variably rich or spacey, moody or frolicsome, frenetic or dignified. Following in line with one of TOPLAP’s major theses— that algorithms act as expressions of thought—the code projected on stage elegantly visualized both Ruviaro’s thought process as an artist crafting a musical experience live, as well as the intertwinedness of the algorithms on screen and the structure of the music being played.
Additionally, Ruviaro sometimes spoke to the audience directly— analogous to the way a composer might banter with his audience— using typed comments inside the code, marked by the “//” characters. Some comments were pregnant with mystery—“//But we’re not afraid of silence, are we?”—while others revealed whole new ways of thinking about live music and music composition in general in the technological age.
At one point, he wrote a comment explaining that he was going to use code to randomize an element of the music, something that was once done by composers with chance operation techniques.
Ruviaro’s live coding had all the subtlties and color of a more traditional performance. When a piece finally took clear direction after Ruviaro deftly tweaked variables and employed new functions in his code, you could hear a final “clack” of his keyboard and see a look of satisfaction on his face.
The clanking of the keyboard was actually a key element of the show, providing odd rhythm and adding even further to the idiosyncrasy of the whole proceeding.
The last piece of the night was built off his program’s organ presets, and was introduced to us with an anecdote about how Ruviaro learned piano as a child but was always interested in organ. “Tonight,” he wrote via text comment, “that organist inside me has taken the stage.”
Musically, the pieces were wonderfully exploratory as they progressed and frequently took odd shape. Since musical values like time signatures or pitch were directly assigned within the code, or, more often, randomly determined, nebulous melodies arose that refused to settle into a conventional groove.
In this way, live coding seems to harken to the rational aspirations of Arnold Schoenberg, a pioneer of serialism. Ruviaro in turn layers these pieces with other motifs and, most effectively, drones. The drones, which I imagine were algorithmically composed or otherwise programmed, were enveloping and dynamic, perhaps the most consistent element of the pieces.
Overall, Ruviaro’s show was an interesting look at left-brained versus right-brained takes on music. Musical improvisation, especially, is revered by traditionalists for its ability to transcend an instrument’s inherent obstructions to artistic expression. Live coding, then, seems to start at a disadvantage since its means are so cold and calculating. However, a skilled computer programmer can intricately alter the workings of his code just as adroitly as a virtuoso can alter their performance.
It is in this dynamic that the magic of Ruviaro’s recital most brightly shone.
This is music of the future . . .
Contact Peter Schutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.