Thursday, 18 June 2015

Improvisation and Performing Coding: What about Live-Coding Education?

I don't usually do 'hot tips' for things to watch out for in educational technology, but I recommend taking a close look at the practice of an increasing number of musicians who are 'live coding' musical performances, improvising the creation of algorithmic routines as a way of improvising music. This video of a TED performance by Andrew Sorensen is instructive:

I've thought for a long time that the next breakthroughs in science and technology will come from the arts, not the sciences directly: you always have to look where the passion is, and our STEM fetish is a miserable thing. It will pass (eventually) and a deeper (still technical) creativity, spontaneity and improvisation will take its place. (Of course, I tried to convince my former university of this before they closed my department...)

If you want to know about 'live coding', there is a fantastic website at, and for anyone who is in Leeds between the 13th and 15th of July, there is the first Live Coding conference taking place (unfortunately, I can't go) - see

The technologies this is built on have been around for years. There are a variety of tools, including Supercollider ( and a simplified Clojure-based language called Overtone which sits on top of Supercollider (see Some aspects of it are very retro-geeky, like the fact that Emacs appears to be the Live coding editor of choice! But really, I think the geekiness can be separated from the dynamics of what is actually happening. Blogs used to be geeky at one point.

What is happening? Well, this is performance. In the sociology literature for the last few years, 'performativity' has been a bit of a buzz-word around which notions of 'socio-materiality' and entanglement have become prominent. Andrew Pickering's "The mangle of practice" is a good touchstone example, although much deeper is the science studies work of people like Karen Barad (see her "Meeting the Universe Halfway"), and at a more philosophical level, Joseph Rouse's "How Scientific Practices matter". There's a lot of play on the word "mattering". The problem with a lot of this stuff is that for all the talk about performativity, there's not been a lot of performance. Just talk.

The Live Coding thing changes that. But it does a number of other things too. The most interesting thing for me is that this provides us with a trace of improvisatory listening-acting practice. The data of what's done, when, in what context and so on is all available for inspection. I think Sorensen's music here is interesting, but not very ambitious as music. So what if we were to be more musically ambitious? What would the algorithms look like? What would the emergence of new ideas look like?

The listening thing is important. When I was at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok a couple of weeks back, I gave a keynote presentation on the problems connected with technology's incapacity for listening. I started with a singing exercise borrowing one of Pauline Oliveros's Sonic Meditations (a good thing to do when few people can speak English). I then talked about how we implement 'social' tools, but they're not really social because we don't listen properly, and the technology does help us to listen properly. Straight after my presentation we participated in a slightly absurd video conference with a Chinese delegation where nobody could understand anybody else: more than one person suggested to me afterwards that this proved my point!

We need our technology more deeply-wired into our aesthetic senses and we need the capacity to express our feelings more directly by continually manipulating the technology. Bill Seaman calls this Neo-Sentience. Although the Live-coding is still crude, I think this is basically what these musicians (and incidentally, graphic artists, virtual reality artists, poets, playwrights, and so on) are doing. They are revealing their inner world of experience through direct manipulation and transformation of the technological-material context. It's a kind of meta-activity to traditional improvisation: so I improvise on the piano to express myself; the live coder improvises in the same way, but also can transform the technological context of the improvisation.

So here's the challenge: What about Live-Coding education? What would that look like? The most interesting thing about the question is that to Live-Code education is to make the improvisatory construction of the technological landscape multi-way with everybody doing it. That's exciting, isn't it?!

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