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Continuing the round up from Loop 2015 in Berlin, we will discuss a Saturday that was an absolute goldmine of thoughts and philosophies, with topics covering artistry, technology, and the role of code in our musical practices.

Day 2 started bright and early over at Radial System V following the evening concert from the night before. James Holden and Camilo Tirado teamed up for a magnificent piece of long form music that frustrated a few attendees with its insistence on slow change over time. If you came expecting a high energy, groove oriented, approachable opening night, you would be disappointed. The piece was rhythmically engaging from start to finish, and contained some beautiful interplay between the two musicians. Their set was preceded by another long form piece by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (also known as Lichens). I found the choice of performers very interesting aesthetically. I expected (and so did many others) to see performances based around Live in some overt way. These may have incorporated Live, but both were vastly different from what you might expect of a performance at a concert curated by Ableton. I applaud Ableton for shifting the focus away from their commercial products, and placing it squarely on the music.

When planning my schedule for the conference I was more drawn to the talks that focused on computing and technology than philosophical talks about music making. I’m not sure what I expected to take away from more technical talks, but not only did I get to hear how people are using and viewing code as part of their workflow, I also got some philosophical gems as well. I’ll briefly discuss each of the talks or discussions I was able to attend and share some of the more thought provoking things I heard throughout the day.

The first talk I attended was titled ‘Share the Code: Open Source Music Tech‘ and was a great look into people who are using, creating, and maintaining open source music technology projects. Each participant had a unique background in music technology, and also a unique way of working with and thinking about open source technology. Gianfranco Ceccolini, the creator of the MOD open source effects system. Marije Baalman, who is changing the relationship between performer and instrument during the performance. Paul Davis the founder of Ardour. Soledad Penades wants to make the web the BEST platform for creating.  What wasn’t unique was some of the reasons they pursue open source, and the frustrations and hurdles that it brings. When talking about code, one of the themes was that coding IS art.

Programmers encode musical style into software.

No computer music tool is one hundred percent open ended- except code. Every piece of software was designed by someone who was trying to predict what a user would do, or was the user. There is always something pushing you however slightly, into a particular direction. This brings us to another interesting point.

As an artist it’s important to make your own tools. 

Is this saying that in order to make something truly original we need to design the musical experience from the ground up? That might be a little extreme, but there is something to be said for creating a musical tool that does one very specialized task.  We are lucky to be living in a time where making your own tools isn’t just for people with a computer science degree, but sometimes the closed or proprietary code bases get in the way of enabling new ideas from developing.

If code embeds concept, it should be shared. We should be learning from each other. All coding is creative. 

I have, as many other artists-turned-coders have, learned so much from open source tools. My first programming was using Pure Data to make shapes dance along with sound waves. Having access to solutions to problems that we all face will cut down on prototyping and development, give more time to explore new ideas, and cultivate a more open exchange of ideas between music technologists.

Next up was ‘From Artist to Engineer and Back Again: Coding As Artistry‘, one of my favorite talks of the weekend. The panel were all involved in very different areas. Jono Brandel is a web and media artist using code to make beautiful pieces of internet art. Alexandra Cardenes is coding musical pieces live on stage in real time, with the help of some traditional instruments from time to time. Adam John Williams is creating music the Maxome and wiring Live to electrocute you as you play. The panel was moderated by Peter Kirn, a music technologist who curates the indispensable CreateDigitalMusic.com. All of the panelists came to coding as means to an end, a way to realize their musical goals. The discussion was lively, humorous, and enlightening, and gave me some encouragement as I try to sharpen my programming skills.

There’s no right way to code, and failures should be seen as a challenge. 

If coding can be seen as art, then every artist has their own process. Everyone codes a little differently, and you can see live coding as improvisation. Only with this type of improvisation, if you get too far afield, the software will crash. But with every crash comes a refinement, and a lesson learned. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where the fatal mistakes become rare, and the output becomes more refined.

Making something yourself can be faster. 

Eventually, if you reach a certain fluency, you can create that one piece of software, that does that one specific thing really well.  And you will get to the result faster that way then by trying to bend another developers vision to your will.

I then made my way to an introduction to Sonic Pi a live coding environment for everybody, that runs on Raspberry Pi (or Mac or Windows). It was created by Sam Aaron and was originally conceived to encourage and facilitate both music and computing lessons at schools. If you’re like me and fear the day when music education is once and for all wiped from the public school curriculum (it’s where I got my first start in music at age 10), you should be really excited about this. What if you could include creative and artistic education with a subject so practical and obviously beneficial as computing? I think that Sonic Pi can do that.

Code is one of the most expressive things we have

Teaching young kids to not only learn how to code, but how to code creatively should be important to us as artists, educators, and tool makers. I was thoroughly impressed with the clear syntax and ease with which musical results could be achieved. You can even use it to jam with other musicians!

A truly inspiring day, check back in a few days as I wrap up my time in Berlin with a recap of the final day.