Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Real live music

“Yes,” said Golg. “I have heard of those little scratches in the crust that you Topdwellers call mines. But that’s where you get dead gold, dead silver, dead gems. Down in Bism we have them alive and growing. There I’ll pick you bunches of rubies that you can eat and squeeze out a cupful of diamond juice. You won’t care much about fingering the cold, dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones in Bism.”

- C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
I am fascinated by our collective fascination with live music. Why does it make a difference whether we access a piece of music through the thick dark air of a crowded pub or via a commercial recording and distribution process?

I question the mechanism, but I have no doubt as to the potency of its effect. I revel in live performance. I even listen to live albums - which I simultaneously find conceptually daft and utterly compelling.

My own pet theory is that liveness (life?) is a perception of the possibility of being otherwise. As each note is struck, plucked or sung, the audience knows that though the piece may be written a certain way, in a live rendition it ain't necessarily so. Any given note has the potential to be substituted, varied or flubbed.

But once a note has transformed from a musical intention into a perturbation of air and propagated through the room at (approximately) 340.29 metres per second, it drops down dead to the floor. The high note has been hit, or not. The high hat has been hit, or not. The blue note has been blown and the possibility of being otherwise has ceased.

Music-as-code offers a variation on this theme. If I, for example, describe my music with Clojure and Overtone, then I can render my music to my speakers. But I can also alter it at will. If I take care to directly represent the deep structure of my music in code, then I can easily make changes to instrumentation/tempo/swing that even editors and sequencers of binary sound files cannot.

I can bring the power of iteration, of version control, of collective review, of unit testing, of my combined past and present selves, to bear on a piece of music. The possibility of being otherwise is preserved.

Music created with Overtone isn't just live - in a sense it's immortal. What's more, we now have the perfect retort to the unkind critic - "Pull requests accepted".


  1. Interesting thoughts!

    I would argue that live music is an opportunity to engage in a feedback loop with a performer. One that allows influence to flow around the room. It's that ability to actually influence things which I find extremely compelling.

    Additionally, I revel in the intoxicating realisation that there is real risk involved. The performer may make a mistake, and that mistake may be noticed, but perhaps not, perhaps it takes them to a new place they hadn't intended? This thought is emphasised by considering the dead alternative of watching puppets dance to their own recorded songs "live" on a TV show. Where's the risk - where's the virtuosity?

    Actually, I think the notion of virtuosity is key in this discussion. There's no doubt to my mind that "studio" albums demonstrate an amazing virtuosity of sound production and manipulation. However, that virtuosity is surely distinct from the virtuosity of a live performer that doesn't have the luxury of weeks of time to make a precise manipulation of the sound - they have to make a decision here and now with the equipment at hand.

    I think that Overtone offers us a tear-wellingly beautiful opportunity of combining all of these things. Not only can we hand-craft our music as code via pull-requests as you wonderfully describe. We can also open up little hatches of control which we can manipulate live to re-interpret our code in front of an audience - opening ourselves up to engage in that feedback loop, to offer ourselves on the alter of risk and to demonstrate our live virtuosity.

  2. I think the reason is because music is fundamentally about activity, not end-products. The activity of listening to music is more profound when it is also part of the activity of making it.