Alex McLean

Sheffield's pioneer of Algorave, making music with live coding.

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Alex McLean

Alex McLean is one of the innovators behind algorave – a movement that began in Sheffield and has spread across the world. An algorave is a combination of algorithms and rave music that makes for one of the most creative and unpredictable parties you’re likely to attend. Although it sounds complicated, algoraves are ultimately about humans dancing to music.

Of course, Sheffield is a city familiar with ground breaking musical movements, spawning a new wave of pioneering artists using electronic instruments during the 1980s that went on to dominate the pop charts and influence millions across the world. This forward-thinking music city has been evolving ever since – and Alex and algorave are another part of its unique approach to making music.

Could you describe what an algorave is for anyone not familiar with the term?
Sure! An algorave is an algorithmic rave – so that’s two things to explain, algorithm and rave. As someone who came of age in the 80s/90s I think of raves as experimental music events, where people are looking for alien experiences, explored through repetitive dance music, with more focus on the crowd than a performer. How algorithms come into this is the way the music is made. Algorave music is generally made with live coding – writing code to make music, while people dance to it. This might sound scary but it’s the same as creating a knitting pattern to make a jumper. Instead of making knitting patterns, live coders write music patterns, describing symmetry, interferences, glitches. This all happens live, with the code projected – so you can see the code behind the music you’re listening to, while it’s being written. Maybe the best way to understand this is to come and see one yourself!

How did you get into the algorave movement?
I started at this live coding malarky around the year 2000 and there wasn’t an algorave movement then. I was part of an algorithmic dance music band called Slub (still am!) and we played a lot of festivals, and eventually a community of live coders called TOPLAP grew up. A friend and I came up with the name “algorave” just after I moved to Sheffield in 2010, and a top local designer David Palmer came up with a visual identity for it – the spirangle. It seems that if you come up with a name as stupid as “algorave” for something, people really get behind it, and it’s turned into an international movement. Now there have been well over 100 events across 50 cities around the world, informally coordinated from Sheffield. Top local live coders Heavy Lifting and Damu have started organising Sheffield events and they seem to be happening every month now, as well as a regular social live coding meetups.

What inspires you?
I love collaborating with people from different backgrounds (choreographers, percussionists, textile artists, performance artists), getting out of my comfort zone and exposing my work to different kinds of rigour. I also love teaching TidalCycles (the free/open source live coding system I made) to people who don’t have a programming background, so often the "naive" questions I’ve got have changed how I think about my work and brought up new ideas.

What's your workspace like?
I’m one of the trustees of local charity Access Space and spend a lot of time in Access Space Labs on Fitzalan Square. I’ve also got a basement studio at home with some nice speakers. I work inside my laptop really so am not ultra-aware of my surroundings. As a result I’m a bit messy but try to keep it together. I also travel a lot, for example I’m involved in a research project in Munich, where I often work in the Museum of Plastercasts of Classical Statues, writing code completely surrounded by mythological figures from Ancient Greece.

What do you love about Sheffield?
The obvious – the Peak District is amazing, the musical history is incredible and the understatedness of the local temperament really appeals to me. I travel quite a lot but can’t imagine wanting to move anywhere else. I lived in London before and it’s so much easier to get things done up here, loads of open minded spaces like Access Space, DINA and Audacious for trying out ideas, and support networks like Sheffield Creative Guild and Sheffield Digital help a lot too.

What would you do to improve the city?
I’m no town planner, but like all cities, air quality is a huge, invisible issue. I was so shocked when I found out that diesel car manufacturers were cheating tests and poisoning the air we all breathe. So I’d love even more pedestrianisation, plus proper evidence-based cycle infrastructure, congestion charge, better public transport etc, banning the more polluting cars around schools.

What are you currently working on?
The second Festival of Algorithmicand Mechanical Movement (AlgoMech), 9-12th November 2017. I’m really excited – big announcements coming! After being part of last year’s (awesome) Year of Making, I couldn’t resist making the theme of this year’s festival unmaking. So we’re bringing together four days of performances, installations, talks and workshops showcasing artists who take algorithms and mechanisms apart.

See what an algorave is like for yourself on 1 September at Access Space and at Hope Works' No Bounds Festival this October, and come back soon for details about this November's Algomech.

Written by Tom Roper; August 21, 2017

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