Photo by Martin Delaney.
Renick Bell is a US-born computer musician, researcher and teacher. Before getting interested in electronic music through drum n bass in the 90s, he was was playing guitar in screamo bands and this influence can be heard in the turbulence of his releases. The abstract and dense compositions of his have been released on the forward-thinking label UIQ owned by Lee Gamble. This August also saw a release of Bell’s first solo LP on Seagrave, a label featuring some of the most exciting current names in the scene such as rkss and Graham Dunning.
Today, Bell lives in Japan where, inspired by the scene in the UK, he organised the country’s first algoraves - events with live coded music and projections of the performers’ screens. They form part of a larger social movement that aims to reclaim algorithms amid the increasing penetration of the various software in our lives. Arguably, coding skills are now as important as writing or speaking and algorave attempts to stimulate people’s curiosity in developing them.
Keen on encouraging people to explore these new possibilities, Bell has dedicated five years of his life to developing his own software. The resulting live coding library Conductive is based on the programming language Haskell and draws on a large collection of samples to create compositions in real time. It’s available online for free, allowing anyone to use it and aiming to overcome restrictions of the mainstream use of algorithms by large corporations. Ahead of his performance at Unsound Festival this month, I met up with Bell over traditional curry in Shoreditch to discuss the present and the future of his craft.
You relocated from the US almost 20 years ago, first living in Taiwan and now Japan. How do you think moving abroad has affected your creative process?
I went from working 60 hrs a week in New York to working 20-25 hrs a week in Taiwan, so I had a lot more time for music. That’s when I first really started to think about making my own software. I was just using the DAW to make music, but it was really tedious. I mean, here’s a snare drum, you put it here, okay I’m gonna copy it, I’ll put it here. I’m going to do this over 5 minutes, I copy them all, but I want to vary the pattern and I need a different snare drum sound. You are putting sounds in time exactly where you want them, but it’s like laying brick, and you can’t make music live that way: it’s constructing music, it’s not performing music, and I wanted to perform. I had much more time in Taiwan to make music than in New York. I hadn’t thought about building my own software because I didn’t have time, but then I had time in Taiwan so I thought: “I’m gonna try make my own software so I can perform this kind of music live”. I guess also I was living in the mountains outside of Taipei, in a rainforest, and I had much more time alone, so there was a certain amount of isolation. I was less social at the time, so I had more time to be in my own world to think about what I was trying to do.
Taiwanese experimental music scene seems to be booming now, are you familiar with it?
Yeah - Meuko! Meuko! is a good friend. We’ve been making some music together, and I have a track with her. It will be on an album that I hope will be finished this year, but we did this track so long ago. She’s been super patient about waiting for the track to come out. There was always a little bit of underground music in Taiwan, and the Smoke Machine crew started doing this kind of minimal dub techno podcast and event, but the scene has developed a lot recently. The noise scene just really took off after I left, which is kind of bad timing [laughs].
Do you go out?
Yeah! I go out as often as I can. Sometimes with work it’s hard, and often I’m teaching at night, so that especially hurts my ability to see evening shows. The concerts wind up being difficult to attend, particularly things like experimental stuff. I’ve missed a lot of good shows because of that, which is annoying, but I go to club events fairly often.
‘Live-coding’ has always struck me as a great way to re-introduce a visual component to laptop sets. To what extent do you think live-coding is an aesthetic choice, as well as a practical one?
For me, it was initially a completely practical choice. The first software I made for my Masters in 2005/6 had a graphical interface, and you had to play it with a mouse. I always say, it was like playing a guitar with one finger. Everything came down to where that finger clicked, so it wasn’t so satisfying. But when I started coding, when I started controlling the music directly, I found it was much more powerful. I guess it was really a practical choice, but I can’t take complete credit for it. Alex McLean and the established live coding scene became very influential to me in a lot of ways. They have this slogan, “show us your screens”, I thought “it’s cool, why not?”. I always want to see what performers are doing, and if you’re on a laptop and you don’t project your screen then nobody knows what you are doing.
“…More and more our lives are run by software, but if we don’t have the right to see inside and to modify it, then we’ve lost control, then we’re moving towards a totalitarian state…”
The classic joke goes: is he checking his email? Nobody knows, right? But if we project the screen, everybody knows what you are doing; they may not understand, but at least they can see. It’s interesting and you can learn something from it, but also a big part of this is openness. I think we can extend this value all across society - everything needs to be open, like Facebook’s algorithms [for example]. Why do I see these stories first? Why don’t I see my best friend’s posts ever? What’s the reason for that? Facebook doesn’t show us. There’s so much secrecy about what happens in government, then things become open and we become shocked, asking why things turned out this way. There is a very important ethical reason for showing our screens. We want to promote this value of openness.
McLean also suggested that live coding is about being present in the moment and responding to the environment as it happens. What do you think? Could this concept be expanded across all society as well?
Hmm I never thought about it before. I guess, why not? Improvisation is useful. That’s a good skill to have. What I hope people are taking from the performances is that they, especially someone who doesn’t have experience of coding, will see a live coding performance and then will have the desire to develop skills in coding. I hope people try to understand algorithms and know how these things are affecting their lives. That’s what I really hope people are getting from it.
Tell me about your thought process when you are live-coding.
I’m always thinking in the future about what it is that I want to accomplish. I’m always thinking 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes into the future. When I’m writing something, the audience can see me typing and that my interaction is… super busy. They see me banging away on the keyboard, but it isn’t related to what they are hearing just now. What I’m doing at that moment is related to what they are going to hear in a few moments. And finally, I hit “enter” and then the sound changes. I’ve made all these decisions moments before, so I’m present in the moment but I also have this constant future focus.
Your library Conductive is available for free, as well as most of the live coding software. Do you think that is important?
Very important. ‘Free software’ people talk about “free-as-in-speech, not free-as-in-beer”. Of course, it’s free-as-in-beer, but the important thing is that it’s free-as-in-speech. Free-as-in-beer is a side effect. It happens not to cost money which is important, but what’s more important is the fact that you literally you have the right, to see inside and to modify it. That’s really important to me. More and more our lives are run by software, but if we don’t have the right to see inside and to modify it, then we’ve lost control, then we’re moving towards a totalitarian state. Especially since software is taking over everything.
You need that ability to get inside of it and see how it functions, to know when it’s functioning not in your best interests and then to modify it. Not functioning in your best interest can be thought of as a bug, right? For example, my friend’s posts just don’t show up in my Facebook feed. Why is that? He’s my good friend, and I want his posts to be there. Also I want posts to be in chronological order: if somebody posted about an event and Facebook shows me the post two days after the event, it’s useless, so I want it to be in chronological order. I mean, that’s my personal choice and I want to be able to make that adjustment. Facebook doesn’t allow me to because of their algorithms. Their software is closed.
Photo by Alexandre Meunier.
Do you use social media often?
Yeah, all the time. I get really annoyed by people who talk about how that stuff is not real. I think it’s super real, it’s just that reality has shifted to another part of our lives. I don’t think that it’s virtual, it’s just life and our life has taken on this huge additional space, but it’s still life. The fact that it’s digital doesn’t make it any less real than walking down the street. That’s my opinion about it. Maybe it’s a radical opinion. I’ve been online forever and for me things have just gotten more fluid but it’s just another way to interact with people. The fact that someone is removed at a distance of thousands of kilometres makes no difference for me.
The online community is super important. It helps to build an audience and see which people are using your software. They can communicate online and become friends, and then it’s an audience for having events, especially to play in foreign countries. If these communities didn’t exist than I wouldn’t have had the initial opportunities to perform that I did have. It was critical for me in fact. The community that Alex has built here in London and in Sheffield has been so important to me. I started to play shows here around 2013, when I couldn’t get shows in Japan even. The idea of openness also extends to community and to trying to include other people. One of the really nice things about our scene is trying to include other people, trying to make sure that women feel included and not excluded, that they feel free to participate, that they feel encouraged to participate. This is important.
What software do you use on your computer?
Linux. I started using it in 1999 and I have used only Linux since 2005. That’s when I gave up using Windows entirely. Linux is a modular system: you can assemble the whole environment from pieces that you like. In Windows, there’s a piece of software that determines what your windows will look like and how it functions. Windows gives you one choice, and Mac gives you one choice, but in Linux you have 30, 60, 100 choices and you can get the components that you like. I choose quite specifically the components that I like and build it so that it functions not exactly but pretty closely to the way that I want it to function. If you used my computer, you would be at a loss. You wouldn’t know how to do it because it’s basically a black screen. You’d have to know the keyboard shortcuts to get things happening. There’s no start menu; there’s no taskbar. But it’s like a sports car: on some sports cars the ride is very bumpy because of the suspension, so while it’s very good for handling and the driver can be in control and can sense the street much better, but in some ways for some people, it’s less comfortable to ride in. My computer is kind of arranged like this.
“…If we are really serious about treating the environment in a different way, then doing something symbolic like saying that we don’t need irrational consumption is good…”
I heard you started using analogue gear in your sets? Why?
A few reasons. I wanted to collaborate with some musicians who are using modular synths, so I thought if I can control a modular synth with my computer then it will be easy for me to do a very intimate improvisation with them, by connecting our systems. If you have a modular synth and I have a modular synth, all you have to do is connect them by cables and it becomes one synth. I wanted to do this kind of improvisation. Another reason I did that is that I’m not so good at synthesis. I think synthesis is hard. I couldn’t get satisfactory synthesis on my computer. I couldn’t make it complex enough and have enough different voices happening simultaneously in a live situation. So I thought if I moved some processing of off my computer onto a modular synth, maybe I’d get closer to the kind of sound that I was trying to achieve. So that’s why I started doing it. Turns out that it hasn’t been as easy as I thought. It’s also difficult, and it’s kind of expensive. In fact, I’m sort of rethinking how I’m doing this.
There have been some benefits. I have been able to do a few jam sessions with my modular friends, which has been fun. And I got some unexpected benefits: I found that I can get continuous control in real time, and I also found that one of the nice things about modular synthesis is that the interface has been thought out and is very direct. If I move this knob in real time, the sound is changing in real time, whereas in live coding sometimes there’s a different relationship with time. I like that and I think it’s one of the strengths of live coding, this different relationship with time, but sometimes it’s still nice to be able to adjust something directly in time. So there have been some benefits, but it hasn’t been quite as good as I thought, plus it’s just heavy and hard to transport. It’s a bit of a hassle. I have had a lot of trouble with aeroplanes and stuff. I’m not gonna ditch it at least for the next 12 months or something. I’m gonna keep playing with it and see if I can get closer to what I want, but I realise that I’m not gonna get quite as far as I thought I might in the beginning, especially for live performances. Maybe in the studio it can be useful, but I think I overestimated how useful it’s gonna be in a live setting, so I gotta rethink that.
What are you working on at the moment?
A lot of things. For recorded material, I’ve been working on an album for Quantum Natives for a long time. One of the tracks is with Meuko! Meuko!, which we talked about earlier, and there will also be a track with Fis. There are tracks with of a lot of my collaborators, so it’s a full album. I’ve also got an album with another collaborator, Steph Horak, which is a whole album of studio improvisations and that is coming out on Conditional, Calum Gunn’s label. I’m not sure, but hopefully it will be out this year, and now we are working on the artwork for that. There are a bunch of other releases that are at various stages of completion. How many of them will get out this year I’m not sure, but there’s a bunch. And I’m preparing another solo album. I just had this one on Seagrave, but hopefully early next year, springtime, I’ll have another solo album. So there’s a lot of recorded material coming.
How are you going to release it? Which formats?
I’ve been quite negative about physical releases for a while. I don’t think there’s a need for vinyl or tapes really anymore. I would like everybody to stop actually. I think if we piled all the vinyl in the world in a parking lot, there wouldn’t be that much of it. I mean it’s a lot, but in the grand scale of the world, it’s not that much plastic. But I think as a symbol it’s important because a lot of us are concerned about the environment. We want to see people treat the environment in a better way, and I think that vinyl and tapes are sort of unnecessary. If we are really serious about treating the environment in a different way, then doing something symbolic like saying that we don’t need irrational consumption is good, I think.
Our cell phones are also not so great for the environment, but I can see the immediate utility of the cell phone, whereas vinyl, you can’t put it in your pocket and listen to it while you’re on the train. It seems irrelevant. There are people who are really into it… it’s hard, because I have this philosophical position, but then I have people who want to release my music and some of them want to release it on vinyl. And I talk shit about vinyl online so I’m gonna look a little hypocritical if I release music and it comes on a 12”. I still don’t want to release music on vinyl so much. At the same time, I do understand when people say they really like the physical aspect of it, like looking at the album cover. It’s a difficult issue for me at the moment.
What do you think about the sound quality in different formats?
I think if you really want good sound, invest in good speakers. That’s what really changes the sound. Really good speakers in a nice room and a digital file can sound much better than vinyl on bad speakers in a bad room. There’s no question. You are really going to notice the sound from the speakers in the room, more than from the vinyl, and in fact vinyl is degrading the sound. Some people like the quality of that degradation. Sometimes they have a certain nostalgia for that sound, but it is a degradation, especially when the music is produced digitally. When you go from digital to vinyl, you are definitely losing things. So you might like the quality of that, but if you want to hear music as it was composed, vinyl is not the way I think.