My first encounter Daniel M Karlsson came through his release on Conditional last year, Expanding & Overwriting. This is an explosive album, bursting with dazzling pyrotechnics of sound design. Karlsson’s music is part of a lineage of new music made with code. Many contemporary producers, in an act of anarchistic reclaiming of technology, have disposed of hardware, VSTs and plug-ins to get at the very building-blocks of computer processing.
I first saw ‘live-coding’ in Tokyo in 2014, at the ‘Beyond Code’ evening with Yu Miyashita and Akihiro Kubota in SuperDeluxe. When I returned, it seemed to be everywhere. It’s an exciting new format for electronic music in that it attempts to demolish the stereotype of laptop-producers. The argument has long been that performing live on a laptop takes away everything that is interesting about live music. There is really no ‘performance’ to speak of and the source of the sounds are blocked (literally) by the back of a laptop screen. For all the audience knows, the producers might as well be playing songs off iTunes and checking emails. Sometimes they probably were.
But live-coding reverses this. By presenting the audience with the raw code as it is being played, we are given a novel way to understand the sound, following the thought process of the performer in the moment and across the screen. This democratising effect has also spawned coding workshops, such as in London’s very own Music Hackspace. Coding therefore has an inherently demystifying and inclusive political bent, in contrast to the closed producer-hierarchy of standard laptop sets.
“…music in general, and popular music in particular, is like a virus…” — Daniel M Karlsson
When I ask Karlsson how 2017 was for him, he immediately taps into what the coding-community seems to be about. “I feel I’ve had a good year because I learned loads about writing code, making music and configuring my computer. I’ve felt tremendously inspired this year by making new friends who also write code, make music and spend a lot of time configuring their computers.”
This latest mix he has done for us comes with an instruction manual, written by Karlsson. “This kind of thing can be done on any OS”, he begins. “You most likely already have a Terminal of some kind already installed on your computer. I use a Terminal Swiss-army-knife style music program called SoX. It is free. I used two instances, because as you know, a DJ has two decks and mixes between them. The thing that lets me have two instances of SoX with that look and feel is called Tmux, which is also free. The commands I use to screw the tracks in this particular way that I like can be seen in the video.”
The actual music in this mix is not what I was expecting. The majority of ‘coding’ sets sound disappointingly uniform. Anyone who has not been to one of these shows should expect lots of erratic, highly-compressed percussive pops and repetitive loops whilst we wait for the performer to enter code for the next phase. But this live set is slightly different, taking the format of a standard DJ set but presented in code, like watching the computational map of a VirtualDJ set. “I am very into the idea of doing DJing in this way in the future”, Karlsson expands. “I would love to DJ at a wedding or something like that where this way of doing it would be extra super weird. Fingers crossed you know.”
The sounds themselves are also fucked with in a ‘chopped & screwed’ kind of way. This style of sample-processing typically lowers the tempo down into a murky tranquillising effect. Karlsson, in an attempt to protect his identity, also uses this processing on his voice during interviews. “Swedish state radio and television news shows used to transpose voices down and sprinkle with ring-modulation to protect the identities of certain people like whistleblowers or just people caught in bad scenes when I was a kid”, he goes on. “It really made a lasting impression on me. Privacy is a growing concern these days. I think a lot about how the future might turn out for people who generate a lot of very personal data like voice recordings and pictures of their face today. Screwing stuff like this is meant to be playful but also maybe a little sinister. It’s really fascinating to me how the mood can change so much by altering a voice in this simple way. There is a lot of very strong potential for subtext there, for me at least”. Karlsson also told me that he has never heard the pre-processed originals of some of the tracks in this setlist: “I just downloaded them and immediately screwed them.”
This anti-pop sentiment, turning that which is sweet and pure into shit, brings to mind the ‘excremental Marxism’ of people like Georges Bataille. For Bataille, capitalism turns everything into shit, voiding it of all value through creative destruction. For revolution to occur, we must accelerate the process to finally be rid of our rotting culture. I believe Karlsson is influenced by these ideas, albeit from another source, Erik Bünger. “Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where a Smith says he feels as though he’s being infected by the stench of humans? It’s like that but for popular music for me”, Karlsson explains. “At the core of what has always fascinated me about Bünger’s work is the idea that music in general, and popular music in particular, is like a virus. These catchy tunes are cleverly designed to get us to buy in to a life of conformity”. He continues, “I grew up watching way too much MTV. It fucked me up to the degree that I often daydream about deleting that part of my memory. I don’t want to be able to sing along to those tracks. I read a lot of Bünger’s intentions in his musical works as variations on the idea of performing a kind of exorcism on this uninvited guest which plagues the mind in the form of reflexively nostalgic recollections of sugary pop goo.”
But for Karlsson, this is also an opportunity for reinvention, for which he thanks Stockholm imprint, Drömfakulteten. “They’ve been tremendously inspiring to me in my metamorphosis. I’ve changed my way of thinking about the role of the DJ fundamentally. I no longer see DJing as something set in stone which I must adhere to. The role of the DJ and the ritual practice of DJing is entirely in flux. I can address it as my own by thinking of what is idiomatic for where I’m at now working with a computer to organise sounds in new ways. As I’ve delved deeper into working with algorithmic composition I’ve become increasingly enchanted by the look and feel of The Terminal. More commonly used contemporary interfaces are incredibly distracting to me and I want out. I’ve been wanting to create a kind of Terminal equivalent to the ritual of DJing and to use that format to perform a musical exorcism.”
He also has some very exciting projects for 2018 on the horizon, including music for a Gamelan ensemble and electronics for a split cassette with Mats Erlandsson which will be released this year. He has also begun composing a piece for an ensemble consisting of Harp, Percussion and string quartet.
Listen and watch Daniel M Karlsson’s unconventional live-coding mix below: