>{code}; // Jasmine Guffond & Calum Gunn on Resonance FM


Despite its seeming nascence, coded music has a long history. During the slave trade, people in Nigeria and Ghana used drum telegraphy to communicate with each other over long distances. When colonial European intruders came into the jungles, message of their arrival and their intention was often carried through the woods a step in advance. A transmission through drumming could travel at a speed of 100 miles per hour. This 'coded drumming' was thus banned by the slave owners, as it functioned as a secret language and a tool for resistance.

Musicians as far back as the Baroque period have also included hidden messages (or 'musical cryptograms') in their scores. Most notably, Bach included his own signature into his music in an act of bizzare narcissism. Pauline Oliveros even used a C-A-G-E motif for her obituary piece for John Cage, CAGE DEAD. I've often thought that someone should do an A-C-A-B motif as a coded song against the police.

Musical cryptograms received some unwanted attention in the 80s when Christian fundamentalists began accusing heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin of 'backmasking' satanic messages into their music. The claim was that listening to 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards would reveal sinister commands and ritualistic mantras for the malleable minds of youngsters. Inspired by these spurious lawsuits, Slayer made the ingenious twist of logic to purposefully include clear and obvious satanic messages in their music. When under fire for supposedly corrupting the youth, vocalist Tom Araya explained that these messages were, "purely for effect..."

Now we have 'live-coding', a technique that seems almost ubiquitous in underground electronic music, from Tokyo's Japanoise scene to the 'Algorave' parties. Here, the underlying programming code of the music is projected on to a wall, for the audience to follow and admire. This serves two interesting purposes. First, it has a democratising effect, in that it allows the audience to see the source of the sound. 'Laptop-DJing' (such as Gold Panda's so-called 'space-bar sets') have been lampooned for their closed-off nature. The running joke goes that DJs are just playing iTunes and checking E-mails. But live-coding dodges this problem by giving full disclosure to the audience. This anti-hierarchical attitude resonances throughout the coding community, who unite through shared values of open-source mutualism and transparency.

The second interesting effect of live-coding is the reintroduction of a visual element. Earlier this month, Daniel M Karlsson told us that he has become, "enchanted by the look and feel of The Terminal". Indeed, many artists have taken the spectacle of code to new levels. Throughout their work, Ryoji Ikeda and TCF encourage us to gawk at dazzling flickers of numbers and data. AGF has even found beauty in speaking code live, like a kind of poetry of programming. The 'pure effect' of coded messages that Slayer employed is also found in the music of Boards of Canada. BOC's music makes you feel as though you are being hypnotised by subliminal messages. Uncanny voices run through the alphabet and random number sequences to create a sense of nostalgic whimsy. But the messages themselves don't really matter, it's the effect that counts.

Today, there is something potent in the mixture of fear and love that we share for our computers. Economics, employment, entertainment and even our love-lives are beholden by streams of big data and faceless algorithms. Art that takes code as its subject seems to suggest either a caution against the future or the worship of a new master. The question is: why is the information encoded? Who does it protect? Who does it exclude? In which direction is the power flowing?

In this episode of Stray Landings FM, we spoke to Jasmine Guffond and Calum Gunn about code, codification and codified music. Listen below.


Legacy Support // Akzidenz
Outer // Calum Gunn
Post-Human // Jasmine Guffond
The Devil Is In The Details // Boards of Canada
54 C6 05 1C 13 CC 72 E9 CC DC 84 F2 A3 FF CC 38 1E 94 0D C0 50 5C 3E E8 // TCF
time {if 1+2 = you} // AGF

  • Published
  • Feb 23, 2018
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