Live Coding the 100th Ambient Performances Video

A hand-typed drone sequence from musician Charlie Kramer

This video, a five-plus-minute exploration of pinging drones by musician Charlie Kramer, marks the 100th video in the ongoing playlist I’ve been maintaining of live performances of ambient music. The entry marks a milestone, and also a deviation, more about which in a moment.

First, a bit about the playlist itself. It began in April of 2016 “A YouTube Playlist of Ambient Performances,” front-loaded with a handful of pieces by such musicians as Andreas Tilliander, Christina Vantzou, Ryuicki Sakamoto, Nils Frahm (as a member of Nonkeen), and Jon Hassell. At the time I started it, I listed the following rules for its existence:

This “Ambient Performances” set is a playlist-in-progress of live performance videos on YouTube of ambient music by a wide variety of musicians using a wide variety of equipment.

Rule #1: I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.

Rule #2: I’m only including recordings where the video gives some sense of a correlation between what the musician is doing and what the listener is hearing.

Rule #3: By and large, the new additions to the playlist will simply be, reverse-chronologically, the most recent tracks added, but I’ll be careful to front-load a few choice items at the beginning.

Those rules summarized the filters that lead to video selection, but they don’t touch on the reasoning behind the playlist, nor did the initial post announcing the playlist’s existence. The underlying reasons included, certainly, curiosity on my part about how such music was made, and in particular about the creative tension at work in which effort was required to make music that seemed, by its categorical nature, to eschew the notion of effort — ambient music, that is.

But there was another reason, which was simply that the majority of videos featuring technology I found interesting (tutorials, live sets, peeks inside people’s studios, behind-the-scenes footage) had music I couldn’t stand listening to. This playlist of mine was an attempt to focus on the rare material that satisfied my ears, my eyes, and my imagination.

One hundred videos later, something had been surfacing in my thoughts, which was that while the videos all adhered to the initial rules, they had also come to focus often on mechanisms, along with video production, that was as beautiful as the music itself — synthesizers on fields and beaches, keyboards amid flowers and carefully placed objects. It’s no surprise that musicians who can achieve a certain aesthetic in the sonic realm might also be capable of carrying it over to the visual realm. However, I had come to wonder if I’d fallen for beauty, and if visual beauty had become something of a magnet rather than a mere byproduct of what I was after.

In any case, it was with that in mind that I began to actively pursue less visually compelling videos that still satisfied the rules that launched the playlist, and in the process I came to narrow and lightly edit the rules, since the third one only really applied at launch, yielding this amended list, which still applies to all the videos added to date:

This “Ambient Performances” set is an ongoing playlist-in-progress of live performance videos on YouTube of ambient music by a wide variety of musicians using a wide variety of equipment. There are two rules for it:

Rule #1: I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.

Rule #2: I’m only including recordings where the video gives some meaningful sense of a correlation between what the musician is doing and what the listener is hearing.

Note: The list appears in reverse-chronological order, which means that the video listed as #1 is the most recent. When a new video is added, the current #1 becomes #2.

Which brings us to Charlie Kramer’s piece. While all previous videos in this playlist involved physical equipment, with an emphasis on modular synthesizer, Kramer’s recording is a document of live coding — of computer programming as performance practice. The only instrument is his computer, seen here in footage of his screen. What he is doing throughout the piece is manipulating computer code in real time. As with the previous videos in this playlist, there is a direct, informative correlation between what Kramer is doing on screen — we don’t see his hands, but we see keystrokes being entered, and a mouse moving around — and what our ears are taking in. When he fixes some indents, as he does around 1:03 in the video, there is no commensurate change in sound. However, when, later, some integers are changed, we hear variations on what was sounding out previously.

As Kramer explains in the accompanying note, this piece is composed — is coded — in the language Chuck. Each time he hits the Add Shred button at the top of the window in which the Chuck code appears, the current instance of that code begins to be executed: new variables and new commands bringing to life new musical directions. When Kramer does so, a giant green plus sign appears briefly on the screen. That giant green plus a perfect depiction of the connection between precise action and subtle sound that this playlist was intended to explore.

Kramer’s track was recorded as part of the most recent weekly music compositional prompt project in the ongoing Disquiet Junto series. Kramer, who also goes by NorthWoods, posted the video and the code, along with some background on the piece, to the message board, where it’s still available for perusal.

The video is hosted at Kramer’s YouTube channel.

One thought on “Live Coding the 100th Ambient Performances Video

  1. Like you, I was really fascinated watching the code be worked on, while the music changed in response to it. I think, in terms of the visuals here, that there’s a case to be made for a kind of procedural beauty, or beauty-in-process? For example, maybe you can’t export a static image from the stream that follows the golden mean, so to speak, but in experiencing the overall activity, there is, idk*, some combination of satisfaction and surprise in the patterns and movement?

    *had a moment there where I realized I’d have to define beauty, but then I just ‘observed it and let it go’, as the advice has it.

    I know you’re not defining beauty narrowly here as being only some nice scenery or setup that provides the backdrop for the music or the manipulation of wires and knobs in front of it, ie, as something entirely external to the experience of music-making (although not, perhaps, *entirely external to the experience of music-listening) — still, I think there’s something to explore about what, if anything, in ambient/electronic music (production? performance?) is intrinsically beautiful, or could be made so.

    What would a Bob Ross level of “happy little trees” visuals-in-motion look like (literally: look like) for ambient music? And could we take it a few levels ‘higher’ than that, in terms of aesthetics? I don’t know what that might entail, but I think these are interesting, and open, questions.

    Circling back to this featured track, I really like to watch code being worked on. I like it in web tutorials, and I like it here. Which leads me to wonder if further exposing the innards of electronics (code, or otherwise) might be a fruitful direction? Radical transparency. Maybe.

    The on/off sounds of the on/off switches represent a kind of truth, yes? And we know what Keats said about that.

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