Anomalous Forms in Computer Music




Live Coding, Improvisation, Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, Electronic music

How to Cite

Stamm, E. (2020). Anomalous Forms in Computer Music. M/C Journal, 23(5).
Vol. 23 No. 5 (2020): anomaly
Published 2020-10-07


For Gilles Deleuze, computational processes cannot yield the anomalous, or that which is unprecedented in form and content. He suggests that because computing functions are mechanically standardised, they always share the same ontic character. M. Beatrice Fazi claims that the premises of his critique are flawed. Her monograph Contingent Computation: Abstraction, Experience, and Indeterminacy in Computational Aesthetics presents an integrative reading of thinkers including Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and Georg Cantor. From this eclectic basis, Fazi demonstrates that computers differ from humans in their modes of creation, yet still produce qualitative anomaly. This article applies her research to the cultural phenomenon of live-coded music. Live coding artists improvise music by writing audio computer functions which produce sound in real time. I draw from Fazi’s reading of Deleuze and Bergson to investigate the aesthetic mechanisms of live coding. In doing so, I give empirical traction to her argument for the generative properties of computers.

Part I: Reconciling the Discrete and the Continuous 

In his book Difference and Repetition, Deleuze defines “the new” as that which radically differs from the known and familiar (136). Deleuzean novelty bears unpredictable creative potential; as he puts it, the “new” “calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition” (136). These forces issue from a space of alterity which he describes as a “terra incognita” and a “completely other model” (136). Fazi writes that Deleuze’s conception of novelty informs his aesthetic philosophy. She notes that Deleuze follows the etymological origins of the word “aesthetic”, which lie in the Ancient Greek term aisthēsis, or perception from senses and feelings (Fazi, “Digital Aesthetics” 5). Deleuze observes that senses, feelings, and cognition are interwoven, and suggests that creative processes beget new links between these faculties. In Fazi’s words, Deleuzean aesthetic research “opposes any existential modality that separates life, thought, and sensation” (5).  Here, aesthetics does not denote a theory of art and is not concerned with such traditional topics as beauty, taste, and genre. Aesthetics-as-aisthēsis investigates the conditions which make it possible to sense, cognise, and create anomalous phenomena, or that which has no recognisable forebear.

Fazi applies Deleuzean aesthetics towards an ontological account of computation. Towards this end, she challenges Deleuze’s precept that computers cannot produce the aesthetic “new”. As she explains, Deleuze denies this ability to computers on the grounds that computation operates on discrete variables, or data which possess a quantitatively finite array of possible values (6). Deleuze understands discreteness as both a quantitative and ontic condition, and implies that computation cannot surpass this originary state. In his view, only continuous phenomena are capable of aisthēsis as the function which yields ontic novelty (5). Moreover, he maintains that continuous entities cannot be represented, interpreted, symbolised, or codified. The codified discreteness of computation is therefore “problematic” within his aesthetic framework “inasmuch it exemplifies yet another development of the representational”. or a repetition of sameness (6). The Deleuzean act of aisthēsis does not compute, repeat, or iterate what has come before. It yields nothing less than absolute difference.

Deleuze’s theory of creation as differentiation is prefigured by Bergson’s research on multiplicity, difference and time. Bergson holds that the state of being multiple is ultimately qualitative rather than quantitative, and that multiplicity is constituted by qualitative incommensurability, or difference in kind as opposed to degree (Deleuze, Bergsonism 42). Qualia are multiple when they cannot not withstand equivocation through a common substrate. Henceforth, entities that comprise discrete data, including all products and functions of digital computation, cannot aspire to true multiplicity or difference. In The Creative Mind, Bergson considers the concept of time from this vantage point. As he indicates, time is normally understood as numerable and measurable, especially by mathematicians and scientists (13). He sets out to show that this conception is an illusion, and that time is instead a process by which continuous qualia differentiate and self-actualise as unique instances of pure time, or what he calls “duration as duration”. As he puts it,

the measuring of time never deals with duration as duration; what is counted is only a certain number of extremities of intervals, or moments, in short, virtual halts in time. To state that an incident will occur at the end of a certain time t, is simply to say that one will have counted, from now until then, a number t of simultaneities of a certain kind. In between these simultaneities anything you like may happen. (12-13)

The in-between space where “anything you like may happen” inspired Deleuze’s notion of ontic continua, or entities whose quantitative limitlessness connects with their infinite aesthetic potentiality. For Bergson, those who believe that time is finite and measurable “cannot succeed in conceiving the radically new and unforeseeable”, a sentiment which also appears to have influenced Deleuze (The Creative Mind 17).

The legacy of Bergson and Deleuze is traceable to the present era, where the alleged irreconcilability of the discrete and the continuous fuels debates in digital media studies. Deleuze is not the only thinker to explore this tension: scholars in the traditions of phenomenology, critical theory, and post-Marxism have positioned the continuousness of thought and feeling against the discreteness of computation (Fazi, “Digital Aesthetics” 7). Fazi contributes to this discourse by establishing that the ontic character of computation is not wholly predicated on quantitatively discrete elements. Drawing from Turing’s theory of computability, she claims that computing processes incorporate indeterminable and uncomputable forces in open-ended processes that “determine indeterminacy” (Fazi, Contingent Computation 1). She also marshals philosopher Stamatia Portanova, whose book Moving Without a Body: Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thoughtsindicates that discrete and continuous components merge in processes that digitise bodily motion (Portanova 3). In a similar but more expansive maneuver, Fazi declares that the discrete and continuous coalesce in all computational operations. 

Although Fazi’s work applies to all forms of computing, it casts new light on specific devices, methodologies, and human-computer interfaces. In the next section, I use her reading of Bergsonian elements in Deleuze to explore the contemporary artistic practice of live coding. My reading situates live coding in the context of studies on improvisation and creative indeterminacy.

Part II: Live Coding as Contingent Improvisational Practice

The term “live coding” describes an approach to programming where computer functions immediately render as images and/or sound. Live coding interfaces typically feature two windows: one for writing source code and another which displays code outcomes, for example as graphic visualisations or audio. The practice supports the rapid evaluation, editing, and exhibition of code in progress (“A History of Live Programming”). Although it encompasses many different activities, the phrase “live coding” is most often used in the context of computer music. In live coding performances or “AlgoRaves,” musicians write programs on stage in front of audiences. The programming process might be likened to playing an instrument. Typically, the coding interface is projected on a large screen, allowing audiences to see the musical score as it develops (Magnusson, “Improvising with the Threnoscope” 19). 

Technologists, scholars, and educators have embraced live coding as both a creative method and an object of study. Because it provides immediate feedback, it is especially useful as a pedagogical aide. Sonic Pi, a user-friendly live coding language, was originally designed to teach programming basics to children. It has since been adopted by professional musicians across the world (Aaron). Despites its conspicuousness in educational and creative settings, scholars have rarely explored live coding in the context of improvisation studies. Programmers Gordan Kreković and Antonio Pošćic claim that this is a notable oversight, as improvisation is its “most distinctive feature”. In their view, live coding is most simply defined as an improvisational method, and its strong emphasis on chance sets it apart from other approaches to computer music (Kreković and Pošćić). 

My interest with respect to live coding lies in how its improvisational mechanisms blend computational discreteness and continuous “real time”. I do not mean to suggest that live coding is the only implement for improvising music with computers. Any digital instrument can be used to spontaneously play, produce, and record sound. What makes live coding unique is that it merges the act of playing with the process of writing notation: musicians play for audiences in the very moment that they produce a written score. The process fuses the separate functions of performing, playing, seeing, hearing, and writing music in a patently Deleuzean act of aisthēsis. Programmer Thor Magnusson writes that live coding is the “offspring” of two very different creative practices: first, “the formalization and encoding of music”; second, “open work resisting traditional forms of encoding” (“Algorithms as Scores” 21). By “traditional forms of encoding”, Magnusson refers to computer programs which function only insofar as source code files are static and immutable. By contrast, live coding relies on the real-time elaboration of new code. As an improvisational art, the process and product of live-coding does not exist without continuous interventions from external forces.

My use of the phrase “real time” evokes Bergson’s concept of “pure time” or “duration as duration”. “Real time” phenomena are understood to occur instantaneously, that is, at no degree of temporal removal from those who produce and experience them. However, Bergson suggests that instantaneity is a myth. By his account, there always exists some degree of removal between events as they occur and as they are perceived, even if this gap is imperceptibly small. Regardless of size, the indelible space in time has important implications for theories of improvisation. For Deleuze and Bergson, each continuous particle of time is a germinal seed for the new. Fazi uses the word “contingent” to describe this ever-present, infinite potentiality (Contingent Computation, 1). Improvisation studies scholar Dan DiPiero claims that the concept of contingency not only qualifies future possibilities, but also describes past events that “could have been otherwise” (2). He explains his reasoning as follows:

before the event, the outcome is contingent as in not-yet-known; after the event, the result is contingent as in could-have-been-otherwise. What appears at first blush a frustrating theoretical ambiguity actually points to a useful insight: at any given time in any given process, there is a particular constellation of openings and closures, of possibilities and impossibilities, that constitute a contingent situation. Thus, the contingent does not reference either the open or the already decided but both at once, and always. (2)

Deleuze might argue that only continuous phenomena are contingent, and that because they are quantitatively finite, the structures of computational media — including the sound and notation of live coding scores — can never “be otherwise” or contingent as such. Fazi intervenes by indicating the role of quantitative continuousness in all computing functions. Moreover, she aligns her project with emerging theories of computing which “focus less on internal mechanisms and more on external interaction”, or interfaces with continuous, non-computational contexts (“Digital Aesthetics,” 19). She takes computational interactions with external environments, such as human programmers and observers, as “the continuous directionality of composite parts” (19).

To this point, it matters that discrete objects always exist in relation to continuous environments, and that discrete objects make up continuous fluxes when mobilised as part of continuous temporal processes. It is for this reason that Portanova uses the medium of dance to explore the entanglement of discreteness and temporal contingency. As with music, the art of dance depends on the continuous unfolding of time. Fazi writes that Portanova’s study of choreography reveals “the unlimited potential that every numerical bit of a program, or every experiential bit of a dance (every gesture and step), has to change and be something else” (Contingent Computation, 39). As with the zeroes and ones of a binary computing system, the footfalls of a dance materialise as discrete parts which inhabit and constitute continuous vectors of time. Per Deleuzean aesthetics-as-aisthēsis, these parts yield new connections between sound, space, cognition, and feeling. DiPiero indicates that in the case of improvised artworks, the ontic nature of these links defies anticipation. In his words, improvisation forces artists and audiences to “think contingency”. “It is not that discrete, isolated entities connect themselves to form something greater”, he explains, “but rather that the distance between the musician as subject and the instrument as object is not clearly defined” (3). So, while live coder and code persist as separate phenomena, the coding/playing/performing process highlights the qualitative indeterminacy of the space between them. Each moment might beget the unrecognisable — and this ineluctable, ever-present surprise is essential to the practice.

To be sure, there are elements of predetermination in live coding practices. For example, musicians often save and return to specific functions in the midst of performances. But as Kreković and Pošćić point out all modes of improvisation rely on patterning and standardisation, including analog and non-computational techniques. Here, they cite composer John Cage’s claim that there exists no “true” improvisation because artists “always find themselves in routines” (Kreković and Pošćić). In a slight twist on Cage, Kreković and Pošćić insist that repetition does not make improvisation “untrue”, but rather that it points to an expanded role for indeterminacy in all forms of composition. As they write,

[improvisation] can both be viewed as spontaneous composition and, when distilled to its core processes, a part of each compositional approach. Continuous and repeated improvisation can become ingrained, classified, and formalised. Or, if we reverse the flow of information, we can consider composition to be built on top of quiet, non-performative improvisations in the mind of the composer. (Kreković and Pošćić)

This commentary echoes Deleuze’s thoughts on creativity and ontic continuity. To paraphrase Kreković and Pošćić, the aisthēsis of sensing, feeling, and thinking yields quiet, non-performative improvisations that play continuously in each individual mind. Fazi’s reading of Deleuze endows computable phenomena with this capacity. She does not endorse a computational theory of cognition that would permit computers to think and feel in the same manner as humans. Instead, she proposes a Deleuzean aesthetic capacity proper to computation. 

Live coding exemplifies the creative potential of computers as articulated by Fazi in Contingent Computation. Her research has allowed me to indicate live coding as an embodiment of Deleuze and Bergson’s theories of difference and creativity. Importantly, live coding affirms their philosophical premises not in spite of its technologised discreteness — which they would have considered problematic — but because it leverages discreteness in service of the continuous aesthetic act. My essay might also serve as a prototype for studies on digitality which likewise aim to supersede the divide between discrete and continuous media. As I have hopefully demonstrated, Fazi’s framework allows scholars to apprehend all forms of computation with enhanced clarity and openness to new possibilities.

Coda: From Aesthetics to Politics

By way of a coda, I will reflect on the relevance of Fazi’s work to contemporary political theory. In “Digital Aesthetics”, she makes reference to emerging “oppositions to the mechanization of life” from “post-structuralist, postmodernist and post-Marxist” perspectives (7). One such argument comes from philosopher Bernard Stiegler, whose theory of psychopower conceives “the capture of attention by technological means” as a political mechanism (“Biopower, Psychopower and the Logic of the Scapegoat”). Stiegler is chiefly concerned with the psychic impact of discrete technological devices. As he argues, the habitual use of these instruments advances “a proletarianization of the life of the mind” (For a New Critique of Political Economy 27). For Stiegler, human thought is vulnerable to discretisation processes, which effects the loss of knowledge and quality of life. He considers this process to be a form of political hegemony (34).

Philosopher Antoinette Rouvroy proposes a related theory called “algorithmic governmentality” to describe the political effects of algorithmic prediction mechanisms. As she claims, predictive algorithms erode “the excess of the possible on the probable”, or all that cannot be accounted for in advance by statistical probabilities. In her words,

all these events that can occur and that we cannot predict, it is the excess of the possible on the probable, that is everything that escapes it, for instance the actuarial reality with which we try precisely to make the world more manageable in reducing it to what is predictable … we have left this idea of the actuarial reality behind for what I would call a “post-actuarial reality” in which it is no longer about calculating probabilities but to account in advance for what escapes probability and thus the excess of the possible on the probable. (8)

In the past five years, Stiegler and Rouvroy have collaborated on research into the politics of technological determinacy. The same issue concerned Deleuze almost three decades ago: his 1992 essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” warns that future subjugation will proceed as technological prediction and enclosure. He writes of a dystopian society which features a “numerical language of control … made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it” (5). The society of control reduces individuals to “dividuals”, or homogenised and interchangeable numeric fractions (5). 

These accounts of political power equate digital discreteness with ontic finitude, and suggest that ubiquitous digital computing threatens individual agency and societal diversity. Stiegler and Deleuze envision a sort of digital reification of human subjectivity; Rouvroy puts forth the idea that algorithmic development will reduce the possibilities inherent in social life to mere statistical likelihoods. While Fazi’s work does not completely discredit these notions, it might instead be used to scrutinise their assumptions. If computation is not ontically finite, then political allegations against it must consider its opposition to human life with greater nuance and rigor.


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———. “Improvising with the Threnoscope: Integrating Code, Hardware, GUI, Network, and Graphic Scores.” Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression. Goldsmiths, University of London, London, England, 1 July 2014.

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———. “Biopower, Psychopower and the Logic of the Scapegoat.” Ars Industrialis (no date given). <>.

Author Biography

Emma Stamm, Virginia Tech

Emma Stamm holds a Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Thought from Virginia Tech, where she is on faculty in the Department of History. Her interests include continental philosophy, critical technology studies, and political theory, and her current research theorizes the normative impact of digital methods on scientific knowledge. She is also a freelance writer and musician.