Catching up with Renick Bell's Rhythm! Avant-Garde Electronic Dance Music Production
In Tokyo, a sound performance called "64 No.1" was organized by Renick Bell, a computer music creator, from Texas. As both a performer and the organizer, he was busy with sound checks before the concert, and further, he was helping other performers prepare for their sets. He recently orchestrated a series of Algoraves in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Nagoya, inviting local Japanese artists and even artists from Taiwan and the United Kingdom to participate. In fact, Bell has been active in computer music for many years. He will have releases coming out on various labels later this year: UIQ, Halcyon Veil, Beatgatherers, and Quantum Natives.
Bell's music is like exotic food. That's because when we lack the experience of having tasted something similar, it's not possible to analyze or judge it until we have accumulated some experience. When the time comes, a few ways of thinking about it appear. I could only undersand after watching several of Bell's performances, and gradually I began to enjoy his music. For example, in one song, he shows a multivariate style, composing rich and rapid changes in an unusual way. There's no way to classify such music at first. If you do not pay attention carefully, you suddenly find yourself in a separate world of music.
He's lived in Taiwan!
Bell: I was thinking seriously about making my music and finding a good job. In Texas there weren't so many opportunities to develop my music, so in 1999 I moved to New York City with friends. However, I was immediately buried with work. I worked for an internet start-up and had to put in up to 60 hours a week. After work, I'd go to nightclubs, bars, and concerts until late, and I had to go back to work the next day. Under such conditions, it was hard to develop my music. In 2001, the bursting of the dot-com bubble caused many companies in New York to fold or downsize, and maybe thousands of people like me lost their jobs. A friend in Taiwan told me that I could find work teaching English in Taiwan. I had been to Taiwan earlier in the year and was surprised because I found that Asia was more developed than the US. So I lived in Taiwan for a few years and found a better balance between work and creative activities.
Live Coding Music
Bell: Previously, I was making both drum and bass and more abstract electronic music. Drum and bass is a somewhat rigid dance music genre. I made a lot of these tracks and sent them to record companies with the hopes of putting out records. All of my efforts failed in the end, though. At the same time, I was putting out my electronic music on my own netlabel, which I run with Jason Landers.
Bell: In 2005, I was seriously considering whether to pursue business or music. I felt I couldn't do both seriously at the same time, so I chose music. Then I started an online masters program in music technology at Indiana University, and I was studying a lot of things about computer music on my own. I used to play in hardcore punk bands doing really aggressive music, and it was live. When I got into computer music, I could do a lot of things in the studio or through processing sound on the computer, but I still wanted to do live music because I like the atmosphere of live performances. So I started using SuperCollider. I had used Csound and Pure Data, but I couldn't get the results I wanted. I began to write my own GUI-based software, but I was suddenly restricted to just clicking the mouse with one finger to control the software. When I played guitar, at least I had five fingers and a pick to control the sound. Compared to that, being able to use only one finger felt awful. In live coding, I can use all of my fingers. I'm pretty good at typing, so I could use that in SuperCollider before and now in Haskell. What's more important is that live coding uses words and symbols, but instruments like guitars and drums use gestures, or physical movements, to create sounds. In live coding, being able to control a lot of things using those symbols and presenting that code on the screen is important. In 2007 I moved from making GUI-based software to live coding in SuperCollider and then Haskell in 2011. It's been nearly 10 years now. I still use the SuperCollider synthesizer, but most of my coding is in the Haskell language. It's been that way for the past five years.
Developing Music in Japan
Bell: My wife wanted to move back to Japan, so that's why I moved to Japan. In Japan, I started a PhD first at Tokyo Denki University, but in the middle of that I transferred to Tama Art University in Tokyo. Basically, I was researching software, and that didn't change much when I transferred, but I started to do more research in aesthetics and philosophy to write my dissertation. It was good and bad. On the one hand, it helped me to think about live coding as art, but on the other hand I lost some time for technical work developing the software. While I was doing my PhD research at Tama Art University, I had a lot of opportunities to perform my music internationally, but I had few opportunities in Japan, maybe because I hadn't met the right people and not many people knew my music. Now the situation is better, and I get a lot of chances to perform in Japan. In the past I had wanted to choose the path of a musician over a business career, but unfortunately I still need to eat, so I ended up running my own business. I still can't survive on music alone, but maybe one day I will.
Bell: Now I feel there's no need to keep apart drum and bass and electronic music; I'm putting them together. From high school, I listened to hiphop. In hiphop, DJs are often mixing really quickly, playing like 30 seconds of one song and then mixing to another, and sometimes DJs are playing several tracks together. I'm not doing hiphop music, but I like this kind of sound.
I had asked Bell how an audience that doesn't program can enjoy a live coding performance.
He provides a possible way to enjoy it: by carefully watching a performer add lines of code or modify existing code and at the same time listening to how the sound changes, they can gradually come to understand to some degree how the music is being made. Now Bell has extensive experience performing through programming, and he has begun to put some words in the editor to have more of a dialogue with the audience. This gives live coding an interesting or funny aspect.
Thanks to Renick for help with the English version of this article.