Monday 03 March 2014

In conversation with... Kate Sicchio and Alex McLean

In conversation with... Kate Sicchio and Alex McLean Photo: Rain Ashford

Sound Choreography Body Code is a performance collaboration between choreographer and performer Kate Sicchio, and researcher and live coder Alex McLean. The work creates a feedback loop through code, music, choreography, dance and back through code.

We spoke with Kate and Alex to ask them about the work, and the thinking behind such a multimedia, multi-disciplinary piece.

Please start by introducing Body Code - how it was created, and how it came into being.

KS: For me, I had wanted to develop the idea of the 'programmer as choreographer'. This was an idea that surfaced during my PhD, but I didn't have the space or time to really develop it then.

I started to look at programming languages as a way to create choreographic scores, and created an ongoing series of performance pieces called Hacking Choreography. From here, I heard that Alex was starting a project called Live Notation that explored connections between live coding and live art. I felt this was an umbrella that Hacking Choreography fit under, so got in touch. From here, Alex and I attempted a first collaborative piece that was less successful, and I think we realised we needed a way to bring the live-coded dance and music together so they were more interwoven or interdependent.

AM: Yes; as a live coder I try to look for balance in collaborations, which can be made difficult due to the latencies and general awkwardness involved in the computers and software we have. This was clearly an issue too for Kate but from a different direction, so it just made sense to try to collaborate.

From my side, I've also been interested in how programming can become more of an 'embodied' experience for some time; for example, by working with physical models and visual interfaces during my doctoral research. As I see it, programming languages could become more like natural languages, not by mimicking human languages but by finding ways of making programming languages more prosodic; introducing movement or gesture, in a way that supports the otherwise discrete or symbolic nature of code. Connecting with Kate's Choreography Hacks, which looks at similar things from the opposite direction, has opened up new ways of thinking for me.


How have you developed the intricate synchronisation between musical and physical performance? How have you developed the feedback loop which is central to the work?

KS: The idea of the feedback loop was in our first collaborative piece as a way of influencing each other's programming of what we were making. But, in that first piece, the feedback loop was facilitated by us rather than computers. And, it was difficult. I find when performing a dance live score, I don't actually listen.

AM: This was a piece which we did for the PRISM series in Sheffield. Kate followed choreography which she'd written in her own invented programming language, taking the role of a human computer following the code, while I made music in my live coding environment. Echoing Kate's difficulty with listening, I found that when making music, I'm barely aware of the physical presence of my co-performers. The idea was that I'd respond to the dancing through my music, and she would somehow respond to my music through her dance. In practice, we were both focussed so much on our respective code that we weren't really taking any notice of each other.

The second time, we made the feedback loop work much better, by connecting our notations to each other more directly, via my music and Kate's dance. We made a new system based on one of Kate's notations called Sound Choreographer, creating diagrammatic choreographies which respond to sound. We also plumbed Kate's Kinect into Tidal - my visual live coding environment - so that her movements would mess with my code. Now, there is a clear feedback loop going through via code, the music, the choreography, Kate's body, and back through the code. I'd say that for the third performance at C4CC in London, this feedback loop really worked and created a whole performance.


How was this collaboration, and your performances within it, different to what you have both done before?

KS: One of the interesting things for me is that, as a performer, I fail in this piece. The score becomes so complex over time that there is no way I could ever follow it. I have to make quick decisions and stay with them and not try to think of the whole piece or the entire score, and allow myself to be OK with the fact I can not dance the whole score. As a dancer, that is hard. Dancers are trained to want to do the movement given to them as precisely as possible, and here I can not follow the entire movement score and I am overwhelmed with choices.

AM: Yes, I have to deal with lack of control too. Because of the properties of my visual language, Kate's injection of functions never results in a syntactically 'incorrect' program, but it does mean that I have no hope of knowing what is going on. So, I have to embrace this and just concentrate on introducing changes, following the code as a shifting material, and not understanding it as a logical structure.


What did you learn from your first performance of the piece in Manchester?

KS: I am really involved in reading the score, and sometimes am not influenced by Alex's music consciously.

AM: I also learned that apparently minor things, like the size of a screen, can have a big influence on the work. Because our screens weren't the same size, the sense of balance was a little lost.


Do you see possibilities of further collaboration, and which forms do you think that would take?

KS: Yes, I'm but not sure yet...

AM: Yes. Our approach is interesting, because our technology has allowed us to maintain quite separate practices, but connect them. So, I don't think there is a clear path with this, but that's what makes it interesting.


What are the physical requirements for a performance such as this?

KS: One of the requirements is the projection of the code for both the sound and movement in the space. This transparency is a key feature. For this piece, we use a Kinect to do the video tracking which actually limits the physical size of the performance space.

AM: Yes, and I've felt it is important that I look at the same screens that Kate and everyone else sees, so I use a wireless keyboard, with the projection as my screen. I've been pretty surprised that Kate is OK with dancing on anything, rather than needing sprung flooring.


In your view, is digitally-augmented performance under-reported and under-analysed as a specific discipline, and if so, why?

KS: What I find interesting is that it is being reported on, and analysed in, fields other than performance. I find that my work is much more discussed in media arts than in dance. Sometimes, I say that work in a dance department by default... but actually my work is not taking place there.

AM: I mainly work in music, and wouldn't say it was under-reported or analysed there. I also think that all performance involves digital as well as analogue aspects, even where modern technology isn't involved, but that's a particular bugbear.


Kate Sicchio is Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Lincoln. Her personal website is, and she is @sicchio on Twitter.

Alex McLean is a research fellow and deputy director of ICSRiM (the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Research in Music), part of the University of Leeds. His personal website is, and he is @yaxu on Twitter.

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