October 11, 2018

A portrait of the programmer as a creative artist

A portrait of the programmer as a creative artist

Cristian Mitroi



This week’s post is about the meeting point of the technical and the creative spheres. As a tech company in the music business, Low-Fi is by definition operating in that grey zone. At the same time, we are also heartily trying to side step some aspects of both spheres we find rigid and limiting. Cristian, who is another new addition to the writers team, explored this topic from a personal perspective and wrote about finding a way to combine his programming background with his more traditionally creative interests to the effect of mending his somewhat cooled enthusiasm for music and fueling his motivation to explore new possibilities.

It is a widely held belief that the human brain is split in two functional regions: left and right. One is in charge of logic and reasoning, the other deals with emotions and creativity. People thus fall into two categories: you are either a left-brained scientist or a right-brained artist. This theory has been scientifically debunked, but the belief is still very much ingrained in our society.

Sprounting from that stereotype is also the belief that people belong to one of two mutually exclusive categories: you are either technical or you are creative. You are either into engineering, math, programming and science; or you deal with design, music, art, and writing. And one group is completely baffled by how the other even functions in society.

Back in high school I found myself being captivated by the angsty posturing of rock music. It resonated with my confused teenage mind. Questions like Who am I? What is it I want? Whom can I trust? tortured my mind while my ears were tortured by the songs of bands like Slayer, Metallica and Death. To further consolidate the cliche, I of course picked up learning the guitar.

This was when I was 14 years-old. Rock music and the guitar were central to my identity throughout high school. Things changed after graduation. At that stage I moved away to the big city for my university studies. I decided that playing guitar was something I would have to leave behind. Like a childish thing not worth the effort anymore. Not everyone becomes a rock-star, I realized. Disillusionment is part of growing up.

I explored various aspects of my identity in the attempt to find a place in the world. Was I going to be an academic in the humanities? Or maybe I will aim for the security of a programmer's career. Meanwhile music remained an essential aspect: I was still an avid music listener. Just not playing guitar and learning music theory.

Time passed and I end up moving to Denmark, studying IT, and working a student programmer job. I was back to playing guitar, but I definitely felt the motivation was not there anymore. The teenage angst had now matured to an intellectual curiosity about music. I discovered a wide spectrum of genres, from the cool jazz of Miles Davis to the lush ambient of Boards of Canada. I felt like the guitar cannot capture this variety, as I had learned it mostly through the language of rock music solos and riffs. I felt stuck in a rut, uninspired to really pursue it.

There are, of course, hobbies in one’s life that you practice just for the pleasure. You don’t think of becoming a professional. However, you still need inspiration. That’s what I felt was lacking. Things were not connecting. It felt like the guitar was tied to a time in my life that had passed. I didn’t realize this, but, subconsciously, I was looking for ways to connect playing music to my current life.

One day a friend from work told me about a project he had been working on in his part time, and asked if I could help. He was building a musical instrument, with infrared sensors, Arduino and programming. I didn’t have a lot going on at this stage in my life, so I said yes. I didn’t think much of it, as I wasn’t yet sensing the connection.

We met up several times and I helped him with the code and fixing bugs. At this stage I was already comfortable with coding and software. The work was rather tedious and boring, I felt. I saw the project as more of an opportunity for socializing with my friend, rather than a creative outlet. I wasn't yet sensing the connection.

You don’t sense connections because they are unexpected. I was practicing guitar scales one evening, after an afternoon meeting for the project, when I realized what the instrument was missing: What if the code itself controls the musicality of the instrument? What if the idea of scales can be communicated through code? Basically, limiting the notes produced by the instrument to a set of predefined scales and modes. I was so excited about this idea that I messaged my friend immediately and the flood gates were open.

Connections come flooding through. Notes are numbers. In computers everything is a number. So what if we map the signal from the instrument to other creative systems. We discover the Max programming environment, which allows you to do just that. The idea is simple: connect any input, through mathematical transformations, to any output; the possibilities: endless. We breach the gap between the left and right brain, and ideas come rushing.

Up until that point I had felt like I was leading two separate lives that would never meet. On the one hand I was a Computer Science student that was fascinated by systems and logic; on the other hand I was passionate about music and felt attracted to creative expression. I did not ever think that two could meet. I had never considered the world of electronic music composition and creative coding. It was an outlet for my imagination while also being determined by a structured framework that I could understand.

Over the next months we perfect the code base. At the same time, my passion for music theory is re-ignited, with the sense of endless possibilities made available through technology and software. I discover synthesizers, the MIDI protocol, and various other technologies that lie at the intersection between art and programming. A sense of childlike play is guiding me on this journey, as a new world is revealed by this simple connection.

 Widely held beliefs are known to sometimes be wrong. Creativity and logic are closely related, as they each support and inspire the other. In programming it is very common to find creative solutions to problems. When composing music, you are relying on a mathematical language to sustain your ideas. There is no black and white separation of the two; it's an experimental area where magic and play happen.

I also learned that you should not drop the things you do in your childhood just because you are no longer a child or a teenager. Rather, you should let those things inspire and guide you. Not all of us will end up famous rock-stars, and that's OK. There is however an area that you can find for yourself, where ideas from the two sides meld together. It will be an area of your life that you can always turn to for inspiration and fun.

If you are a software developer with passion for music, reach out to us. We would want to hear from you. 

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