Worlds Within the Code: An Interview With Norah Lorway

Norah Lorway composes music in ways that are totally foreign and completely fascinating to me. She’s equal parts artist, architect, and coder, using different applications and languages to build soundworlds from scratch. She regularly participates in live coding shows and algoraves, two events I was unfamiliar with before digging into her work and her label, Xylem

Her most recent album, Another World, uses these skills and approaches to process and overcome the months of isolation, to create a place where escape is possible, even if the inevitable still lurks. What continually impresses me in her work is its approachability. Lorway knows how to craft music that not only shows technical prowess but has a musicality and emotion to it that speaks to any listener. 

Now, Lorway is building a new music language to open up new possibilities for creation to others. She currently lives and works in Cornwall and took time to answer my questions throughout August. 

Was there a certain point or moment where you realized you wanted to start creating your own works?

Most likely it was during my undergrad – I took a composition course with Dr. Ian Crutchely which opened up my ears to different ways of music making such as electronic and computer music. It felt a lot more freeing than piano performance (which is what I was majoring in at the time). It was such a great experience that it led me to doing a Master’s and a Ph.D. in computer music. 

Did you start playing piano when you were a child? I’m wondering how your training and practice and all that translates into the music that you code?

Yeah, I started when I was 4 and was classically trained, etc. I think I approach live coding the same way, a lot of the gestures used for one works for the other.

Also in terms of coding, there are a lot of similarities between that and composing in the way the thinking. 

When did you first start composing music through coding and what is it about using coding to create music, whether composing or in live coding settings, that appeals to you? 

I started making music with code around 2007 when I started my Master’s degree. I discovered a language called SuperCollider through one of my classes and started to get really interested in it. 

I liked how you can create almost any sound from scratch with code. I also found that live coding has a lot of performative aspects in common with playing the piano, so I think that drew me in. 

How did your interest in Supercollider first come about? I think I read that your work with Supercollider is what eventually brought you to the UK, right?

I discovered the language in my masters and decided it might be cool to do a Ph.D. with it as a central focus. I did some research and found out that there was a community in the UK at the University of Birmingham that was working on the language. I ended up applying for a Ph.D. to study with Dr. Scott Wilson (who is heavily involved in the development of the language and wrote a book on it) who eventually became my supervisor in 2010. In 2011, we started a live coding band called BEER (Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research) along with some other students where we performed network live coding music around the UK and Europe. We actually just performed remotely as an ensemble this past April!

I have to admit that the idea of algoraves and live coding performances is new to me, but I am so interested in the whole concept of it. How did you get involved in those kinds of performances and what is it about this kind of approach that appeals to you?

I believe Algoraves started in the UK around 2012ish – as far as I recall they were often after parties for computer music conferences, but then sort of formally took form around 2012 or so at a SuperCollider conference in London. In 2013, I was asked by Alex McLean (one of the live coding pioneers in the UK) to perform on a boat venue called MS Stubnitz in Canary Wharf in London. At this point, I was performing live coding ambient music sets in venues around the UK but hadn’t done a dance party until that gig. It was a life-changing gig in many ways, and I ended up performing multiple algoraves throughout the UK, Europe, and North America in the years that followed, making mostly techno and acid house with code. Live coding allows for rapid changes in real-time which can be exciting and terrifying. We’ve played algoraves at both big festivals, conferences, and small venues and it’s always interesting to see how the crowd reacts to seeing code on a screen behind the performer. 

And now you’re building your own instruments and languages for music and sound creation like Scorch. What can you tell me about Scorch?

Scorch is a new music language meant to be accessible to a wide audience. It is created by myself, Arthur Wilson, and Ed Powley. It uses machine learning to learn the user’s habits and to assist them in both fixed music creative and live performance. A lot of my own research is based on using artificial intelligence as a collaborator both with music and in healthcare; myself, Ed and Arthur have written papers on a project called Autopia (an AI collaborator for live coding performances) which has influenced Scorch quite a bit (you can read our latest paper here for reference).

When might people have the opportunity to work with it?

Hopefully sometime this fall!

I also want to ask about Another World specifically, since this is one of your most recent releases. I really like the description of ‘a digital grieving.’ How has working on music and composing helped in processing all that’s happened in the past 18 months or so?

It’s hard to say really, I think in general music has helped many of us deal with the ongoing situation and gives us a space to think and escape. I’ve gone through periods over the last 18 months where I don’t want to listen to any music and then other periods of listening to tons. Making it has been a struggle for sure, and I often work in spurts rather than over a drawn-out period of time these days. 

I talked a little about this when I wrote about the album, but it really has this transportive effect, like dreams of different places. Were there any specific ideas or motivations that inspired these recordings and this project?

I moved to Cornwall around 2016 for an academic job at a university and while it is very beautiful, it’s also incredibly isolating and it feels like another world. I was also going through some grief due to a death in the family so a lot of the sounds in this are inspired by walking through coastal paths and listening to noise music trying to zone out and not think. The static that you hear throughout the album is inspired by those contrasts; so-called beauty vs. harshness and the feeling of being completely isolated from everything. You can hear bits of melody peak out admits the wall of static and sound. Nothing is very clear on purpose. 

I think now everyone is experiencing this isolation and grief in many different ways. I guess the album attempts to address the sporadic and uncertain nature of the grieving process: it is intermittent and definitely not linear. There is no right way to grieve. I think the project will continue as the pandemic continues. 

You also mention that you’re working on an interactive, augmented reality version of Another World coming later in 2021. What kinds of things can we expect from that?

I’ve been working on various audiovisual pieces based on the album over the last year. This is an example of one: 

I will be premiering a few of these A/V works at the Fish Factory Art Gallery in Penryn, UK Sept 3rd and hope to have the finished interactive installation on my website by December!

I wanted to ask about your label, Xylem. As I’ve only recently learned about it, it’s so wonderfully overwhelming how much music you’ve released over the past nine years. What was your initial inspiration to start it? And what keeps you going with it?

I started it initially because I wanted to release music made with algorithms and then it sort of grew beyond that. I ended up meeting a lot of interesting composers through the label and last year in the first part of the pandemic, a bunch of us hosted Xylem live streams which was great to get these people together in a communal space.

I sort of see it as an ongoing project with no endpoint, I’ll just see how it goes!

Are you working on any new music projects right now?

A few in the pipeline – a noise album and also working on the visual side of the Another World release.

What are you looking forward to most in the next year?

I have some work-related new things coming up, new research projects, and also hoping to play some shows again! 

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