weird things with interfaces

alivecoding: livecoding with persistent expressions

Persistent expressions are an approach to livecoding that unifies direct manipulation of a dataflow engine with a textual representation and lisp-based programming language.

shortcomings of repl-based programming

In repl-based environments, a scratch file is opened in a text editor. In it, commands are staged and can be added, removed and edited without consequence. The livecoding system generally has no knowledge about this scratch buffer at all. The user is free to select and send individual commands (or groups of commands) at any time and execute them by transmitting them to the server via an editor plugin.

Commands are incremental changes (deltas) that get sent to the server, which keeps an entirely separate and invisible model of the project. Generally no feedback about the state of this model is made available to the user.

Code is only executed when the user evaluates a block, although code run in this fashion may cause other code to execute outside of the user-evaluated execution flow via side effects, for example by registering a handler for events such as incoming messages or scheduling execution based on system time. These mechanisms however are implementation details within the code the user executed originally, and no uniform mechanism for noticing, visualizing or undoing these side-effects exists.

This design has the following consequences:

  • The view of the scratch buffer is not correlated with the code and state the server is currently executing. This results in overhead for keeping the mental synchronized with what the system is actually performing for the user, but also makes it much harder for the audience to follow along.
  • Sessions cannot be reopened reliably, because the state of the server depends on the full sequence of commands that were sent to the server in order, which is not represented in the scratch buffer.
  • If parts of the execution model on the server have not been explicitly labelled (i.e. assigned to a variable) in the textual representation, often many potentially important actions for modifying the current behaviour are unavailable: for example long-running sounds may not be cancellable, effects' parameters may not be adjustable without recreating the signal chain, etc.

persistent expressions

The persistent expression paradigm, on the other hand, reconciles the user- facing, text-based representation of the system and the server-internal model and execution flow.

execution flow

Code execution happens in two different phases alternatingly: at eval-time, whenever the buffer is (re)evaluated; and at run-time, continuously between evaluations.

At eval-time, execution is analogous to common functional and lisp-style languages. Expressions are evaluated depth-first starting from the root. For each expression, the head of the expression is first evaluated, and depending on the type of that subexpression different actions are taken. In the general case, the head of an expression is an Op (operator) type, an instance of which will continue to run at run-time. In this case, all other arguments are then evaluated and passed to the Op instance, which is either created or reused (see below). On the other hand, some expressions (for example def, use, …) do not execute at run-time, but cause eval-time side-effects like declaring a symbol in the active scope. Because eval-time execution only happens once and in a deterministic order, and no eval-time state persists across evaluations, despite these side-effects, the eval-time execution is equivalent to functionally pure execution with an implicit scope parameter.

Unlike normal lisps, when evaluating expressions, not only a value is generated. In parallel to the tree of return values, a tree of run-time dependencies is built, that tracks all instantiated Ops and their inputs.

At run-time, Op instances update based on this dependency tree. Starting from a periodic root event polled by the interpreter, dependent Ops are executed (following the outside-in, depth-first order that the dependencies have been created in at eval-time). Ops whose inputs are unchanged and ‘pure’ subtrees that do not have any dependency on the root event are not executed. In this way, the run-time behaviour of the system is that of a event-driven dataflow language with clearly defined execution flow.

expression tagging

In order to maintain the congruency between the representations across edits and reevaluations, the identity of individual expressions is tracked using tags. Tags are noted using unique numbers in square brackets before the head of expressions (e.g. ([1]head arg1 arg2...)) and are optional when parsed.

At eval-time (see below), every expression that is not tagged will be assigned a new unique tag number. ‘Cloned’ expressions, such as the expressions from a function definition body, are assigned composite tags that can be noted as a list of tags joined by periods (e.g. [2.1]):

([1]defn add-two-and-multiply (a b)
  ([2]mul b ([3]add a 2)))

([4]add-two-and-multiply 1 2)
([5]add-two-and-multiply 3 4)

will be expanded (at eval-time) to approximately The actual implementation does not actually create sub expressions as shown here, but the results behave equivalently.:

  (def a 1
       b 2)
  ([4.2]mul a ([4.3]add b 2)))
  (def a 3
       b 4)
  ([5.2]mul a ([5.3]add b 2)))

The expression tags are used to associate the run-time representations (Op instances) of expressions with their textual representations, and track their identity as the user changes the code. When the code is evaluated, Ops are instantiated whenever the expression was previously untagged, or when the head of the expression no longer resolves to the same value. Otherwise, the previous Op instance continues to exist and parameter changes are forward to it. Ops that are no longer referenced in the code are destroyed.


This approach combines the benefits of dataflow programming for livecoding with those of a textual representation and the user-controlled evaluation moment.

From visual dataflow programming, the following benefits over common textual, REPL-based livecoding systems are inherited:

  • direct manipulation of individual parameters of a system without disturbing the system at large
  • execution and dataflow are aligned and evident in the editable representation
  • state is isolated and compartmentalized in local elements
  • opportunity to visualize dataflow and local state visualizing state of individual Ops in editor-dependent and editor-agnostic ways that integrate with the textual representation is an ongoing research direction of this project.

On the other hand, the following advantages from such textual systems are preserved, that are generally absent in visual dataflow environments:

  • high information density
  • fast editing experience
  • accessibility and editability from a wide range of tools (any text editor)
  • ability to harness powerful meta-programming facilities (from Lisp)
  • complex changes can be made without intermittently disrupting the system