John Matthias and his Tiny Computer Brain

Cortical Songs is an avant-classical collaboration with Nick Ryan, with remixers including Thom Yorke.

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Nick Ryan and John Matthias

Dazed Digital: Cortical Songs, your new avant-classical collaboration with composer Nick Ryan, "is a work in four movements for string ensemble and violin in which the orchestra is partially controlled by a tiny computer brain". What does that mean?
John Matthias: 
The computer brain is made from a mathematical model of a network of "spiking neurons". These models are electrical models of nerve cells, simplifications of the original model of the nerve cell formulated by Hodgkin and Huxley in the 1950's, which is still one of the best models of a neuron we have. The neuron is modeled as having a voltage across its cell membrane. Various ion currents flow in and out of this membrane to cause electrical signals to flow along the axon (the long thin bit which connects neurons together). The electrical signal sent by neurons to other neurons is in the shape of a spike, hence the term "spiking" neuron.

Our model is based on one formulated by the US neuroscientist in San Diego Eugene Izhikevich. The Hodgkin-Huxley model is still too complicated to use for networks of neurons, even with today's fast computers, so the Izhikevich model combines speed with a slightly more simplified biological model.

DD: The CD also includes remixes by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, The Beta Band's John Maclean, Gorillaz's Simon Tong, Gabriel Prokofiev, and many others. Does the remix really have a place in classical music?
 Well, the remix of an orchestral work will always reference electronic music, because of the whole notion of manipulated and editing sound takes it into an electronic context, so a remix of a classical piece will probably not be 'classical' in form. But I think the remixes on Cortical Songs show that a remix of orchestral music can work.

DD: The remixers were encouraged to use nothing but sounds from the original piece - no Amen breaks here. How did they react to the constraints you put on them?
Very well. I think that the constraints were part of the attraction of being involved; that was very much the case for Thom Yorke, who really wanted to know the process by which the work was written and whose remix is an interpretation of that idea. Jem Finer got very excited about Hodgkin and Huxley's model of the axon of a squid, and Dominic Murcott was very keen on using the firing times which we gave the remixers ina text file.

Neil Grant and John Fisher were the only remixers who went outside the constraint of just using the material in the piece, they used the sound of rain drops on the lean-to at the back of Neil's house as they thought that it was a good sonic analogy to the neuronal firing.

DD: Cortical Songs is coming out on theNonclassical label, which is attempting to reinvigorate modern classical music with its experimental releases and club nights at the Macbeth. What did you think of this Joe Queenan piece about the decline of classical music?
JM: I completely agree with him. I think that classical music took a major wrong turn with serialism. There are many great composers of the last 30 years, but I don't think that any of them were serialists, and the idea of writing music that hardly anybody likes is anathema to me. What about Steve Reich, Arvo Part (who is mentioned), some Schnittke? –there is some great stuff.

I think that the major figures in music in the last 50 years basically avoided the classical (orchestral) form because much more exciting developments were happening in other forms of music. Pop music and electronic music has had much more development and produced much greater works than much of the classical form.

DD: What else is going on at theInterdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research in Plymouth, where you work?
Lots. At the moment, Jane Grant and Nick Ryan and myself are producing a piece called The Fragmented Orchestra which won the PRS New Music Award 2008. In this piece (which opens in December 2008), 24 sound boxes are placed at different sites around the UK (including Gloucester Cathedral, the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and a water farm in Northumberland) and will send tiny fragments of the sound recorded at those sites through to a speaker at the FACT gallery in Liverpool, where there will be 24 speakers.

All the sites are connected together by a 24-neuron spiking neuronal network and the fragments of sound will only be sent when a neuron fires. When this neuron fires, it will also let the other neurons know that it has fired (which will probably make these neurons fire…) causing rhythms to cascade through the system. The whole sound, in addition to that in the gallery is audible online and back at the 24 sites, where the public can play the piece like a giant instrument.

Cortical Songs is out on July 28.

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