Forgotten series: John Matthias and Nick Ryan – Cortical Songs (2010)

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I have decided that’s it’s never not fun to talk about what is and isn’t music. The discussions can be thought-provoking, plus there’s always the chance that somebody will lose it and tell the rest of the crowd that they’re ignorant and don’t know what they’re talking about.

Yeah, the possibility of that sort of free entertainment keeps me coming back to the scene of the crime.

So let’s talk about process music of a sort. For further proof that music can be generated from nearly any source material, I present Cortical Songs. John Matthias and Nick Ryan took the rhythmic patterns of firing neurons and used them as guideposts for an improvised performance by a string ensemble.

Without getting super-technical, the ensemble and solo violinist were partially controlled by a software simulator that mimicked a neural network, which in turn controlled 24 LEDs, one for each musician. Players would have parts written out but would play when their lights went on. The four movements represent various levels and configurations of improvisation and live interaction. Hmmm … maybe that was too technical.

Still, the results are certainly not what I expected. I thought for sure that there would be more jagged edges and uncomfortable rhythms. Instead, there are slowly-developing landscapes of sound, with swelling walls of dissonance, tensions that build and then suddenly vaporize, and even a few moments of roiling emotion. This is particularly true of the fourth movement, where it feels like a passionate story is being unfolded.

What I thought I would hear on Cortical Songs actually occurs during the wide-ranging set of remixes that follow. These re-imaginings take Cortical Songs to some places far, far away from their sources. A good remix is like that. You get to hear how the remixer frames the music in the mind. Dominic Murcott’s “The Bipolar Shuffle” is exactly what I was looking for: edgy, skittery rhythms that percolate & never sit still. There’s the spooky mood fog of Jem Finer’s “The Squid’s Terror of Dry Land” and the cinematic “Brain Bumper Remix” by Gabriel Prokofiev.

For a while, I thought that Thom Yorke’s “Neuron Trigger Mix” would win the day. In fact, it is a fine piece of disjointed rhythm that’s reminiscent of Photek. But Marcus Coates’ “0.2 – 20,000%” gets my vote. It sounds like music bounced off a slightly malfunctioning satellite. Much of the flavor of the original material is there, but it’s distorted in a foreboding way … and yet is still quite beautiful. Great stuff.

A tip ‘o the pencil to the label Nonclassical, who are doing the musical world quite a service by smooshing together new music and DJ-isms. Who knows, maybe a fight will break out.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to, and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at
Mark Saleski
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