Public Presentation: Wednesday, May 23, 1-2:30pm Art Department Seminar Room D101

John Matthias + Nick Ryan


The level of synchronization in distributed systems is often controlled by the strength of interaction between the individual elements. If the elements are neurons in small brain circuits, the characteristic event is the ‘firing time’ of a particular neuron. We have been developing software musical instruments, installations and music, which utilize the triggering of sonic events, including grains of live sampled audio and musical instructions, when any one of a network of artificial spiking neurons ‘fires’. The synchrony or decoupling of these characteristic events is partially controlled by modifications in the strength of the connections between the artificial neurons under the influence of spike timing dependent plasticity, which adapts the strengths of neuronal connections according to the relative firing times of connected neurons.

In this talk, we will focus on the development of some of these instruments and works from an artistic and musical perspective and introduce some of the artistic projects which have used adaptations of the instrument, including ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’, ‘Plasticity’ and ‘Cortical Songs’.

We will also introduce a (very) new project which we are developing, partially at the OpenLab at UCSC, ‘Cortical Songs 2’ which takes from a starting point some interesting new work surrounding the subject of auditory phantoms or ‘tinnitus’

John Matthias is a musician, composer and physicist. In 2008, he won the PRS Foundation New Music Award (the musical equivalent of ‘The Turner Prize’) with Jane Grant and Nick Ryan for the development of a huge sonic installation entitled The Fragmented Orchestra which also won an Honourary Mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2009. He has released three albums, Smalltown, Shining (2001) on the Accidental label, Stories from the Watercooler (2008) on the Ninja Tune/ Counter label and Cortical Songs (2008/2009) (with Nick Ryan), a work for string orchestra and solo violin on the Nonclassical record label, which was listed by Time Out (Chicago in the top-ten classical albums of 2009. He has worked with many recording artists including Radiohead (The Bends) and Coldcut and has performed extensively including at the Wordless Music Series and the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York, The Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Union Chapel in London. More recently, he has collaborated with artist, Stanley Donwood in San Francisco and The Rambert Dance Company in London with Nick Ryan. He is Associate Professor in Sonic Arts and co-director of the art + sound research group at the University of Plymouth and is currently developing new instruments and compositional processes relating to sonic events and spiking neurons. These initiatives include orchestral composition, distributed systems and the development of a new Neuronal Music Technology and will form the basis of many new works and artistic collaborations. He has a Ph.D in Physics from Exeter University, UK

Nick Ryan is a composer, sound-designer and audio specialist, widely recognised as a leader in his field for his unique approach to sound and music. He works extensively with Film, Motion Graphics, TV Drama and Documentary, Interactive Media and Orchestral Ensemble as well consultanting on the future of sound and music to many organisations including The BBC and The UK Government. His awards include a BAFTA for Technical Innovation for the BBC Radio 4 interactive horror ‘The Dark House’ and the The PRS Foundation New Music Award 2008 for ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ – a UK wide sound installation based on the firing patterns of cortical neurons. Nick spent last year creating Papa Sangre – the first ever real-time 3D audio game implemented on a handheld device. Papa Sangre is a video game with no video – it’s a first-person thriller, created entirely in sound, for the iphone platform. Players navigate the 27 levels using only their sense of hearing. The game was awarded the ‘Most Innovative Game‘ at the International Mobile Gaming Awards in March. Papasangre. He is has an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Plymouth University, UK