February 12, 2014
The award-winning musician, composer, physicist and Blank Canvas collaborator John Matthias released his latest album, ‘Geisterfahrer’, on the Village Green Label on the 17th February 2014 (and vinyl 24th Feb). We caught up with him to chat about the album, Dorsal Cochlea Nucleus’ (that old chestnut!?) and Einstein:
When did you start working on the album?
The work started in December 2012 –several tracks on the album were developed with Andrew Prior as the soundtrack to the dance theatre work ‘Eden’ by the Manchester based group, ‘Company Chameleon’. The production was choreographed by ex-Rambert dancers Jonathan Goddard and Gemma Nixon and was premiered in February at the Lowry Theatre in Manchester. It then toured the UK including two dates at The Royal Opera House, but all of the music had to be finished by the end of January 2013 so we were on a very tight schedule! The rest of the record was recorded in two days in a 700 year-old school (now a community centre) in Devon.
What was the inspiration behind it?
‘Eden’ was about a very claustrophobic and internal world, so we decided to use a lot of the instruments and textures we have been developing over the last few years at Plymouth University, which trigger live sounds using artificial neurons. One instrument in particular, developed with Jane Grant, Tim Hodgson, Nick Ryan and Kin Design is called The Neurogranular Sampler.
These produce a very internal rhythmic feel which worked very well with the effects that dancers and choreographers wanted to create. We also used some of the sounds which I had created whilst working with a group from Leicester University on a research project looking at Tinnitus. I sonified some of the firing patterns which they were getting from their models of the Dorsal Cochlea Nucleus –part of the inner ear which receives signals both from body movement and from the auditory nerve. These sounded especially dry and internalised, so we went with that…
The two-day session in the school was all about the acoustic. It is a really amazing building –with stone walls, and a wooden floor and seating with a tiny headmaster’s office at the back and a beautiful grand piano on stage! –so the producers, Simon Honywill and Jay Auborn used microphones all over the building, some very close, several a few metres away, a few many meters away and one in the Headmaster’s office!
We also took an impulse response reverb to ‘capture’ the sound of the room and used it as a convolution reverb on all of the other sounds on the album –so we can carry the sound of the room with us. In fact when we play live, as we did on Radio 3 the other day, we take that room around with us to give us that sound –a reverb on our pockets!.
Can you explain your compositional process?
Until very recently I would treat song-writing work and instrumental composition as a different process, but I realised a couple of years ago when developing a work called ‘What Happens’ with Adrian Corker and Andrew Prior that my approach to both domains is very similar. So on this record I have included songs with vocals and lyrics and also instrumental material. Most of the music I write except when I work in collaboration with say Jane Grant or Nick Ryan on installations is in song form, whether lyrical or instrumental. I have grown up with songs and I like the challenge of the relatively short duration. I usually work very collaboratively –in this case I worked very collaboratively with the producers, Simon Honywill and Jay Auborn who were incredibly creative in the way that they either intervened or left me to it…
How does your practice relate to your research interests and how do you balance this?
I like to think of them as being intertwined. I am very lucky to have a job in which my composition is part of it –and I regard the collaborative research into new participative ways of making and triggering sounds as part of the compositional process and the research. Collaboration is very important –almost all of the developments in projects such as The Fragmented Orchestra, Plasticity, The Neurogranular Sampler have come through interaction and conversation with others. There is no way in which any of these ideas could have occurred from any of us individually. I actually think that it was ever thus –Einstein was a great collaborator for example –the general theory of relativity was developed in collaboration with David Hilbert and others but for cultural (and other) reasons they published separately –one to a mathematical audience and one to a physics audience and Einstein got most of the credit rightly because the early ideas were his but he would never have got anywhere without Hilbert’s explanation and understanding that Einstein needed tensor analysis… which was in turn developed by pure mathematicians in the nineteenth century
What are you listening to at the moment?
Atoms for Peace (Default), Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure, Jefferson Friedman String Quartet number 3 played by the Chiara String quartet.
What was the last film / exhibition you saw?
12 years a slave. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant –I think that Steve McQueen is the best thing to happen to cinema in years. May he and all of the cast get an Oscar!