John Matthias & Nick Ryan: Cortical Songs (2008)
This is a clip from a recording of music inspired by neuronal firing patterns in the cerebral cortex where densely packed tissue stores our consciousness along with memory, thought, perception, and language. Cortical Songs is an orchestral piece in four movements written by John Matthias and Nick Ryan, both award-winning musicians and composers. They’re also physicists mutually interested in neuroscience, which led to their making of synaptic music.
Cortical Songs features Matthias playing with the Trinity College of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Nic Pendlebury. But the performance was partially directed by a computer-simulated brain programmed live by Ryan and based on Eugene Izhikevich’s computational model that uses software to mimic real-life cortical patterns. Matthias explains:
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.
Ryan then added randomizing algorithms for the 24-piece ensemble so that each musician would take turns playing sheet music when a light triggered from networked LED lamps, signaling “firing events.” While the movements are scored, each performance varies due to Ryan’s computer program — no two performances are ever the same. What you hear in the recordings is beautiful-yet-moody melodies and harmonies, often ambient sounds intermixed with dissonant swells of chaos.
For those more interested in the electronic elements, the CD includes remixes by Thom Yorke from Radiohead, Simon Tong from The Good The Bad & The Queen, Simon Jones & Nick McCabe from The Verve, John Maclean from The Beta Band, and others.
Credit: Video courtesy of Nick Ryan.