CD Review: Cortical Songs

Cortical Songs | NonClassical | 2008 | | BUY THE ALBUM

John Matthias | Nick Ryan | Thom Yorke | Neil Grant | John Fisher | Gabriel Prokofiev | Marcas Lancaster | David Prior | John MacLean | Simon Tong | Dominic Murcott | Andy Prior | Marcus Coates

Paring down the scientific rationale for this disc into 200 words of intensely riveting copy is proving to be quite difficult. According to composers John Matthias and Nick Ryan, the appeal was “the […] idea of generating melodies and textures using neuronal network firing events, which might form rhythmic patterns or ‘cortical songs’.” *

Cortical Songs is scored for solo violin and string orchestra with the ensemble parts being determined in part by signals from a computer brain. The first and second movements are melody base and show some promise as concert pieces. The asymmetrical pizzicato bass line of the second movement is most appealing and the piece would have benefitted from a more thorough exploration of that idea.

The final two movements are based “directly on the neuronal firing times of groups of artificial cortical neurons” and therefore sound much more like a contemporary music clich√©.

The 11 remaining tracks are mostly forgettable remixes of the material. Thom Yorke and Simon Tong are the most immediately recognizable names on the roster but they aren’t responsible for the most imaginative tracks. That honour goes to Marcus Coates and Gabriel Prokofiev, the man behind the NonClassical label and concert series at The MacBeth in London.

Coates’ track, titled ‘0.2 – 20,000%’ is the only one of the bunch to play with the melodic material. Everyone else, including Yorke, went for a far more ambient approach, which results in a weak connection between source product and remix. Prokofiev’s track sounds as if he used the volume knob to create a rhythm with the various samples. It’s a brilliant effect that is oddly disorienting even after beats are introduced.

This disc would good for someone who is already quite familiar with the electronica and contemporary classical music worlds. Those looking for a gateway disc will have better luck elsewhere.

*Matthias and Ryan’s detailed rationale

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