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INTERVIEW | John Matthias And Jay Auborn Talk About Combining Music And Physics On Ghost Notes

By Anya Wassenberg on March 22, 2023

L-R: Jay Auborn and John Matthias collaborate in the studio (Photo courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Jay Auborn and John Matthias collaborate in the studio (Photo courtesy of the artists)

The twin passions of music and science come together in a new release by composer John Matthias and Jay Auborn. As a violinist, physicist and composer, John’s work is noted for its blend of traditional and futuristic elements.

As they say in their liner notes, the duo “gave their computer limbs, and unleashed its agency”. We asked a few questions about how that works.

John Matthias and Jay Auborn

Award-winning composer and musician John Matthias has released four solo albums of his music on the Ninja Tune label. Along with his own work, he’s collaborated with many high profile artists, such as Radiohead on their studio album The Bends (1995).

As both musician and theoretical physicist, John Matthias was drawn to the element of futurism in his work. He is a member of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at the University of Plymouth. John was the co—winner of the UK PRS Foundation New Music Award in 2008 for The Fragmented Orchestra. An artificial spiking neural network is set up, with nodes in disparate locations, and which produce live audio streams according to the timing of the spikes along the network. It’s modeled after the way neurons fire off one after the other in the human brain.

John has performed at The Royal Opera House (London) and The Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), among other international venues, and written the score for a dozen feature films, among other projects.

On his new release Ghost Notes, he collaborates with British musician, record producer and sound artist Jay Auborn, along with some interesting technology, to essentially create electronic symphonies in miniature. Jay Auborn’s work has blended acoustic and electronic elements with an experimental edge even in conventional compositional modes. Along with his solo releases, he’s composition music for film.

The duo also collaborated on the answers to our questions.

L-R: Jay Auborn and John Matthias collaborate in the studio (Photo courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Jay Auborn and John Matthias collaborate in the studio (Photo courtesy of the artists)

How did you come upon the tech that you use, involving solenoid magnets to essentially play the drums?

Ghost Notes started as a kind of live album experiment. We wanted to bring the electronic and acoustic elements of our music together in one space and in one process. To help us, we gave our computer limbs in the form of the solenoid hammers, so it could play acoustic drums and percussion alongside us, becoming a trio of sorts.

The tech isn’t particularly unique, and there are several products and home-made setups that use solenoids to play instruments or which are used in installations, for example. We were focused more on the creative implications and possibilities.

Ahead of the first experiments with the computer controlled drum kit, we asked ourselves, “If we could have any drummer in our band dead or alive, who would it be?” Max Roach came up, the American Jazz drummer, who worked with Charlie Parker in the 1940s. On All Hallow’s Eve pre-lockdown we fed a recording of a drum solo by Max Roach into the computer controlling the robot drummer. In turn, the drums came alive, reperforming his drum solo with haunting accuracy, as if Max was in the room with us. There was a sense of time collapsing through technology as Max hit a drum in the 50s which made its way through time and various technologies to be in the room with us. This experience inspired the name for the album.

After the initial experiment, we spent a week together recording in an old barn on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, England. The robotic drummer would sometimes glitch out and play unexpected rhythms. We embraced these errors, and they became an exciting outside influence on our music, as if the machine had its own agency; John Cage’s Ghost in the machine. The resulting recording session became this album, a collection of human robotic collaboration through mini electronic symphonies.

The first track available from Ghost Notes:

Does the robot use AI to process the source material you give it?

It doesn’t. The set-up is fairly crude, we are using pre-existing tools in a technical mashup, which makes the whole thing purposefully idiosyncratic. As an example, one of us would play an acoustic drum kit which is real time converted to midi control signals via the computer, then converted into voltages which fed into our electronic magnetic drum hammers on a second acoustic drum kit. The latency/time delay in the process would create an echo or delay as the 2nd drum kit mirrored what we played on the first. It’s a kind of digital shadow of ourselves. We think about the error in this process as a kind of external agency influencing the outcome of our music.

Is this something that could be performed live — i.e. if so, how would that work in real time?

Absolutely — this was kind of the whole point for us. The process was always real time. We are using microphones to record this stuff as it happens in the room. We have some shows coming up.

In the liner notes, the method is described as “extracting” rhythmic patterns from existing music — was that your original intention, or did it develop as you worked with the technology?

We did this early on to see what was possible with the setup, but it didn’t feel right, so we explored other uses as mentioned. We did extract rhythms from found sound recordings of rhythmic content or from recordings of us playing other instruments to see if we could use the process as a kind of transformational tool i.e. John’s violin part becomes a drum part by just taking the rhythmic structure and asking the robot drums to play it.

The tracks go through a variety of moods and styles. Do you begin with a concept in mind, or is your process more improvisational/intuitive?

We have always worked together in an improvisational manner, often within a conceptual framework so that there is a limiting factor to butt up against and work within. This makes it easier to be productive by setting some limits. At the same time we aren’t precious about the concept, and we have mentioned the John Cage idea ‘the idea is one thing and what happens is different’. We left the studio on Dartmoor with about 30 tracks made from improvising, and slowly we reduced it down little by little to [where] it felt like an album. We enjoy working with the music as an album as a whole rather than separate tracks, this perhaps encourages a variety of moods to co-exist rather than a collection of singles. In terms of styles we don’t think about genres much, we are trying to be free with our music and not conform too much.

Ghost Tracks will be released on April 7. You can sample it here.


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