We quiz Coldcut’s Matt Black on the duo’s cut and paste experiments with sound and image…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 16 Oct 2013
  • min read
Design, music, film, video games, apps - for more than 20 years, electronic music duo Coldcut and their Ninja Tunes label have been trail blazers across these medium and more.

When it comes to getting creative, they pair have always been down the front gobbling up any rule books with a deranged look in their eyes. It’s testament to the spirit of innovation coursing through the veins of Matt Black and Jonathan More that they’re remained at the cutting edge of audio visual. Even after this long in the game, Coldcut’s name continues to be a byword for wild, forward-thinking experimentation.

While they’re released seminal mixes (Journeys by DJ) and set up one of the UK’s great independent labels in Ninja Tune (home to the Bonobo, Actress, Amon Tobin and The Bug to name but a few), they pretty much invented the remix with their take on Eric B and Rakim's Paid in Full. They’ve taken these editorial scissors to film with great glee, blazing an irreverent trail through the audiovisual world with their cut and paste sampling technique.

Most recently the pioneering duo have been busying themselves with developing their interactive app, Ninja Jamm. They’ve also been sighted doing their thing to films from the Russolo era at the recent Noise of Art events.

With this in mind, we managed to get Matt on the phone to pick his brains for his thoughts on music, film, Ninja Jamm and the future of sound and image…

What are the biggest challenges with making music for film?

The first challenge is getting the gig. Film is the top art form but video games are making a strong claim to be up there too. Or at least could be in the future.

Film is a fascinating world to be involved in and increasing numbers of musicians want to get into it.

As Coldcut we took the techniques and aesthetic we developed with making music and applied it to visuals. So we started making pieces using sampling, processing and sequencing.

What have you learnt about the relationship between sound and vision?

We discovered that the relationship between sound and image is completely plastic. It’s totally flexible. So any sound and any image can be put together and by putting them together you create a relationship between them. There are obvious ways of doing this and less obvious ways as well. Sometimes for a rousing happy scene one might want a happy piece of music. Sometimes you want the opposite.

The challenge is that the relationship is so plastic and so open that the possibilities are enormous. So it can be quite difficult to zero in on what works.

How do composers get the gig?

Well musicians are generally experts in certain areas. That’s when people get you in for such a job. They often want to make use of your specific skills.

It’s taken quite a long time for the film industry to open up to the new generation of composers – to encourage those who’ve grown up with electronic music as their primary sort of style, rather than classical score writers. The Fight Club soundtrack by the Dust Brothers was a watershed soundtrack. It’s always shocked me that there wasn’t a more widespread pick up on these ideas afterwards but I think that’s happening now.

One of the ways in is to look at your strengths and why you’ve been commissioned to do this. Then take a good luck at the material and see what you get from it. You’ve got to get to the essence of what a piece of film or theatre is really about and play on that in an apt way.

I’m quite a novice in putting music to visuals but I really enjoy it. I also enjoy creating visuals for music because I do a lot of video editing. So creatively both sides are enormous fun.

What has been the biggest innovation for visual media?

The desktop studio has been a huge leap forward in enabling those who don’t have the resources to go into a huge recording studio. You can now do this on your desktop.

Programmes like Logic and Ableton enable you to play a video track and compose with that. It’s lovely to be able to have that right on your screen and scroll through your timeline and arrange things on top of it with direct reference to picture. In the old days you could do it but you’d have to go into a big studio and roll your tapes backwards and forwards. Having that in a digital form on your desktop is a fantastic break through.

Of course the internet also lets us collaborate. Right now I’ve got a young friend in St Petersburg who is shooting some footage for me at the summer palace. We’ve been communicating on Skype and I’ve been sending him some video links he should see to give him some reference points.

What about new areas composers can write music for?

Computer games are fast becoming the ultimate art form. As you incorporate music as a subset of film, you can incorporate film as a subset of computer games.

We did develop our own computer game with Hex back in 1989. It was called Top Banana. That was the era of Megablast with Bomb the Bass. They did a great soundtrack using eight-bit samples on these Amiga and Atari games and we had our own contender which was Top Banana. It used samples and sampled visuals. ID Mag described it as the ‘Sergeant Pepper of computer games’ which was a nice compliment.

Interactive is also an interest of mine. Music doesn’t have to be fixed. You can make an interactive soundtrack which can be different every time you play I, triggered by the actions of the player.

I’m playing with some of those ideas and thinking that rather than make an album I’d rather make an online, interactive audio visual world where your exploration creates what happens.

Our own Ninja Jamm is a free IOS app and is a good example of a new route through which musicians can sell, perform and distribute their music. There are not many things like Ninja Jamm currently around. Artists give us their stems and we put them into a set of clips, then add a bunch of alternative clips that work with them. This becomes a Tune pack which the user can play with themselves to perform and create their own remix.

I really enjoy composing for this. It’s an excellent challenge. Why not create an interactive remix rather than just a remix? You put your ideas in, you provide the set of music and other people can thread their way through this and explore it. It definitely signposts a new, under explored area.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m making remix packs and developing the software for Ninja Jamm so it has more function. I’m looking to open it up so other musicians can create their own packs and out their own samples together to use in the app.

I have done a couple of film pieces recently but my best work in the score area has been for a film called Etudes sur Paris from 1927. We just did a ten minute section. My first reaction was to chop the whole film up and put it back together again but the distributors were like ‘mais no, the integrity of the film is paramount’. And actually watching it, they were right.

We worked out a very improvised score and used this as the basis for a soundtrack which we went onto perform at the BFI in their film theatre. I’m hoping to do more of this because I absolutely love it.