Max Cooper talks about his latest album, bringing scientific ideas into music, his passion for video art, ways of visualizing the infinite and other interesting things
Max Cooper has always stood apart from most popular DJs and electronic music producers. His music couldn’t be clearly categorized and marked with some understandable for the masses cliché. His approach is based on a lot of musical influences and on his scientific background as well.
Studying genetics and system biology at university has made a large impact on Max Cooper’s art. His impressive shows, which he plays all over the world at big festivals and some of the top clubs, are full of scientific ideas. These scientific concepts, plus his passion for video art and emotional electronic music turns each of Max Cooper’s performance into a unique and unforgettable audiovisual experience.
Max Cooper’s latest album “Yearning for the Infinite” was specially created on its base visuals and, for now, is the quintessence of his practices in bringing global messages into the art by linking music, science and video art together.
We had a chance to talk with Max Cooper about the underlying themes of his latest album, the way he visualizes the infinite, his works in the field of audiovisual installations, musical influences, favorite places to perform and many other interesting things.
Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov
Hi Max! You have just made a great new album “Yearning for the Infinite”, which is a really big and serious conceptual work complemented by stunning and impressive videos for each track and also has a special visual content when played live. Can you please tell us a bit about this work and its main idea and message?
This work was a commission from the Barbican Art & Music Centre in London. They commissioned me to do a piece with the main theme being around new technologies and their impact on society, especially things such as fintech and machine learning. They sent me their brief and asked me to come up with a project idea for a show and for an album. I tried to take the main idea of showing the results of the technological advance and how humans endlessly pursue things like wanting more money or their football team to win or to achieve some things – this endless need for growth and pursuing of goals which are the characteristics of the western culture. These are the main underlying aspects of this work.
I tried to boil them down into a visual format and to do different kinds of visualizations of these aspects of human nature and blend them visually. I worked on it with different video artists as well as with some scientists and mathematicians. And I also worked with cinematographers on images of people doing typical city-life things like driving to work and mixed them with some infinite visualization.
I tried to tell the story in “Yearning for the Infinite” about human nature and modern life by using abstract visual forms. I started it with creating a story, I wrote a lot of chapters and then I found a lot of visual artists with whom I worked on the content. Then I scored the music for these chapters and for the visuals. In the end, it all came together as a special visual show with many screens around the audience. I tried to make this infinite factor stronger by using different surfaces for visuals and resulted in ‘wrapping’ the audience which made things really intense.
Can you tell us a bit about the people who helped you to make this project happen?
Kevin McGlouhin and Patrick McGlouhin have done some great videos. Martin Kryziwinski, Andrew Loman are the mathematicians who helped in visualizing the chapters with mathematical art.
Also, I was working with my long-time collaborator Nick Cobby. He did some beautiful shootings from a drone of Mexico City. Mimo Actin did a visual for the chapter based on machine learning, he used a system that was finding similarities between thousand of images of spaces and landscapes and linked and morphed them together.
There were a bunch of different approaches; every chapter had a different attempt to visualize the infinite and people’s place within the system in which we exist. It was really a fun project.
It would be interesting to know what was coming first to your mind when you were working on it – the music, story or visuals?
The story came first. The starting point was an idea about the link between the infinite and human nature. Then I did a lot of reading and research and the story started to take shape. After the story came up, visual ideas started to form, I wrote these visual ideas in a text and started to create this imaginary visual story in my head. I began to chat with different visual artists about bringing these ideas into life and turning them into real videos. So the ideas came first, then the visuals and the music was last.
Can we say that this conceptual approach in bringing some messages and backbone ideas into the albums is more or less your trademark?
Yes, around 10 years ago I started experimenting with different ways of integrating ideas with music. I studied science for many years before I was doing music and I still really enjoyed reading different scientific and philosophical works and I also really loved visual art as well. So, I was really interested in putting together my passions for science, music and visuals. The first album (when I started to talk with scientists to bring the scientific base to the visuals) was “Emergence”. It was such a fun and rewarding process that I decided from that moment to follow this path.
I think nature is inherently beautiful and science is a process of studying nature. So, when you are making these science-based videos they tend to be really beautiful too and they provide really great abstract visuals for the show. And the audience doesn’t really have to know about this stuff and to care about these ideas, they just see something that is really beautiful. For me, I’m just having a lot of fun in this process of studying these ideas and linking my music to these visuals.
Do you think that this multidisciplinary approach, when you have a visual story combined with scientific ideas that are an indispensable part of the show, is a growing tendency and in some ways a path of future development of electronic music and contemporary art?
Yes, it seems that a lot of people are doing a lot of cool stuff linking music, visual aspect and technologies. It is a really nice way to work and the technologies we have now are giving us the ability to do it. I think this approach will continue to develop and there will be more people that will be involved in it in the future.
It would be interesting to know about your scientific base which helps you to get the ideas that you express in music. What have you studied?
I studied genetics and then I went to systems biology – a discipline that is based on simulating the evolution of G-networks in order to study how every little cell in our bodies and in the body of every living being has a kind of computer inside, with its own working algorithms, which tells the cell how to respond to the environment and how it has to behave. This could be comparable to the same kind of computer algorithms that we have inside our phones that respond to us when we press buttons. I researched how these systems can evolve.
This was really interesting and I miss this work and this is why I started to work with scientists in order to bring these ideas into my music. Actually, all these scientific ideas are in the visuals for my show, you can see them there. But musically these links are not as strong. If you put too much data into music, it becomes less musical. Music has to be stricter in terms of sounding musical to us, so these scientific concepts are expressed mostly in a visual form. Musically I still express myself emotionally and intuitively. I still write music like anyone else and express my emotions and feelings in it. So there are both sides of each piece of music and each visual idea. Sometimes the scientific idea in the things I do becomes a kind of thing that we hear about more, but actually, the human side of it is still very important and even probably is the most important part. It is still traditional music, I want to clarify that.
Besides making music and your own show, you have been involved in creating impressive audio-visual installations like “Behavior Morphe” that you made with Zaha Hadid Architects and “Aether” with Architecture Social Club. Do you have any new plans in this field?
Well, I can say that the latest work in this field is the audio-visual show for the new album. I developed a new visual system for this show, projecting the visuals on many surfaces with a 3D effect.
We presented “Aether” just last week in Glasgow and are going to show it at Mutek Festival in Mexico in just a few weeks too. This project is under development. It is a beautiful light field installation with a 3D hologram effect and thousands and thousands of points of light which move around. There is a lot of potential for a development of “Aether” as it is absolutely new and a different type of visual experience when the visual installation fits around the audience rather than far away from it, somewhere on stage. I’m really interested in making these types of events when the audience becomes part of the experience and is inside it. Actually, I use this type of approach in my new live show too and think that it gives a person a way more engaging feeling.
Are you bringing this visual now to each show that you are doing? Or only to a live one rather than to a DJ set?
I sometimes do a combination of my DJ set with a vj, I’ve done it a couple of times. But it’s quite rare. Mostly the visual content comes with a live show. And I don’t DJ so much these days and am trying to concentrate more on live shows this year.
You have a wide portfolio of different kinds of musical works – a lot of remixes and a kind of dance-oriented techno, more kind of academic stuff like the interpretations of Philip Glass that you have done and your conceptual albums that always touch on some global themes and contain powerful messages. It would be interesting to know how your musical taste was shaped over the years – what were the early influences and how did your musical preferences develop?
My mum was a piano teacher and I always had a classical piano in my background during my childhood. I didn’t learn to play the piano, although now I wish I could, but at that point in my childhood I decided that it was not cool.
My older sister was very into electronic music and introduced me to different synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode and New Order when I was around 12 years old.
At the end of the 90s, I discovered the rave scene and started to go to clubs. I moved from Ireland to Nottingham in 1999 to study at the university and got really into break-bit and drum’n’bass music and later to funk hip-hop. Then, I got a residency in a techno club where I formed my passion and taste for techno and developed my DJing style. All the way through I loved ambient music as well.
These are all the main influences that formed my musical world. When I later moved to London and started to release my music, it became a fusion of all these influences, this is why it spreads so far. But primarily the string that holds all it together is my passion for chords and chord progression and a kind of emotional sound that can deliver the feeling that I want. For me, it is more important in this term of feeling than in things like the BPM or the genre.
I’m free in these terms and can express myself in different kinds of ways.
Since your first steps in music, you have toured a lot and been to different parts of the world with your show. Do you have some favorite places where you like to perform most of all?
There are some places where I definitely get a really nice response. For example especially in Tokyo, Mexico City and Moscow. These three cities are really my favorite ones. But sometimes something really great happens at places that you don’t really know and don’t know what to expect from them and suddenly you get a nice response.
Have you ever had a chance to perform in Andorra or somewhere nearby in the Pyrenees area?
Yes, I played in Andorra a few years ago at the festival Electrosnow. It was nice. The only thing I can complain about was that the way back down the mountains was via a very windy road and it was not the most pleasant after the little hangover I had after party!
We really hope to see you some again at some events in Andorra or somewhere in the Pyrenees soon and thank you for this interesting conversation.
Thank you very much.