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Belfast-born Max Cooper talks to Juno about his audio/visual project Emergence in which he explores the idea of natural laws and their creation of the world around us.

After combining his day job as a genetics researcher with DJing at night, Max then decided to focus primarily on his music, although as his latest work shows his scientific background never left him.

With Emergence, Cooper weaves together a fascinating auditory experience, ranging from a variety of atmospheric ambiance to full-on techno. This 11 track album is accompanied by visual art, using the idea of emergence as a metaphor which “is a very important idea in much of our understanding of the world around us, and within us,” Cooper tells Juno.

Emergence is Cooper’s second album since Human released in 2014. Here he talks us through the creative process around his unique surround sound project.

Interview with Max Cooper

Max Cooper

Your project is very much unique. Can you give our readers a brief description in your own words of what you were trying to achieve? What was the thought process behind it? And how long did it take to complete?

It’s been about 3 years in the making. I was just trying to bring together my interests in music, science and visual art into one project, so that I could work with interesting people on interesting ideas in the context of still making a living from electronic music. It started as a live AV show, but then as I delved in I realised it had a whole lot more legs creatively, so I decided to turn the music I was making for the visual show into a standalone album, and pursue bringing the whole thing together as a surround sound bluray/movie to finish.

You have collaborated with people outside the music industry such as animator Nick Cobby, mathematician Dugan Hammock, and visual artist Andy Lomas, were they music animators initially, how did you choose them and how did the collaboration work? Did you work with them individually? Collectively? How did they influence the finished product? Are there any other disciplines you would like to work with in future?

Nick came from more of a traditional animation background, whereas Andy and Dugan are mathematicians primarily. I was interested in presenting some real data for the show, as well as artistic interpretations of the ideas involved, so I found Dugan to help with visualisation of deep natural structures in the context of number theory and hyperdimensionality. Whereas Andy already had a career in generative art, and it was a fortuitous hookup with a mutual friend who spotted the potential overlap in interests. Now Andy and I are working on a new project which also fits into the Emergence story, creating a visualisation of DNA folding data. Science is full of beautiful things which aren’t presented as art, but could be. I want to change that, and it makes for rich visual content for the live shows and videos.

There were 20 or so different visual collaborators, and plenty of musical collaborators, across the project. The part forming the LP is only a portion of the whole thing. I found every collaborator based on their previous work, and spoke to each about the ideas and made suggestions of how their form of art could integrate into the overall story. But every collaboration worked differently, sometimes I was heavily involved throughout the creation process, sometimes they went away and came back with a finished product without needing much guidance at all, and sometimes we hammered out a long and painful road to the released format. The bottom line was getting the video content I was happy with, and everyone works differently, so I tried to work with them as best I could while still getting what I needed from each part to create the full story.

In terms of the music, sometimes it was created before the visual, sometimes after, sometimes in parallel. Where I created it before, I had in mind which part of the show and story it should fit into, and then briefed the visual artists according to that.

And yes, I’m interested in working with people from many different disciplines. The new label project, Mesh, set up for releasing Emergence is about exactly that. One of the other projects being a collab with Architects on a 3D light field installation called Aether, for example. I’m interested in how music can function as part of wider creative projects, and Mesh is set up for exploring these ideas.

Your latest work is a multi-sensory experience. How do you expect your album to translate without the visual and enhanced sound experience? For someone listening at home…

The visual show is 90 minutes, whereas the album is 60, and not all the content is identical, in the live performance vs recorded context. The album has been designed as a listening album that stands up in its own right, while being part of this larger project. Also in terms of the multi-sensory thing more specifically, the album has a lot of binaural recordings, simulated binaural effects, and a lot of work on spatial aspects. If you listen on headphones in particular, I have very much attempted to bring an enveloping spatial experience to the record, as I have been trying to do with my music productions for some years. Spatiality in sound makes that connection between music and visual art, in that spatial music has a physical identity, and can be experienced as something that seems to be out there around you in space. So even without the visual and surround sound systems around you, I still hope to be able to convey some of the same feelings and ideas.

I’ve been lucky to see your show in London (unfortunately it was a cut version), and you were talking about the last part which you described as an “apocalyptic messy” future. Do you have a pessimistic view on how humans and their interaction with technology affect the “beauty of nature and natural form”?

Yeah the story gets much darker when humans arrive and start messing things up and creating strange idealistic prisons for themselves to live in. But I’m an optimist overall, things may be messed up, but we’re killing each other a lot less than we did 200 years ago, and a lot less again than 1000 years ago, and so on – the trend is going in the right way even if there are a lot of bumps along the road. The part in the live show where humans are gone is so far into the future as to be unimaginable. In billions of years’ time, for example, when any living descendants would be impossible to recognise. So I’m not foretelling the end of the world in some sort of righteous rant, more the inevitable end of what we see as the world now. And it’s all just an audio/visual experience where I wanted to try and bring something more than it just looking nice, into a live music setting, there’s plenty of room for interpretation, I don’t like art when it’s too prescriptive in regards to how you should experience it.

You will be touring with this new album/project how long are you on tour and do you have any favourite venues?

I’ll probably tour this show into next year and then launch the next live show in the summer. In terms of favourite places to play, I have to say, for surround sound shows, Berghain nailed it – it’s often hard to translate surround sound to a club environment, as details can be lost, but they’ve got such huge sound there and we did a simple 6 channel surround, which translated really well. Another favourite would definitely be 4D Sound, now in Budapest. That’s the opposite end of the scale with 50 or so speakers/channels – it’s a subtle and amazingly detailed immersive audio experience like no other, because you can walk through the sounds, they don’t just come from the edges of the space. In terms of more mainly stereo sound events which are favourites, anything by Mutek is up there at the top for me. And events like Mira, Norberg, Decibel, Atonal, Glastonbury, LWE, NGHTDVSN, there are loads – I won’t even go into clubs, so many to mention, and it’s more the places and the people there who I look forward to playing to, rather than specific clubs.

Your work is very involved. How long does it take you to move on to other projects? Are you already thinking about your next collaboration? Next album?

Yeah I’m already thinking about and fiddling with ideas for two new albums. But before I can get stuck into that there are at least two big collaborative projects coming for the early part of next year, which are really exciting. I’ll need to focus on those towards the end of this year and into next year, and then get back into album after that. Each project can take a long time, so I run a few in parallel, with at any one time, one being the main focus and the other simmering, as I’m bad at multi-tasking.

Projects go best when the obsession kicks in and you can’t sleep until you’ve spewed out the ideas. So I try to work on whatever I’m most excited about, which makes planning difficult, but leads to the best result. It’s no good trying to communicate a particular idea musically when that’s not the mood you’re in. For me if it’s not an honest expression it ends up a crap piece of music. That’s part of the reason why I make so many different styles and moods of music, because like anyone, I experience all of those states of mind. I don’t understand how some artists are so focused with the style and feeling of their output. Maybe they have huge stockpiles of other forms of music they don’t release, or maybe they’re just darkroom angry or EDM party all the time. Or they can just make music to fit the category and it’s not an expression of feeling, which removes the main reason I make music – it’s some sort of urge to express things which can be hard to put into words. The DJing and performance part is secondary to that. Sorry I went off question a bit there!


Max Cooper - Waves (official video by Kevin McGloughlin)

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Reviewed this week
London's Max Cooper has stated that when he plays a live show, he likes to deconstruct the performance into fragments of sound on a granular level, paying meticulous attention to detail. For his Emergence live A/V (that he's been touring for the last two years), he applies these same principles to the visuals; using a variety of MIDI methods that are synced and allow him to manipulate both in realtime. It's the story of how "everything comes from (almost) nothing," using knowledge, theories and insights gained from his previous role as a geneticist. Cooper weaves a together a fascinating auditory experience here, his second album since 2014's Human, covering a variety of sonic moods in his now signature way. Take for instance "Trust" featuring the lovely vocals of Kathrin deBoer and a bit of help from good studio mate Tom Hodge; here jazzy drum and bass arrives via field recordings and classical aesthetics in wonderful harmony. Also, the deep, multi layered and ethereal journey track "Waves" sees Cooper on point, as usual, until "Cyclic" goes for something a bit more ferocious on this broken beat techno exercise where inventive use of sampling and sound design collide with perfect tension and suspense.
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