Feature Music & Film

Max Cooper: Creating Infinite Worlds of Awe and Wonder

As an audio-visual artist with a science PhD and an international reputation as a leading electronic musician, Max Cooper straddles a range of worlds in which he looks to create work that resonates emotionally and sensorially, often focusing on our place in the universe. With the release of his 6th studio album Unspoken Words, he has delved even deeper into the mysteries that fuel our imaginations in an attempt to communicate the unfathomable through music and visuals often inspired by the world of film. We caught up with Cooper to discuss his process, the importance of collaboration and the value of ‘daydreaming’ to creativity.

Gabriel Solomons: Can you can tell me a little bit about the origin of the Unspoken Words project. What you were looking to achieve with it and whether you feel you have?

Max Cooper: I took an approach of starting from this pure idea of expression. So each piece of music was just me trying to express something that felt very clear emotionally and musically. And then building from there, adding the scientific ideas and the music videos afterwards which is the reverse of the way I usually do things. So I think as a result, this album has a slightly different feel. It wasn’t so much about exploring new techniques as with previous albums. A lot of the previous albums had been built in a way where the techniques were defined by the concepts, whereas this time it doesn’t have loads of new synthesis techniques. I approached it from this different angle, which was, I’m just gonna’ sit down, ask ‘how am I feeling today?’ and then ‘how can I express that?’ ‘what does it mean’, you know, trying to just be as pure as possible.

GS: As a film and film music enthusiast, the reason that I was drawn to your work is obviously the visual aspect and the way that you bring a cinematic atmosphere to the music through the people that you collaborate with. From that visual arts perspective, who do point to as your early influences and do you think visually when you create your music?

MC:Yeah, absolutely. I mean, a lot of the albums I’ve done have visual ideas as the starting point. Emergence and Yearning for the Infinite for example, both those albums really start with visual ideas, structures and aesthetics, and then my thinking is, ‘okay, how do I build a piece of music to fit this?’ I’ll then write the ideas up and send the music with the brief to visual artists that I know can deliver that visual aesthetic. With Transcendental Treemap, for example, I already had a still image by the artist that I’d scored to and later commissioned, effectively saying to him let’s work together to turn this still into an animation. And even with Unspoken Words, when I was starting with the music first, I was always thinking that every piece of music has a sort of structural aesthetic that lends itself to a visual approach. It’s hard to explain but each piece of music is like a dynamic spatial entity with these interlocking parts. And each part has to interact with the other parts, and they also move together – so that sort of abstract way of thinking about music immediately lends itself to visual interpretations.

Spectrum / video by Christian Stangl

For the song Spectrum, for example, I had this simple riff on the Prophet Six, which was full of emotion, but it was very speckled. I couldn’t really define it in terms of a positive or a negative thing. It was like taking this spectrum of emotions and then sampling little bits out from different places; some negative, some positive. And it’s this complex sampling of this emotional parameter space. So that’s why I called it Spectrum. And then I thought, how do I link that to the visual realm? Obviously, you’ve got the color spectrum, so I started thinking that we need a video where we’re sampling the color spectrum. Christine Stangl did this beautiful thing with crystals, firing light into them which provided a sort of metaphor for the piece of music. So when I’m making the music I’m always thinking about the visual counterparts; the conceptual ideas like the one for Spectrum, but also the literal ideas about how sharp or jagged the pieces of music are… how raw or rounded, how the music develops… and all of this has to map quite precisely to the visual to make it feel like it fits. That sort of stuff is always going on in the background from having worked with visual artists for years. It’s very ingrained now into the way I think when I’m making music.

GS: The video for Small Windows on the Cosmos reminded me of the work done by Douglas Trumbull for Terence Malik’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, which was very conceptual yet epic in scope – similar in a way to work he did for Stanley Kubrick on 2001 – creating the effects for the stargate sequence. These aren’t narrative stories, per se, but they seem to be aligned quite well to your thinking and your background in science; a more conceptual thinking process that uses visual metaphor to evoke certain ideas. I see that in the visuals that you choose, whether it’s a dancer, industrial technology, or whether it’s even language – breaking those things apart.

Small Windows on the Cosmos / Video by Thomas Vanz

“The thing that came out from this album was a deep rooted desire to try and escape the confines of the system that we’re existing in. Sometimes our brains don’t behave the way we want them to, and I use music as a treatment for that.”

MC: It’s funny, on this album I started off with the idea of trying to express myself and trying to be pure to that. And as I began analyzing each piece, the visual story turned into this sort of narrative of self-expression. So the Dolby Atmos Blu-Ray version has a narrative that there’s this ever developing mechanism of self-expression, starting from basic physical expression with the dancer and then, later, through a model of reality; being able to imagine surreal, unreal spaces, and then going into self-expression through language and the limitations of that and eventually transcendence, essentially trying to go beyond what we know. And actually, Small Window on the Cosmos is the ending point of it, where in the narrative, in terms of our self-expression, we’ve totally transcended the human body and sort of escaped back into the universe and are no longer constrained by the system of the ‘meat’ machine. It’s funny, when I do an album, I always learn a lot and grow and sort of develop through the research and writing process. The thing that came out from this album was this deep rooted desire to try and escape the confines of the system that we’re existing in. Sometimes our brains don’t behave the way we want them to, and I use music as a treatment for that.

GS: In the album’s liner notes you mention something about feeling like you are compelled to create. When did you first realize this, and what do you think – process wise – has helped you turn that creative compulsion into a career? Because that doesn’t happen for everyone does it?

MC: I mean it was just a passion. It was a hobby that I was lucky enough to turn into a job. I just worked really, really hard on music and I was able to start touring and making a living from it. But it wasn’t easy, I just worked my ass off; working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for years and years, just hammering away, and learning to produce. But what I think is more important is the drive for self-expression, which again, links to this idea of the Unspoken Words album, and this sort of mental escape from the human body. We’re all trying to communicate what it is to be human. And I think so much of art and music is about that. I was on the train from New York to Philadelphia a couple of days ago, and I was just looking out the window and saw miles and miles of graffiti. And so why do people do graffiti, right? We’re trying to take something of ourselves and make a mark and express the conundrum of the human condition. I’m not great with words. I can talk about scientific ideas, but if you want me to explain how something feels, what does it actually feel like to be me experiencing something, I can’t do that with words, but I can do that with music. So that’s why I turned to music as my means of self-expression and that’s why the album’s called Unspoken Words. It’s me trying to say what I can’t say!

Photo by Lynford James / @eljaybriss

“I’m not great with words. I can talk about scientific ideas, but if you want me to explain how something feels, what does it actually feel like to be me experiencing something, I can’t do that with words, but I can do that with music.”

GS: I was thinking about the song Broken Dreams Broken Machines which deals with these ideas of humans being intrinsically connected to a mechanized world. It brought to mind electronic composers like a Aphex Twin, Bjork, and also filmmakers like Jonathan Glazer, and Chris Cunningham, who were commenting on the potentially frightening proliferation of technology into all aspects of lives in the early 1990s. For a lot of people, it was challenging work but they were dealing with this whole idea of technology overwhelming us and how we were dealing with that. So I was just thinking, as you are a musician that uses different forms of technology in the creation of your music and you make a commentary on it to a certain degree on the album, how would you describe your relationship with technology? How do you find that balance in terms of your use of it and your feelings about technology?

MC: Yeah, it’s interesting, I mean, I feel very deterministic. As in, I have free will, in the sense that my neural networks can decide what they want to do. And I’m my neural networks, but I can’t decide to do what my neural networks don’t want to do. I’m totally deterministic, I’m a slave to the system in my head. But I also think that the more we learn about biology and neuroscience, and the more we develop technology, the closer everything’s going towards the same point in the middle. So I don’t think there will ultimately be a difference between technology and biology. We’re looking at an explosion of artificial intelligence happening at the moment. These systems can already more or less pass the Turing test, in the sense that you can’t tell that you’re chatting to a human or not. Technology is starting to become very biological, in a lot of ways; it makes mistakes in weird ways and we don’t really understand how it works, but they’re behaving like that because we’ve built AI systems to emulate biology. So my understanding of the way life works, again, is very mechanistic.

My PhD was on simulating how your gene networks inside the cell behave exactly like a computer; how the genes regulate their own expression, that you’re switching other genes on and off to behave in algorithms to solve problems. So there’s literally little computers inside every cell doing all these jobs which is really analogous. Obviously, the system is a bit different, but for me it’s really clear that everything’s beginning to merge in the middle. So my relationship with technology is similar to my relationship with nature, I guess, I think there’s a lot of beauty on both sides. A lot of the visuals in my gigs are showing traditional beauty in nature, but then merging that with mechanization. I’m trying to draw that parallel, but I don’t think it’s a scary thing for what it means for us. I think it’s an exciting time and I’d love to be able to live for 1000 years to see what happens!

Broken Dreams Broken Machines / Video by Optical Arts

GS: There’s lots of debate and discussion about creative ownership circling around AI at the moment. What are your thoughts about where shared ownership begins and individual authorship ends?

MC: Yeah, there are a lot of issues around ownership and AI, but I often refer to the academic model, where everyone builds on everyone else’s work. There’s a system in place for referencing, essentially. And there’s no reason we can’t have automated referencing systems in place for AI. It’d be great if you could list the percentage that it seeded with particular reference points, so that it goes back to the original artists so that people can see the sources, if they’re interested in seeing them. That sort of system, I think, would be helpful. But for me, again, there’s a flip side of that as I’m experimenting with it musically, and I’m excited about it as I’m looking forward to seeing what can be done. But in the visual realm, at least, the way I’ve been working with it so far is to think about, how can I do something that I could never do without this system? So it’s not about using it to try and make work that looks really cool, It’s more about how can this deliver something that I couldn’t access otherwise? But yeah, it’s a minefield, and it’s good to chat about and good that people are debating, and just hammering out trying to figure out how we want to use these things and how we should put the systems in place.

Exotic Contents / Video by Xander Steenbrugge

GS: With the availability for the technology to produce quick results, often with minimal effort it raises this issue about hard work, because you said you had to work really hard for a really long time to produce something of meaning and something of value. So there’s sometimes a value judgment based on the idea of effort. Because all the people that you work with as filmmakers, they can’t just do what they do in five seconds; there may now be shortcuts available, but you still have to understand the system, build the framework and create the actual ‘thing’.

MC: Yeah, exactly, it’s funny how we value the toil right? I guess it’s a human thing. Like, we know that if someone put themselves through the grinder to make something for us, then we appreciate it. One thing with all of this, which might be a positive, is that the music and art become more about human communication and the substance behind it, rather than the surface material because the AI systems can do the surface material pretty convincingly. So it’ll be interesting if art and music turns more towards what is it that someone’s trying to say, rather than just ‘is this a club banger?’ and ‘does this look cool?’ If it pushes us to go deeper, then that’s actually a great thing for art because that’s what art is about. A lot of my shows could just be seen as trippy visuals in inverted commas, you know, and you can describe the whole thing like that, and that’s fine. But I like having the opportunity for people to interact with it. But I think the AI thing may push us into deeper realms in terms of the way people interact with the arts, which could be a nice thing, or else everyone’s gonna lose their jobs, and we’ll all be destitute!

GS: How does travel influence your creativity as I imagine with the amount of travel that you do, it’s quite disorienting, because you’re in different places and different time zones all the time. What are the pros and cons of being a touring artist?

MC: There’s a lot of pros, and there’s a lot of cons. For me, at least, I love being immersed in different cultures; seeing the way life works in different countries and meeting people – seeing what makes them tick and how they interact with what I do and what drives them. Obviously, playing shows is a lot of fun as well, you’ve got this pure adrenaline rush and the excitement which is great. But the other thing that is really helpful for me is, I get a lot of my ideas for projects whenever I’m traveling, because it’s one of the few few times when I get to sit and no one’s messaging me and there’s nothing specific I need to do. I have daydreaming time which has always been really important for my process. I remember when I was a kid at school, probably like six or seven years old and they thought I was deaf. Because I would just sit in class and the teacher would ask me something, and I just wouldn’t hear them because I was daydreaming. So I’d go and have my hearing tested and they were like ‘no, your hearing’s working’.

Also, being in the studio is so fucking hectic most of the time, so traveling gives me a bit of aimless time where ideas pop into my head and I’ll just make a note. So I’ve just got loads of notes, and all these ideas and thoughts. And those are what I draw on when it comes to putting together an album because most of the work’s already in there. I always find that you don’t necessarily need to create something, you just need to pull out what’s already in your head – there’s all these thoughts going on slightly behind the main consciousness and those thoughts are full of ideas – it’s just trying to pull them out. So yeah, that’s really helpful with traveling.

The difficult part of travelling is just the physical exhaustion and emotional excitement of doing gigs, with the adrenaline and no time to sleep and you’re totally exhausted. You’ve got to get up and catch the next flight when you’re really drained. Then you get really stressed and stuff’s not working so smoothly and it’s all falling apart a bit. After a while, especially if I’m away for a few weeks, I always notice that I start to lose stuff – my brain just starts to melt down and I think it’s not particularly healthy. Obviously the other thing I find after a long tour, when I do finally get home, is that I feel terrible for like a week or two. I’m just really drained.

Photo by Lynford James / @eljaybriss

“I get a lot of my ideas for projects whenever I’m traveling, because it’s one of the few times when no one’s messaging me and there’s nothing specific I need to do. I have daydreaming time which has always been really important for my process.”

GS: Are there any particular film soundtracks that you love, or film composers that you really rate?

MC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I love Ben frost. He’s, great. He did the music for the series Dark, and the film The Revenant. One of the major influences for me, both visually and in terms of the score was Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggion, 1982), with a Philip Glass and Michael Hoenig score. I watched that when I was like 15 or 16. It was one of those moments where I was like, well, you can do this; this is a thing you can just make at home; this beautiful study of humans and the world and all these important ideas, with this epic nonstop soundtrack and no narration. And I was like, Okay, this is it, you know. So ultimately everything I’ve done since then has been, how do I do this? The challenges of doing feature films require these huge budgets, and I don’t have those huge budgets. So for me, it’s like, what can I afford to do? How can I commission people and what can I manage? But that’s the sort of thing I’m aiming towards in the long term.

GS: It’s interesting you say that as looking at the collaborations you’ve done with the McLaughlin brothers on ‘Swarm’ and ‘Repetition’, made me think a lot of Koyaanisqatsi, but they also brough to mind Tziga Herzog’s Man with A Movie Camera with it’s chronicle of life; the idea of the world in a day. It must be such a great experience for you to be able to work at that level where you can collaborate with these people who are at the top of their game in terms of what they do. Just the amount of work that seems to go into some of those visual outcomes is just unbelievable.

MC: Yeah, you can really see that graft in Kevin and Patrick McLaughlin’s work. Sometimes people say to me, there’s no way they did that by hand! They think that it’s an automated system, but they actually do it all by hand using stills and so that you can really feel the human element in these beautiful pieces of their visual art. So yeah, it’s amazing and a real honor to get to work with those guys on so many projects.

GS: Are you interested in doing soundtracks for films?

MC: I have done that with a few short films; ‘Swarm’ was one of those projects. Another project was ‘Contour’ that I did with Wow Inc Tokyo. Again they got in touch and wanted me to score this beautiful, short film they’d made. So I think, for me, it’s just a matter of it being the right thing that fits and one where the director allows me to be me. I’ve only ever been me in terms of my process. The odd time when I’ve tried to do something where I’m trying to work to a spec that’s a bit more restrictive, I’ve really struggled. So the short answer is yes, I’d love to do a film but it would have to be the right opportunity that came along.

Photo by Lynford James / @eljaybriss

GS: Lastly, what still has the power to make you awestruck?

MC: Awe is quite central idea to what I do. There was this commission to do something for the cop 26 Meet in Glasgow. And the idea was that Trump and Putin and Boris Johnson… they were all going to sit down, and listen to this piece of music, and watch this, sort of abstract environmental awareness type of project, and I had to write a soundtrack for that, and I was like, Okay, well, how do I make these people escape their egos and feel like they’re a small part of a bigger system, as opposed to the big controllers? I needed to create something with this experience of awe and this incomprehensible scale, and so that’s where the piece of music Small Window on the Cosmos came from. And it fit. It actually didn’t get used for that purpose in the end. We still did the cop 26 video but they used a different piece of music. The world leaders didn’t have to sit and listen to it, which was a shame, but it got used anyway. It was a nice project. The Pope did some narration as did Greta Thunberg plus all these celebs did little bits of vocals in there, which was great. But then I was left with a piece of music that I’d written for a really specific purpose, but I was like, well, this fits perfectly into the Unspoken Words project; you know, this is me trying to communicate something that I can’t put into words; this feeling of Awe and scale.

For the video Thomas Vans did an eye looking out into this beautiful universe, on a huge scale. And the other one I’d mention in terms of Awe would be Yearning for the Infinite, where the whole concept of the album was how do I create aesthetics relating to the infinite? And how do I create that visually, and then map that musically? And how do I create these images which, by definition, are on this huge scale and which for me, are like the substance that creates awe? So I use the idea of awe as a tool a lot.

So much of what I do starts from scientific ideas that give me this experience of awe, and then using that as a tool musically. I know the feeling, but I can’t deterministically make it. I’m just trying to discover that ‘thing’ and then find ‘okay, yeah, that’s the thing that gives me that feeling’ and then they’re matched up. So awe is a really, really useful tool if I want to make something beautiful and epic, and something that really captures me emotionally, then awe is one of my go to ideas.

Max’s new album Unspoken Words can be explored here

By Gabriel Solomons

Gabriel's earliest cinematic memory was believing a man could fly in Richard Donner's original (and best) Superman. Following numerous failed attempts at pursuing a career as a caped crusader (mild vertigo didn't help), he subsequently settled down into the far safer – but infinitely less exciting – world of editorial design. A brief stint at the Independent newspaper in London sharpened his skills but cemented his desire to escape the big smoke forever, choosing to settle in the west country. He set up the arts and culture magazine 'Decode' in 2003 and currently edits and art directs the Big Picture magazine. When asked by mates what his favourite film is he replies The Big Lebowski while when in the presence of film afficianados he goes all poncy and says Fellini's 8 1/2.

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