Max Cooper: Exploring Human Nature Through Machine Music
Original article here
The relationship between humans and technology in the realm of music has been a topic of debate since people started creating the first synthesisers back in the 1920s. Of course, things have moved on since the early days of Theremins and electronic organs, but with many musicians ditching bulky analogue synths for software that can recreate the same sounds on machines a fraction of the size and cost, this dynamic of human input and in-human output has only intensified. One artist who has contributed more than most to the conversation is Max Cooper, someone with a scientific and computational background that has applied this training and theories to the dance music he makes and plays.
His debut album – out on March 10th through the FIELDS label – is entitled Human and aims to take themes common to all of us and represent them in a musical form. But given the glitchy, robotic nature of his productions, this meeting of ideas and methods makes for an interesting combination. “I love that sort of complexity, on one level things are very simple, there’s generally one underlying structure, but then I love bringing in as much detail and variation as I can,” Cooper says. “It’s something that modern technology allows, computers mean you can to do things that you couldn’t do even 20 years ago; I enjoy hearing that detail complementing the standard musical approaches.”
Born in Belfast, he moved to Nottingham to study computational biology, while keeping his love of music alive by DJing at local clubs. “I was doing both at the same time and hoping that eventually one of them would eventually become something I could do as a job. I thought science was more realistic for most of the time, but in the end the music won out,” Cooper recalls. “There’s obviously links between the two, science and music are concerned with patterns, both in nature and in soundwaves. It’s not so direct though, I don’t use my science training to write music, but my research was all computer based, me sitting in from of a computer all day playing with some abstract system and trying to figure out how to manipulate and understand it better, and the way I write music is very similar, sitting in front of a computer and experimenting, trying to figure out what I can come up with.”
It was whilst doing a PhD at University College London that he started producing in earnest, gradually moving away from the hip hop turntablism that typified his earlier DJ sets, towards more abstract electronic and modern classical music. He lists the likes of Philip Glass, Max Richter and Nils Frahm alongside Autechre, Squarepusher, Jon Hopkins and James Holden as influences at the time. Gaining confidence from early releases on Evolved and Veryverywrongindeed, he sent a demo to legendary German label Traum Schallplatten, who put out his breakthrough Serie trio of EPs; each inspired by a different scientific or mathematical concept. These led to remix work for the likes of Hot Chip and Au Revoir Simone, collaborations with composers Michael Nyman, Nils Frahm and Tom Hodge, and lauded re-edits of classics from Sasha and FC Kahuna.
“I had the concept for the album three years ago, or maybe more, but I didn’t want to rush it, I wanted to let it come together naturally,” says Cooper. “I had lots of other projects on anyway, EPs, remixes, lots of touring. It’s only in the last year I have really started working on it, I made about double the amount of tracks on the album, so I mixed it all around, tried to sequence it properly.” Coming from his background as a DJ, the artistry of properly sequencing a set or album to be listened to as a whole was particularly important. “I put a lot of work into that side of the album, trying to make something which is not necessarily an easy listen, or that is really smooth throughout, but that has sequence and hopefully in the end should be more than the sum of its parts.”
Cooper admits to no real musical training – bar a few years of unhappy violin lessons – but believes that a passion for music and a lot of hard work is what has got him to where he is now. “Technology now means that you don’t need to know musical theory, have classical training, or own all these instruments, you can just sit down at a computer and as long as you’re willing to put enough work into it – I’m not saying it’s easy – and you’re passionate about it, then you can make music,” he argues. “My approach to music has always been to do it by feeling, I sit down with a rough concept or feeling that I’m trying to communicate, then play around and see what matches my internal state.”
“When you listen to music it’s very much a subconscious processing of sound, there’s lots of complex statistical data and information that everyone gets from sound wave, but that’s not something you’re aware of, your brain processes it and it makes you feel a certain way. That’s very much the same level at which I approach making the music, I come to the composition process as much as a listener as a composer, probably because I don’t know musical theory that well, and again, that’s something that modern computers allow for.”
The first part of a European album tour is already underway, with Cooper’s stage setup currently consisting of Ableton on his laptop, an AKAI APC40 controller and the Liine Lemur software on his iPad. This gives him the ability to play and manipulate the circa 200 tracks he’s made, with no restrictions on selection or sequence. “I never pre-plan, I turn up and see what the vibe is, approaching it with a DJ perspective. At the end of the day, people coming to see me need to have a good time, that’s the most important thing,” Cooper comments, although he isn’t ruling out a proper live show that runs through album tracks with vocalists and instrumentation at a later date.
Experiments in live performance have already been made in conjunction with the Dutch 4D Sound Group, creating a four dimensional, interactive sound system to play his productions through. Debuting last August in Amsterdam, the grid of 48 omni-directional speakers let him physically move sound around the space, and Cooper says there are plans to bring the rig to the UK later this summer. “Where my DJ sets are more obvious, and I’m working on the macro scale, a lot of the traditional live electronic musicians are working on the micro scale, so it’s not so obvious what they’re doing,” Cooper adds.
This collaboration is one of several examples of Cooper’s workaholic tendencies. “I’ve always got way more projects on than I can really manage, lots of ideas flying around,” he says, listing further work with Tom Hodges to develop another form of live concert show, along with plans to exchange work with visual artists, building on the already vibrant YouTube community of people creating homemade videos for his tracks. “I’m doing some more projects that look at the interaction between the two, so I will give them a piece of music and they use that to make a piece of visual art, then they give me a piece of visual art and I use that to make some music,” he ventures, before professing plans for multiple future albums. “I’ve started working on the next album already, Human is quite a home listening album, so I think I’ll probably follow it up with something that’s a bit more club compatible, and I’m also thinking ahead to the third album; so there’s lots going on.”