Interview – Max Cooper

Interview – Max Cooper

Alex Nelson joins scientist-turned-musician Max Cooper for a chat about how art and science collide in his latest work.

[AN] You have a bit of a different background than most musicians, which has led to your recent projects bringing together both scientific and artistic practices. Can you tell me a bit more about how that came about?

[MC] I don’t really have much musical training. I certainly had a lot of music around when I was a child – my mum was a piano teacher so every time I came home from school there’d be piano lessons going on in the background – so I’m sure that had some influence. I played the violin a little bit when I was a kid. The violin is a really useful instrument, like the cello, where you have to learn to tune every note yourself so it gives you an intuitive understanding of pitch and tuning. I’m sure that was a useful tool but I certainly don’t have any real usable training past the childhood experiences.

My real background is in genetics. I was always had good biology teachers when I was a kid and so often the good teachers can influence your decisions when you’re deciding A levels and degrees. I was interested in the theory and the maths and the programming in this more technical, more quantitative side of bioscience, so I went into computational biology which is making computer simulations of biological systems.

I did my PHD and my post-doc, then wanted to do my own research rather than following someone else’s ideas, but ultimately ran out of funding. At the same time I was also deep into writing music and DJing, and all of a sudden found myself accidentally earning my living from music rather than from science. So then I thought “well I’ll give it a go full time” because that’s what where my money’s coming from, so I may as well just focus some energy into that and it just ballooned into something. That was about seven or eight years ago, and I’ve been doing music full time since then.

But I was still reading a lot of science and thinking about those ideas, as well as arts and music. I knew that if I couldn’t somehow integrate that side of me into the music that I wouldn’t be happy going forward – I wouldn’t be happy just DJing and writing club music. I wanted to try and be able to bring all my interests together, and  the more I started looking at that more the more fruitful became – it just kept opening doors creatively. When I started thinking about how can I take a scientific idea and put it into a music video then make a piece of music around that it pushed me in new directions directions.

They weren’t always very club oriented tracks but I get that and that’s fine – I’m interested in writing music for home listening as well as for live environments. I’m just delving into it more and more, and there’s a lot of doors opening in terms of collaborating with scientists and using data from it for visuals – collaborating with artists and architects, and that’s just the start.

Having work that’s so tied up in these complex concepts, I’m really intrigued about how you event start a project. Does it come from the scientific theme or purely from the music?

It works in many different ways – there’s no single way I do these things. Sometimes I’ll have the theme or idea straight away and start thinking about how I can make it musical, and sometimes I’m just sitting down playing with my synths – just really aimlessly playing and that’s important.

I spend a lot of time playing with techniques, just messing around and building up a whole range of different melodies and chords and ideas into a palette that becomes my tool box. There has to be some time just working on the those fundamental building blocks of music and just having a whole load of that stuff ready to go, because one of the difficulties is that writing music can take a long time – especially if using a new piece of software or a new technique. Sometimes if you’ve got a concept in your mind you can get distracted by the fact that you’re spending hours and days trying actually trying to figure out this new technique.

Really its best to have those two different phases – one where you’re working on the techniques and your palette, and the other  where you’re tying in these bigger ideas and how you can build those ideas from the types of sound and palette that you like.

Thinking about how these concepts integrate with your music – what role does scientific data play in the composition of your music?

You can map data into music but it’s generally not that productive to take a scientific data set and actually represent it sonically. You get a bit of a mess usually because what we define as music is such a constrained thing, there’s a lot of rules that need to be followed in order for something to be viable as music, and even more so westernized music, and even more so a sub genre of that. The chances of getting a data set which you can feed in and make something musical, that’s slim.

Generally the mapping of the music to the data is more of a creative tool – I can create forms musically using different concepts and different feelings, and it works on that level rather than an explicit mapping from one to the other. A more direct mapping happens in some of the visuals to my music, like the new Chromos project (AN: Below) where what you see is real D.N.A. structural data which shows how these molecules are forming out of all of these strings. And that’s all real data and it’s really beautiful.

What about generative music? How much do you let an algorithm influence the final creative product?

I’ve been working with a software developer to build a new tool that will aid part of the musical creation process, and it does create really interesting results. I certainly use generative approaches musically, every time I write music I’m always setting up these systems of chaos inside my production – I’m setting up a lot of parameters randomizing and pushing one another around. I only partially know what’s going to happen when I press play and that’s really important for the way I work. It’s a matter of using the machine to be able to do some exploration of its own but then giving it tight enough boundaries so that I know the result is still going to be vaguely musical.

Tell me more about your process – how does an idea develop for you?

I work by intuition – I know what what works for me and what doesn’t work for me, and generally I always have the feeling in mind that I’m trying to find. When I’m at work writing a piece of music at quite an early stage I know where I’m going with it and I can feel the right place, but then it’s a matter of me finding that.

It sounds weird, but it’s like the Platonic realm of these perfect forms where the ideas exist outside of the physical world, and I’m trying to bring them into it – the ideas are already there and as soon as I hit on something I can hear a more formed musicality in there. And then I’m just trying to search and fiddle with everything until I can find that structure.

I’m very much applying my intuitive feelings on what my identity is musically, and I think I do have a fairly consistent melodic form because of that. Not that what I do is  super experimental melodically – generally I’ve got pleasing chord progressions and melodies, I don’t push them a lot into seriously unusual scales or forms. Someone like Plaid, for example, who have really unusual logic structures, who also sound very much like them. With music it’s all about finding your identity and trying to put into who you are and what your influences are and put your soul, if want to call it that, into the music.

Obviously I can never say how it’s interpreted by outside listeners because music is totally subjective, however I hope that they manage to translate some of the feelings that I put into it, despite music being such an imprecise medium of communication

And do you think this differs much from someone from a traditional musical background?

The important thing was whenever I listened to a piece of music was that it could make me feel something really strong. I have a very emotional connection to music and I always did find it to be a very powerful influence on my feelings – now all you need is a computer to make it.

If the computer didn’t exist then I wouldn’t have been able to learn or make music the way I taught myself to. All you need is a feeling about what you like and what you don’t like and enough time to try things out, it’s just trial and error. That’s literally made my process – just try this chord, try the next chord, try this bit, this next note, is that better or worse – it’s just this hill climbing process. It’s a slow step by step walk from a chaotic melody or a chord progression to the thing which I think that connects with me emotionally. It’s just an intuitive emotional process.

I was writing music with Tom Hodge a couple of weeks ago – he’s a pianist and classically trained – and he’s a real musician. He can sit down and just play a masterpiece. He’s obviously put in years and years of hard work to get to that position, but it’s totally different from the way I work.

Something I noticed working with him was that we would listen through some music we recorded, and he would say “that one sounds alright, let’s just use that” and he would know something sounded OK and use it straight away and then move on to the next thing. I was thinking “what are you doing? You can’t just do that”- the way I work would be to listen to every single bit of every single part of each track, listen to all options and then get the ten best ones and then start A/Bing them and exploring all the options before I moved on to the next step, whereas he would be very much more just relying on his intuition.

It’s a much faster and more artistic way of approaching the problem versus my more rigorous scientific way of approaching the same problem. I do work work slowly. I have to sit in front of my computer all night obsessing over these things, but that’s the way I work. It’s definitely not the artistic approach to the process.

Speaking of your approach, how you find visual artists to collaborate with? What comes first – the music or the visual?

I just love visual arts and I love abstract visual form and the whole realm of computer generated visual as well. I have a big list of people whose work I love. There’s a community of people I’m in touch with from visual artists to mathematicians and programmers, because that where some of the best visual work comes from.

When I have a new project I write a brief – I have the concept and I have in my mind what it should visually be. Then I just get touch with people whose work I think “that person’s work could lend itself well to this concept” and I get in touch and go from there.

I’m just lucky that there’s a lot of people who are interested in these ideas and want the opportunity to experiment. I always encourage people to experiment visually and I’m happy to do failed experiments. I’d rather do something that doesn’t work and try something new rather than do what’s expected.

The flip side is sometimes I start talking about the concept with the visual artist before I’ve written the music, and then they create the visual and I create the music in parallel. They’ll send me some clips of of the visual and then I’ll be scoring to that and send ideas back and forth.

That’s the way I’m doing my next project after the Chromos E.P. I’m working with a programmer named Alex Randon to build some new software for composition and also an architect/visual artist Chris Hildrey whose work I really love. There’s a mathematical concept which links the visual idea and the generative melodic idea, and there’ll be tools that will tie them together conceptually, and I score to the visual scenes as well. That’s a nice project as it’s a much more integrated one – there’s more to mapping than just as a creative tool, the concept is used explicitly. There’s no real rules but those are some of the many ways that it can happen.

How do you keep pushing these ideas?

That’s the thing – as I go further I’m learning more and more about how to do these things in a way that works. I’ve had several failed attempts, but I can see that it’s a rich ground for exploring. That’s why I’ve started my record label – Mesh. The idea is that each music release is tied to a wider Arts and Sciences project, and to explore how these can fit into a wider creative context.

There’s other people out there doing really interesting things in those fields too, particularly people like Rob Clouth and Nicolas Bougaïeff. They’re both ex academics who focussed on really interesting techniques in music production and linking it to software and ideas. So there’s people out there doing really fascinating stuff that I’m getting onto the label, and I’m hoping to build up a community of musicians and architects and artists and visual artists to come together and do interesting projects.

Is it important that the videos stay true to the scientific narratives? In educating people in these concepts?

Some of them do and some of them don’t. On Emergence, with twenty five chapters across this big, big project some of them do have real information and you can learn real things from from watching them. Particularly in a collaboration with a mathematician called you Dougan Hammock looking at the distribution of the prime numbers and how they can be sorted from non-primes – they’re distributed in a really unusual pattern and people can’t really understand how they’re interspersed between the non primes, and that’s a really important problem in maths. The video actually demonstrates how you can a technique to like pull the primes out of the non primes and then it shows how the structure is visually. And that really is maths and data being shown directly – there’s very little adulteration – and that really educational. But then there’s pieces like a track called Organa –  which is all about different organic forms and it’s hand drawn, morphing animal forms, and that doesn’t really have a precise educational use, but it fits into the story of Emergence.

 

The Chromos project was part of the partially funded by the Babraham Institute on the basis that it did have an educational element. That it was taking their research and showing the real data, and having people see their science as art – seeing the beauty in that research and in real data, with the hope that that you can see something and you can learn something about how DNA is structured. You can see how life is functioning at a molecular level. The project links their work to the wider public in a new way and I hope that it encourages people to learn about their research.

So there definitely is that educational angle but it’s not something that I’ve been too stringent on trying to push all the time because I don’t want to turn my live shows into a lecture. They should be something that can be viewed on whatever level people want to. Some people aren’t even interested in the visual and just want to listen to the music, and a lot of people want to make their own interpretations, but I hope that some of the ideas smuggle through.

And there’s lots of aesthetic in science – a lot of beautify hidden away in there that people don’t realise is there.

Yeah absolutely. The natural world is full of form and structure, and that’s what music is really – it’s just a very very pure type of structure that tickles our our subconscious, and that’s why when we listen to music. Whenever we hear a nice chord progression or a nice melody it’s literally literally our subconscious saying “oh, I like that pattern”, but we don’t experience it like that, we experience it on an emotional level as something very innately human.

 

Part of the reason why we’re so successful as a species is the fact that we’re so good at finding patterns and in our environment, and then and then starting to predicted them like “oh OK I can predict that the sun goes up at this time and goes down at this time, and that the year has seasons and that means I need to plant my crops at this time”. No other animals learn that, only humans do. We’re really just good pattern finders, and all of science and nature and music is just about that innate love of form.

There’s something very satisfying in that moment of discovering a pattern, right?

Definitely, and that’s why the Emergence Live project was really fun, because I was able to play with abstract forms turning into recognisable forums during the show and you get those moments of “oh that’s what it is” from the audiences – you get that little bit of a reward from your brain for it from finding the forms that are there.

Big thanks to Max Cooper for the chat – some really interesting ideas in there. Check out his website at http://emergence.maxcooper.net/, or see his live show at the dates below.

7 July – Katowice, Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival

8 July – Macclesfield, BlueDot Festival

14 July – Southwold, Latitude Festival

22 July – Ostrava, Colours of Ostrava Festival

16 Aug – Los Angeles, The Regent Theater

18 Aug – Mexico City D.F. Foro

19 Aug – Denver, Vinyl

20 Aug – Oregon, Oregon Eclipse

23 Aug – Montreal, MUTEK at SAT

25 Aug – Turin, TOdays Festival

27 Aug – London, SW4 Festival

27 Aug – Lincolnshire, Lost Village Festival

Alex Nelson