The Audio Visual Dreamscapes Of The Incomparable Max Cooper

Max Cooper

Hello Max Cooper, it is a pleasure to have this discussion. Biology and Mathematics hold a central place in your aesthetic. Some of your appreciators may not know, but you hold a Phd in Computational Biology. First, may I ask what the topic of your thesis was? And secondly, what moved you into pursuing this category of study to begin?

The title of my PhD was Evolution of Small Gene Regulatory Networks, under the supervision of Prof. John Brookfield at the University of Nottingham. John is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met, and one of the nicest too, I tried to absorb as much as I could from the research process and it’s served me well ever since even though I’m working in the arts now. I’d been interested in sciences since I was a young child, and I’d had great biology teachers over the years (Dot Armstrong and Donal McReynolds), so I followed that path, but it became clear I was terrible at real experiments, I don’t have the mindset for keeping to schedules and any day dreaming would destroy the required precision. It was the realm of ideas rather than practical experiments where I found my role, and that lead me to computational biology, where I could use my interests in computer science and maths in the biological realm, to simulate the evolution of simple cell machinery over millions of years.

Your view on music’s inherent structure and spatiality seem rather novel, I mean this in the sense that you speak about sound as if something physical (I use physical narrowly). What commonalities do tactual art and audiovisual art hold for you?

I work a lot with binaural audio and surround/immersive sound systems. Both of these allow me to construct the experience of spatial structures. Almost any shape of object can be mapped to audio, although our hearing doesn’t have as much fine scale resolution as our sight, so the structures need to be simpler. So in that sense, tactile, physical art, can always have a spatial counterpart in the musical and visual realms. But more so than that, the feel and message of the music via melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics can also be mapped to physical forms and ideas.

There is a rich language in music for representing non-musical ideas which may have existed as long as music has, but now we have a new toolset to add to the mix via our spatial audio systems, and I experiment with how I can use those systems to enhance the storytelling potential of my music. It’s not just for bling, the interesting part is how we can use space to communicate something musically.

Many very good artists in the software development and data visualization spaces exist. Due to the same, one could imagine that collaboration selection could become rather arduous. What aside from interpersonal references have been your ideal ways of finding collaborative partners?

I’m always looking for new collaborative partners, new techniques and new aesthetics. I spend a lot of time reading and writing ideas and I’m constantly on the look out for visual representations of these ideas and people whose work links to my interests. There’s so many amazing visual artists out there and so many ideas coming from nature. Time and funding are the limiting factors.

You have worked with minds from across the world coming from some of the best research universities. What experimental or burgeoning technologies have you come into contact with in your journey that you would love to use but haven’t? As an extension, have you yet investigated Cymatics or acoustic levitation to aid in displaying your work’s physicality?

We can use machine learning to align images with brain states and recreate internal mental states as imagery. I’m always trying to figure out how to extract the essence of my self musically, and doors seem to be opening to even more direct mapping of art to internal states. It’s something I’d love to experiment with, but I haven’t yet made any of the right contacts. And yes, cymatics is beautiful, and another technique I have never used. The possibilities are almost endless, I wish I had another 10 lifetimes to explore. That’s probably a big part of the reason I’m so compelled to try and extract myself out into another form.

Despite common beliefs about music visualization’s recent development, it actually has a distinguished pedigree going back to the 16th century, and even before this if one looks at it from a technical investigatory frame. Fast forwarding to your practices more direct predecessors, electronic polymediast’s such as Stephen Beck of UC Berkley, showed the world innovative ways to play with sound’s relationship to image. This leads me to ask, what is the role of art history in your own practice, and do you think it is necessary in the age of multiplex online visual media aggregators?

Creation doesn’t come from nowhere, we need to feed the aesthetics and ideas in and let our minds and machines mangle them into new forms. So being exposed to our history is important, although in the arts I’m not sure if that has to be in the structured history lessons sort of format, my approach to the arts has been largely intuitive after a life of indirect exposure. The most important thing for me is the fire. By that I mean the almost always suffocatingly intense feeling of the moment, and the inescapable burning drive to try and express.

It seems to be a common thing with professional artists from what I can tell. And once you have that, you will discover the tools via your surroundings, it doesn’t really matter what tools you discover, there’s lots of ways of trying to express ourselves, not just through art and music either. History is full of lessons though, the more I learn about the roots of art and music, the more tools I find for expression.

Order and chaos also feature in your album visuals. Being trained in the Sciences one would imagine that your view of life is alike rooted in empirically derived truths generally, but that also at bottom theorizations about what we think we know about reality’s nature still remains (quantum theory etc.,). Having said this, it has been argued by theoretical physicist David Bohm (a contemporary of Einstein) that chaos doesn’t actually exist, but that it is simply a perception based on limitations of position. With this in view, do you believe that chaos is real? And if so, what is its role in the arts?

Lots to untangle there. Chaos in the sciences refers to chaos theory, whereby small changes in starting conditions lead to unpredictable outcomes. This sort of chaos appears to us as unpredictability like randomness, but it is not true randomness, it is still deterministic, just inaccessible determinism because we cannot measure starting conditions accurately enough. It’s just a shame chaos carries a lot more spice as a word than the slightly more boring, “randomness”, so chaos often gets used in place of randomness outside of the sciences. So, chaos definitely exists, and isn’t too controversial. But does randomness exist?

If we’re talking about existence in the physical world out there we can measure, that depends on your view of the correct way to interpret the experimental results of the action of the smallest units of nature we can access, and is up for debate. Some people argue true randomness does exist and is foundational, others have ways of explaining results with many worlds and hidden variables and it it’s all pretty wild and speculative and often more reminiscent of the arts than the sciences. But at least in the realm of thought and maths and computer science, randomness definitely exists, and hopefully that’s enough to answer your question that both chaos and randomness are “real”!?

The balance between order and disorder you’re eluding to has been a central area of interest for me for a long time, and is something I find an endless source of inspiration and techniques. One simple example was my track “order from chaos”, where I used binaural recording of raindrops hitting my window, a random rhythm, and slowly forced the hits towards positions on a drum grid so that a structured rhythm emerged upon which the piece of music was built, as part of the Emergence project (more on that at emergence.maxcooper.net). And if you’re interested in some deeper delving into the order and disorder ideas around transcendental numbers and the transcendental tree map project with Martin Krzywinski and Nick Cobby then I wrote about that at https://maxcooper.net/transcendental-tree-map.

Last year in an interview you spoke in passing about inner turmoil, and by extension its role in informing the deep emotional meaningfulness of your music. Judging by the narratives you create it seems that you hold existential concerns, or at least are open to reflect upon them. Could you elaborate?

Existing inside a human mind is a difficult thing for all of us I think. We’re full of ancient evolved drives and systems, living in a barrage of human perfection, misinformation and manipulation attempts from all sides trying to control our beliefs and behaviours. We don’t stand much of a chance against the constructs we live in, but luckily we can find ways to tackle the difficulties. For me that means music, it’s a place of grounding and reflection and positive experience that is always there when I need it, both in creating and listening, and I think a lot of us share that. Aside from that, yes, getting out of my brain is definitely an aim, but I think I’m living a century or so too early.

A large discussion rages about the dissonance between positive audience feedback and an artist’s own favorite work. Practitioners of various art-forms explain that pieces they adore which were made by themselves are sometimes disliked or under loved by their audiences. Have you ever experienced this? And if so, what is your take on why this phenomenon exists?

Yes, often the tracks I hate are the ones most people like and vice versa. I end up hating a lot of my work. But it seems to be a common part of the creative process. We have to be extremely self-critical to try and improve on our work, and also spending so much time on our work means we get sick of any structures which are too simple. Whereas for causual listeners those simple structures (which we the creators loved first before spending 1000 hours listening to them on a loop) are appealing. If you imagine taking your favourite musician and listening to their work on loop for 12 hours a day for 2 years, then you’d probaby be driven mad by most of it, but may find some obscure aspect which you could still enjoy. So after 2 years working on an album you can see why I might not share the same views as most listeners. It does introduce a massive headfuck of an internal battle trying to finish music though, and a lot of amazing creatives bin a lot of amazing work because of it.

INFORMATION

All images with courtesy of Max Cooper

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