Max Cooper is truly a visionary. Individuality reigns supreme throughout his body of work. Science and art are traditionally viewed as polar opposites, yet Cooper unites them both in beautiful and captivating fashion throughout the production of his Emergence show.
Saturday the 16th of April will see Collate bring this very show to the MAC. Belfast patiently waits for an experience unlike anything the city has seen before.
On the plane home from his latest Surround Sound show at Berghain, a no doubt tired and disgruntled Max Cooper was kind enough to answer some questions for me on his early life in his native Belfast, his process in fusing scientific influence and electronic experimentation and just how he mastered all the necessary factors to create the unique experience that is Emergence.
Cooper was born and bred in Northern Ireland to Australian immigrants. This came with its advantages; Cooper was able to look in from the outside of a sectarian culture that was rearing its ugly head. He lived beside the palace barracks in Holywood and was sent to an “alternative education system nearby” called Steiner School. He remained there until the age of 15. Cooper explains to me that the style of education at Steiner “was much more arts and expression orientated than other schools, so although I followed a path into science, maybe it makes sense that I’ve ended up as much in the arts.”
Cooper went on to receive a PhD in computational biology from Nottingham University in 2008 which led to him indulging in the study the evolution of gene regulatory networks and the evolutionary influences of binding site organisation during transcriptional processes. He held a post-doctoral position as a geneticist at University College London before deciding to focus solely on music production in 2010.
Remaining on a theme of the past I begin by enquiring about Cooper’s first exposure to music. He informs me that his “sister used to listen to classic synth pop in the 80’s and 90’s”. Artists such as Depeche Mode, Erasure and New Order remain close to the producer’s heart today. His first purchases were tapes of Pink Floyd, Prodigy and FSOL, and Cooper soon found himself picking up the violin; this however was a brief romance. He explains “I never found any violin music that got me interested, but it taught me how to tune notes and chords by ear which has been pretty useful.”
I ask about Cooper’s creative process in fusing his scientific influences with visual art and music. The sight of Berlin becomes nothing but sky and cloud as he informs me that it varies with each project and begins with defining the Emergence concept.
“It varies project by project – the Emergence show is a scientific narrative of how the universe and world around us came from underlying natural laws and processes, using mainly visuals for the storytelling, some via data visualisation and some artistic interpretation of the concepts and systems involved, with the music scored and curated to fit. It’s usually easier to provide something with real scientific insight visually, as the medium of music is better at communicating feeling than objective concepts. But I often experiment with different ways of presenting scientific ideas musically, which has been a useful creative tool for pushing me in new musical directions.”
The producer gives me an example of a musically illustrated scientific idea. He uses “DNA folding data to seed an audio visual representation of how our DNA molecules arrange themselves in very particular ways in order to carry out their functions.”
Whilst this scientific lingo may put off those who are solely expecting lots of ‘doof’ on Saturday, Cooper is quick to acknowledge that you don’t have to maintain a keen interest in science to enjoy the show. There is “real scientific insight to be found hidden in there for those who are interested, and for those who aren’t, it will be a beautiful audio-visual experience. You don’t need to care about science to enjoy it.”
So, how did this artistic scientist master the components necessary to create such an immersive experience? I’m intrigued by the software and hardware that has been put to use, as well as the collaborations with other visual artists and technicians. Cooper notifies me that he worked alongside genetic researchers, computer scientists and visual artists to create the extravagant art on display.
“I’ve always loved visual art, and have worked with visual artists whenever I could over the years, plus I got used to thinking about visual links to my music (also why I do a lot of psycho-acoustic effects in my tracks, plus surround sound shows, 4D sound etc – all ways of linking spatial/visual ideas to music). So that combined with my scientific interests meant the ideas for the visual show and how it should look and feel came easily. The hard part for me was learning how to play the visuals as well as the music myself live – I use ableton for the music and resolume for the visuals. It’s lots of pre-rendered visual and audio clips that I can control, sequence and glitch simultaneously by sending midi into ableton then OSC to resolume, so that every musical control is also a visual control.”
Cooper goes on to name a few visual artists that he particularly admires. Ryoju Ideka, Moatik and Ryochi Kurokawa are all up there, but with so much happening in the world at the moment, in relation to visual art, and the advances in “computer power and ubiquity” options are opening up fast.
As my questions on visual art reach their exhaustive limit, I ask Cooper about his thoughts on the emerging scene rapidly developing in Belfast. Whilst he admits he doesn’t know much about the scene itself, he’s quick to mention “people like Phil Kieran, Space Dimension Controller, Bicep, Boxcutter and Ejeca”, all of which he believes are producing exciting sounds; it’s a stimulating environment that he is keen to become a part of.
Memories of Cooper’s first ever gig in Belfast are brought to the surface at the mention of the Big Smoke’s name. The venue was a small pub in the year 1997. Cooper confesses it wasn’t one of his most memorable performances. Since then the producer has come on leaps and bounds, and is very much looking forward to his heavily anticipated return.
Collate looks to support the cultural community within Belfast, so i’m keen to know, just how important does the producer feels an artistic and creative segment of the population is?
“The best cities in the world are the ones with the biggest artistic and creative communities, right? I think it’s massively important to have the people and the support for getting ideas out there.”
There’s no reason why Belfast cannot achieve this. The majority of the population are now happy to leave the past exactly where it belongs and are quick to unite when it comes to cultural activities; just look at the success of Culture Night. Together the capital can create sustainable cultural events and platforms that can only benefit the image and lifestyle of Belfast.
And so we come to the future finale. What impending plans are in store for this talented scientist turned artist?
“The main plan is just to continue to experiment with new ways of bringing music together with wider arts and sciences, and see where that takes me, including a collaborative project with a research institute, the Surround Sound shows (I did the first at Berghain last weekend and next one in London 14 May), All Night Long shows where I have 6+ hours to explore all sorts of places musically, and plenty of DJ sets and live shows for the summer too. Plus some very exciting projects which I can’t talk about yet, sorry!”
Collate presents Max Cooper’s Emergence will take place at the MAC on Saturday the 16th of April. You can purchase your tickets from the MAC’s website or, alternatively, pop into Belfast Underground Records.