Appearing on a number of best-of lists, including RA’s top 20 live acts of 2012 and Beatport’s top 10 artists of 2012, Max Cooper’s experimental approach to electronic music has earned him the respect of both producers and listeners alike. Cooper is one of today’s most innovative electronic musicians, pushing both himself as an artist and us as listeners to transform how we experience music.
Starting off as a scratch DJ and turntablist, the Belfast-bred DJ found his forte when he began writing music to land more gigs. Cooper discovered that he enjoyed producing even more than DJing, and has since made it his primary focus.
But music isn’t his only specialty; an experimenter to the core, Cooper holds a Ph.D in computational biology from Nottingham University, and wrote his first releases for German techno label Traum Schallplatten while conducting post-doc research in genetics at University College London. When his research funding dried up, Cooper took the opportunity to transition to producing and performing full-time.
The scientific influence is evident in his sound, which is complex and cerebral while simultaneously melodic and emotive. His systematic production methods are similar to his scientific research:
“I don’t have any training in music theory or production,” says Cooper. “I just approached the production process with trial and error, trying to explore the possibilities and gain an understanding of the link between what I had to do with the software to create certain feelings musically. It’s comparable to how I did my Ph.D research, which was also all computer-based, and also toying with an abstract system to try to gain new understanding. Not all science is done like that, of course, but the science I was most interested in had a similar creative process.”
His compositions are all driven by a fundamental concept, whether it be a basic emotion or an intricate philosophical idea. His two Conditions EPs, for example, explore the idea of the human condition. “Pleasures” highlights human emotion by illustrating something beautiful and pleasurable, and “Automation” represents the idea that humans are “deterministic biological machines.”
“I always think about ideas for tracks, like a picture or some concept I can represent musically… Sometimes the concept can be an emotion, a very strong feeling I’ve got for something… Maybe I’ve watched a movie or gone out to the forest and I’ve got a strong feeling and while that feeling is fresh I can then try and translate that into a piece of music. It’s just a way of pushing myself to make some new forms of music, applying concepts is a useful creative tool.”
In the video for “Numb”, which was released on Conditions Two this past April, director Henning M. Lederer uses black-and-white industrial imagery to complement the song’s haunting vocals and jarring, glitchy beats. The sounds and visuals together illustrate Cooper’s idea of the modern capitalist lifestyle as a numbing dystopia.
At Amsterdam’s Dekmantel Festival in August, Cooper reached beyond the standard audio-visual setup and presented a new way for listeners to experience music through an interactive 4-D live show. Using a grid of speakers distributed around the room at different heights and positions, Cooper was able to manipulate how sound traveled through the space in a 3-dimensional field to create special spatial effects.
“It turns into this really immersive experience, halfway between a club show and a museum piece exhibit. You sort of walk around inside the pieces of music and you can find different parts of the room where different things are playing, and everyone hears a different thing based on how they explore the space. You interact physically with each piece of music.”
The 4-D show involves a painstaking amount of preparation and quite a lot of equipment, so it is not something that Cooper can use in performances on a regular basis. However, he does intend to release a binaural recording of the show so listeners can replicate the experience within their headphones. Cooper incorporated a similar binaural recording of the British Museum into a mix for Magnetic magazine earlier this year, which also examines how physical space plays into a multi-sensory experience of music.
Cooper has been plenty busy with a number of projects. In addition to his recent remixes for Nils Frahm and Phil Kieran, on October 28 he will release his Fragmented Self Part One EP, a collaboration with contemporary classical composer Tom Hodge, on FIELDS.
Next, he is launching a new project that continues his use of both audio and visual elements to create a complete work of art. Just as he has begun his other pieces with a central concept, Cooper has chosen several famous paintings that will each inspire an original track. One artist whom he has selected is Jackson Pollock, whose aesthetic of organized chaos is a fitting visual match for Cooper’s music.
“The interplay between order and disorder is one of my main interests, both scientifically and artistically — pretty much everything in the real world is a mixture of the two, and it makes things all the richer… Pollock’s work does an amazing job of making this interplay very apparent, and I love music that does the same. You can listen to something and it sounds like total chaos, but then some beautiful form jumps out at you. My music hasn’t got to that standard yet, but I use a lot of randomization and generative processes to try and introduce rich, disordered detail — but still in the context of a very ordered club format, for the most part.”
The “rich, disordered detail” of his music, along with his explorations into multi-sensory musical experiences, is precisely what makes Cooper’s work as an artist fascinating. His music isn’t meant to be just absorbed and digested; it’s experiential, emotive, contemplative – a reflection of the human condition.