Having played a sold out show at Oval Space last year, Max Cooper returns to East London on October 9 to play the Village Underground with his new, more immersive show, Emergence. The electronic producer and DJ has a less than traditional musical background with a PhD in Computational Biology. His music draws on both scientific and mathematical ideas which he feeds into a wider, more encompassing narrative for both his recordings and performances.
The other week we had a quick chat with him about show preparations, future plans and crossing the boundaries between art and science.
Hello Max, how are you today?
I’m pretty good, I’m just in the studio, doing some work on a new album. I’ve been out recording some things. There’s a big building site across the road so I was having some fun recording crazy sounds. Some local guy came along and asked if I was from the council. He was really angry because his house was right next to this massive building site, right next to all these huge machines. He wasn’t that amused to find out that I was recording the sounds just for fun.
The last time you were in East London you were selling out Oval Space, and now you’re coming back to play the Village Underground in October. How all the preparations for the show going?
Yeah, great. It’s exciting, it’s a new show basically, because we’re adding an installation element. I’ve been working with some architects and stage designers. Obviously there’s going to be the screen and the projectors, and the story line and the music like there was last time, but there’s also going to be these added elements of the stage installation to make the whole thing a bit more immersive and more visually unusual.
With all that going on, how has the process behind this project effected the way you’re producing music? How does it differ from something like your album, Human?
A lot of the music I’m working on now is designed specifically to fit into the show. I’m writing music to fulfil part of the storyline and part of the narrative of the Emergence show. It’s scoring music to fit a particular role rather than making music purely for the sake of music like I’d done before.
The idea of ‘emergence’ which is the concept behind this show is a rather beautiful one, could you explain it a bit?
So, I used to study science and was a research scientist. There’s a lot of beautiful things in science, a lot of the data visualisation can be beautiful, and many of the ideas can generally have a very visual feel. A lot of the ideas are quite spectacular, I wanted to draw on that visual element, and also to make a show whereby it’s not just single visuals, so not just a visual thing, and then music, but one where there’s actually a meaning. Every cluster, every part of it has a specific meaning and an idea behind it, and the whole thing tells story, which is supposed to play a key role.
The story I wanted to tell was about the idea of emergence, which is basically the idea that you can have some sort of system, the systems we’ve made are quite simple, but whenever they combine, when they develop through time, what happens is something much more complex and unexpected, and something much more surprising happens than you might expect. That’s the idea of emergence. You get this emergent property, whatever it might be – I think one of the big examples on Wikipedia is ant-hills, these huge, complex architectural structures made by these little ants. No ant on its own would ever have had to build one of these complex structures, but when they come together, and the way they intricately interact, it creates this amazing complex unexpected thing, and I wanted to channel that concept into the world around us. So with the idea starting off from basic underlying natural laws, these laws can interact in a way that gives rise to The Big Bang, and star formation and planet formation and eventually life and evolution, and then people come along, and then modern society, and how looking at the whole story of the universe from before matters for the future. That was this idea of Emergence and all these different systems that gave rise to the world around us.
So the show tells that story, every single part, particularly moving in on many parts from early on, looking at mathematical laws and moving up to the universe and star formation, and once you get into planets you see humans in more detail with machines and modern society, and moving in on all these different parts of the story but overall telling this emergent story of the emergence of reality.
It’s an incredible idea, particularly as theoretical science and maths have always traditionally been seen as at odds with the arts and creativity, and you’re managing to unify that in a really, really interesting way.
Yes, that’s very much what I’m interested in. I think there is art in science and maths and I wanted to try and show that. When you’re doing research in order to think of these things you have to be creative. Creativity works in very similar ways in making music to doing research, I have to try and think creatively. A lot of the same processes apply to the sciences and the arts, and there’s not so much of a boundary as people might expect. This show was something that I wanted to use to draw on that beauty in mathematical or scientific ideas. This show isn’t supposed to be a science lecture, and you don’t need to know what it’s about to enjoy it, but there is that aspect there.
How have people been responding to the show so far?
It’s been really interesting. You can’t dance to the whole thing. A big part of the intro is more ambient stuff, and then there are some parts which are challenging to dance to, so I wasn’t sure how it would work for audiences that wanted to dance. Generally people have been really open-minded, and have really enjoyed it, and actually a lot of the time the parts that people have said they enjoyed most were the parts that were the most non-danceable.
I’ve also been doing sit-down shows in concert halls, and that’s been really nice, and a change. You know just where everyone has a good view and good sound and they can really focus on what I’m trying to show.
As opposed to worrying about having drinks spilt on them?
There’s pros and cons obviously. After the sit-down shows there’s always people who say, ‘I wish I could’ve dance’, but they felt like they couldn’t because they’re in a fancy concert hall. The best shows have been when we’re in some classical concert hall and everyone gets up and starts getting a bit loose, and people are running around getting a bit crazy which is amazing. It’s a really good feeling when you can turn a place like that into a club.
What direction do you see your music going next? Will you be sticking with the ideas in Emergence or heading off on a slightly different tack?
There’s still a lot more I want to do with the emergence idea. I want to develop the music, and I want to develop the visuals and also add this installation element, not just the screen and the visuals, but turn it into something a bit more immersive. There’s still lots of ideas I want to explore with this project, potentially turn it into a release or an album at some point as well, and I’d like to release the whole show too, in a video format. So I’ll be working on this for the next while.
After that, I have lots of other ideas, and other projects to do after that. A lot of the projects I’m really interested in delving into after this will be using computational tools basically. Developing new computational tools for writing music, that’s something that’s really interesting and has a lot of potential.
Max plays the Village Underground on October 9 with support from Aidan Doherty and Throwing Snow. Tickets are available from the VU website, and check out the trailer for the event below.