Belfast-born, London-based artist Max Cooper has been examining the details of patterns for years, criss-crossing back and forth between the seemingly divergent disciplines of biology and music. On his latest album, Emergence, he takes inspiration from simple natural laws – considering perfection and imperfection, numbers and shapes – to ground his studied take on electronic sounds. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, Cooper speaks to Lauren Martin about making electronic music with a microscopic view of the world.
Tell me about your interest in science – what did you study, and what does it involve?
I started off in molecular biology, but I soon realized that I was more interested in the ideas than the practice. I was terrible at looking after living things. I’d have to look after these little cells, which I had to feed at exactly the same time every day, three times a day. A lot of being a scientist is being super organized, and that’s not my thing. I became interested in computational biology, which involves simulating biological ideas in a computer. I could pick things up when I was interested in them and only follow the exciting stuff.
What is the relationship, if any, between building these theoretical programs and working with sound?
There’s often a misconception about the link between the music I make and my ideas about science. The new album, Emergence, is based on the scientific idea of the same name, and the tracks link together in this universe timeline. There’s a science background, but the music is written as a score to the visuals, I’ve worked with scientists, mathematicians and some visual artists to convey these scientific ideas or structures. The music, though, is very much an artistic and emotive interpretation of the scientific ideas. It’s not like I’m using a computer program to turn scientific ideas into a musical format. It’s more of a creative tool that pushes me in new directions.
What is emergence?
Emergence is this idea that simple laws can give rise to complex outcomes – simple structures of nature give rise to the physical universe. This eventually makes planets, humans and everything around us.
I’m aware that an element of your process is trying to visualize the structure of numbers – how did you work through that in sound?
Yes – that’s one of my favourite parts of this project. Through emergence, simple laws give rise to unexpected outcomes. I thought, “There are natural laws, but what’s the really fundamental way of showing natural laws? What sort of structures could be visualized and represented musically?” (Obviously there are other interpretations, and I’m not saying they’re not right. I’m just presenting it in this way because it lends itself to a lot of beautiful visuals.)
Numbers are a way of quantifying – of measuring a measurement. The structure of numbers can be visualized through the prime numbers, which are the numbers that build all other numbers. Every other number is built from the primes, and the primes are structured amongst the non-primes in a really interesting way in the sense that we can see patterns – but these patterns are imprecise.
Not even mathematicians can perfectly understand why they’re structured like this, but you can still see these tantalizing glimpses of patterns, and that’s really interesting. At a really basic level, nature is built of this perfection and imperfection, and I think this is a very beautiful and far-reaching idea. Musically, I thought that breaking things down to single piano notes and playing a really sparse melody was a good fundamental of music to then build on: extra layers and complexities, as the whole thing developed.
If prime numbers are the building blocks and the imperfections are what you play around with, what are the prime numbers of sound – the sonic fundamentals that you work with?
The fundamentals are melody, tonality, rhythm, spatiality and dynamic. These are the building blocks of music and stripping those down into very sparse forms was the idea musically within Emergence. It’s not that the primes are perfect and the non-primes are imperfect. It’s actually the position [of the numbers]. Think of it like this: All numbers are laid out in a big line, with the primes crossed out in red. This leaves a pattern where they are spaced between the non-primes. You can see a pattern, but the pattern looks imperfect or broken. I think, “I can see a pattern possibly emerging, but why is there one number missing here and nobody knows why?” That’s the interesting thing. People find ever more tantalizing glimpses into the structures and ideas [with this line of thinking].
Science is all about the outside world, the objective world... Science doesn’t really have anything to say about the world of experience, and the great thing about music is that it can communicate feeling without language.
Tell me about working with imperfection, sonically.
Music without imperfection is sterile. A lot of electronic music seeks to introduce chaos and I do that in a particular way. I use a lot of semi-generative approaches with my productions. I build these systems that are chaotic and unpredictable inside Ableton, and then I run and sample them. I try and set up things with as much seething detail as possible. I’m in search of this idea that you have a piece of music where there’s no one sound that ever plays twice – that if the drum hits again in a later position in the bar, or in the next bar, the drum will be modulated slightly differently. The effects are always changing and I set up these randomly moving perimeters to try to achieve that feeling.
I would say that the more complex computers get, the less dissimilar machines and humans become. One day your computer will turn on, the next day it won’t. A machine shouldn’t do that, but that’s what our computers do now – they’re getting more complicated. As we learn more about ourselves, we see that we’re becoming more machine-like, and bioscience is starting to treat us like machines. We see how we function in a different, deterministic way. On the other side, machines (or computers, more specifically) are getting more biological. We’re converging towards a single point. In that sense, I don’t see any contradiction in the idea of “machine music” because I try to fuse this chaos together.
A way to explain this is through a track on Emergence called “Order from Chaos.” To musically represent the idea that you can have a seemingly chaotic natural system from which something ordered, like a human, could emerge, was to start with a random sound source. I recorded the sound of rain hitting a roof, putting the binaural microphones in my ears to give it an interesting stereo feel.
It was really heavy rain, but you could hear all these individual raindrops hitting on the roof and the window in totally random patterns. I set the recording onto a grid, using drum grids to force each of the individual raindrop sounds towards the closest position on the grid. What happens is that as this seemingly random rain sound goes on, you slowly start to think, “I think that I can hear a rhythm in this,” like a clicking drum rhythm. This forms the rhythm of the track that everything else is built around. That was a way of having order from chaos - this emergence-related idea represented explicitly in sound.
What are your thoughts on artificial consciousness?
The artificial mind or the hard problem of consciousness is one of my favorite topics. Science is all about the outside world, the objective world. We can measure something, agree that it’s this length and if you take this hammer to it, it will break. Science doesn’t really have anything to say about the inside world, the world of experience, and the great thing about music is that you can communicate feeling without language.
More specifically, I mean the concept of pain, or understanding of physical and emotional reactions to your environment – for example, through sound. Sometimes, that physical reaction is one of endurance. Is this something you think about when you’re making music: “Is this going to be a bodily and even painful thing to listen to?”
You have to consider the physical impact of sound when you make a track. I was always super paranoid about playing something too loud and deafening someone. You can, over a lot of years of experimenting, realize what you can and can’t do, and then you can start to push the boundaries of that. There’s something beautiful hidden inside you that you don’t necessarily access unless you push yourself over the edge.