Technological Singularity: Max Cooper Talks


A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a private cinema in Soho. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of ‘those’ cinemas, but the swanky, hi-tech lair of Dolby. I’d walked past it many times over the years, and was delighted to get invited to a press playback where I was treated to a Dolby Atmos multi-surround experience with eye-popping, celebral-frying visuals in sync. Max Cooper’s latest album ‘Emergence’ is the debut release on his own Mesh label. It’s an ambitious amalgamation between audio-visual show, scientific research project, art installation and IDM record. The record was conceived as a soundtrack to a new series of 11 pieces of video art, each exploring a different facet of the concept of ‘emergence’.

First mention of the title came about around 2014, so when I caught up with him I wondered how excited he was about doing the whole PR shift now it was finally getting a release? And what took him so long?

“The whole album was based around this science related concept, and all the visuals were designed around this story. There’s a lot of information there, so I’m happy to talk about it all. It’s fun when you can chat about stuff that you find interesting. I’ve been working on it for three years, so it’s nice to get it out there. You have to keep it secret for ages and work away and not tell anyone.”

“t was never meant to be an album at the start, was just a visual show about how I could fuse that art together with science in a live set-up. Linking all these ideas together to work with individual visual artists, and at that point I didn’t even think it could be an album. Only when I delved in and saw how rich it was with ideas, both visually and scientifically, and I just followed it down a path. It just spawned ideas as it went along.”

Max received a Ph.D in computational biology in 2008 with ‘research on the evolution of gene regulatory networks’ and was a geneticist at UCL before he switched to music. Was this scientific journey really started by reading “A Brief History Of Time” when he was 13 years old? He laughs away some mild irritation.

“It’s on my Wikipedia page and it really pisses me off. It is true, but it comes across as how very much important that was. I read it and I enjoyed it, but it was only one part. It sort of makes a direct connection between me reading that book and then twenty years later becoming a genetic scientist, when it was a long process containing many, many things. I want to edit that page, but I’m not allowed! I read it when I was on some sort of camping holiday with my parents, being otherwise bored. I would’ve preferred to have been playing table tennis with other kids.”

Some clever sod at Max’s PR had sent me a curveball with the press release. It claimed that the album was based around Yuval Hoah Harari’s book ‘Sapiens’. I’d done my research (wastefully), but I was fascinated by the context. Harari suspects that the biotech revolution signals the end of ‘sapiens’, as we are replaced by post-human cyborgs, and IT capitalism cashes in on a conscience-free machine revolution. Sadly, Max hadn’t heard of the book, but still had plenty of thoughts on this.

“Bio-technology is going through massive advances, everything living will change unrecognisably, but a lot of futurists get excited or like scare stories that. Take 'Blade Runner', I think it was supposed to be set in 2015 or something like that. There’s a long history of people predicting the future and getting it wrong in terms of how fast that will come. It’s good at drawing people’s attention, but it’s thousands of years away. There’s certain aspects of that in the show, ideas of the catalyst machine and the emergence of altruism in robots, and then it goes into this distant future where there are these weird, abstract forms in the forest where humans have long since gone. But that is like billions of years in the future, nothing too alarming for us yet!”

But I’ve seen it on telly so it must be true? As I persevere with the rather poor, but somehow addictive Channel 4 show ‘Humans’. Would we be able to stop these subservient 'Synths' taking over, will technology and capitalist advances replace us?

“I think eventually people will create A.I, and then you’ve got this technological singularity situation where computers are creating the next computers that are more intelligent than us, and it spawns and grows out of control really quickly. But we are not as close to that as people suggest. The brain is still not well understood, biology the same, so there’s still a long way to go before we could create intelligent, life-like machines that could out-compete us. Machines that could understand things on a wider level, not in our lifetimes.”

The audio-visual show I enjoyed in the theatre was intricate, intelligent and immaculately produced. In a time when I speak to many musicians struggling to make ends meet from their own in-house productions, I’m curious how Max gets the financial clout for this scope of experience. He goes on to tell me how he pays for it all himself, ploughing back in the money from his DJ work and building good relationships with the video artists over his career. 

“I talk to them about what I’m passionate about and they’re interested in the ideas. I still pay them, but we talk about what I can afford and I always stretch myself to invest in that video work. I’ve been lucky enough to find people to collaborate with. A lot of the work is done with single animators or a single application, so it’s quite strict with no crew or editors, which I couldn’t afford.”

I’m happy to admit that I get excited about new technology and upgrades and shiny boxes that promise me ‘experiences’. Max clearly is too, but does he share my concerns that we are moving towards a ‘techno haves/ techno have-nots’ situation, where some can’t enjoy his labours due to financial or logistical constraints? He tells me that he works hard to make the experience as broad as possible, across various bits of tech kit.

“The end product that I’m aiming for is the home cinema set-up, more and more people have that these days. That’s why I’m working with the Dolby Atmos people, so that we can tweak it to play on a 5.1 surround system. It’s supposed to work in a club, and also on nice headphones or a nice hi-fi system, but there is always a balance. At the same time I consider what it will look like playing on an iPhone and out of those speakers, it has to work on that level as well. It has to work across platforms, but it’s the high-end that I like taking advantage of, hearing new detail and messages. I like the idea that you can make new discoveries, you buy this piece of music but then the more times you listen, and when you listen in a different way, you find other things in there. A richness that you can discover.”

He gets excitable as he tells me about the VR stuff he’s working on, and what can we do to expand on that and experience things exponentially. “I think we are constrained by how we can appreciate things, and if you can get your hands on a new way of presenting music or visuals or art then it opens doors creatively. It’s exciting to explore.” 

I cheekily ask him when he last upgraded his smartphone, like this geek just did. 

“What’s funny is I’m actually a technophobe. If I’ve got a system that works, I refuse to update it. There’s definitely a contradiction there.”

Max Cooper – Emergence is out now.

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