Max Cooper: Free Will, Science and Electronic Music

Article published on May 3, 2014
Article published on May 3, 2014

Max Cooper did a PhD in computational biology, making club music & DJing on the side. When funding was cut for his postdoc genetics research he started producing music full time. After 100s of releases and a decade on the club scene, he’s finally releasing his first album. It’s been a long time coming. What is Max up to? We talked about free will, science, computers and music.

My head hurts and it’s Max Cooper’s fault. I saw him play in Paris last night. 12 hours after Max fin­ished his set I’m at his hotel to see him face to face in­stead of across a room of bob­bing heads. We shake hands and Max smiles warmly. I smile weakly. He’s bliss­fully un­aware of what he’s done to me. We step out into the win­ter sun­shine and walk to a nearby café.

Max is quiet and unas­sum­ing. He wants to know more about me than to talk about him­self, but un­for­tu­nately that’s not the way in­ter­views work. I ask him about his trip to Paris, and what it’s like to travel the world as a mu­si­cian. There’s no men­tion of op­u­lence or ex­cess, just a burn­ing cu­rios­ity about the way the world works. He talks about “how po­lit­i­cal views in­flu­ence the way the news is pre­sented” in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and be­moans the world­wide di­vide be­tween the rich and the poor. He men­tions the prob­lems of cur­rency de­val­u­a­tion in Ar­gentina. I can tell this is going to be no nor­mal music in­ter­view.

“The album’s called 'Human',” he tells me, “the basic idea is that each track tries to con­vey a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the human con­di­tion.” Like what? “There’s one called ‘Seething’ which is a re­ally angry track,” Max ex­plains, “it’s seething and gritty, a sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion of a con­cept.” The song’s sim­mer­ing en­ergy cer­tainly riles you up and raises your hack­les, seething in­deed.

What about free will?

“Then there’s some more ab­stracted ones like ‘Woven An­ces­try’,” he con­tin­ues, “which is mak­ing a point about every per­son being a woven prod­uct of all their past; the ideas of their an­ces­tors have all fused to­gether with their ge­net­ics to form the in­di­vid­ual.” How on earth do you cap­ture that in music? “I used dif­fer­ent an­cient in­stru­ments from around the world,” he ex­plains, “every in­stru­ment play­ing at dif­fer­ent rhythms, all merged to­gether in this big woven ta­pes­try of plucked in­stru­ments that rep­re­sent the con­cept.”

And this is where we take a break from music. Max or­ders a ham and cheese crepe with tap water. I’m not yet ready for con­sump­tion. “If the in­di­vid­ual is a prod­uct of their an­ces­try- their ge­net­ics, and all of the so­cial and cul­tural in­ter­ac­tions they’ve had, does this not negate the con­cept of free will?” I ask with a scratch. “I would say we’re not free in that sense- we are shack­led by de­ter­min­ism and ran­dom­ness,” Max replies, “you’re not free to break the rules of the uni­verse, so we’re all slaves to the sys­tem. But at the same time, we are our brains, and our brains are free to act as they al­ways do, and that is es­sen­tially free will.”

Max Cooper's music video Mi­cron

“But I don’t have a prob­lem with that,” he con­tin­ues, “be­cause I can’t see it being any other way. We’re in­sep­a­ra­ble from the cir­cuitry of our brains and if you ac­cept that then the prob­lem dis­ap­pears.” This sounds like an alarm­ingly mech­a­nised vi­sion of hu­man­ity, but Max al­lays my fears with a caveat, “I’m not a total func­tion­al­ist ei­ther. Sci­ence still only ex­plains the ob­jec­tive things and there’s a whole sub­jec­tive world which we ex­pe­ri­ence which sci­ence doesn’t ex­plain.” Max pauses be­fore rolling out his ideas with el­e­gance and calm. With his se­date black jacket and glass of tap water, he is the pic­ture of so­bri­ety. 12 hours ago the same man had a heav­ing room in throes of eu­pho­ria.

The con­fronta­tion be­tween ob­jec­tiv­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity, be­tween sci­ence and art, seems par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent for a man mak­ing emo­tional music with ma­chines. Is there not a cer­tain dis­lo­ca­tion? Max ex­plains that com­put­ers and the uni­verse both fol­low fixed sets of rules. Yes, “com­put­ers are to­tally de­ter­min­is­tic” whereas the “there is an el­e­ment of ran­dom­ness and un­pre­dictabil­ity” in the uni­verse, he ad­mits, “but I don’t see a con­tra­dic­tion in the way that we are and the way that com­put­ers are- it’s sort of two sides of the same coin. So con­vey­ing human emo­tions in elec­tronic music is some­thing nat­ural.”

"The In­tri­ca­cies of the Mol­e­cules"

Much as he loves com­put­ers and the reg­i­men­ta­tion of their rules, on ‘Human’, Max makes use of phys­i­cal in­stru­ments more than he has be­fore. “In real in­stru­ments you get that ran­dom­ness, rich­ness and com­plex­ity from the real world, whereas in com­pu­ta­tional music you strip that away,” he says. “If you lis­ten to a vi­o­lin, the ac­tual in­tri­ca­cies of the mol­e­cules, how the mol­e­cules are formed to­gether to make the wood and the strings, there’s a lot of ran­dom­ness and com­plex­ity in there.” His food ar­rives. The in­ter­play be­tween ran­dom­ness and order is played out in the con­trast be­tween the tan­gled chaos of the Edam and the care­fully crenelated folds of the crepe. Such ob­scure ob­ser­va­tions should go un­no­ticed.

So what is Max Cooper’s music ac­tu­ally like? Some­thing like a Mike Old­fieldJon Hop­kins hy­brid, but then again it’s noth­ing like any­thing or any­one else. Sim­i­larly, this con­ver­sa­tion about free will, sci­ence, chaos and com­put­ers is un­like any I’ve had be­fore. Some­times glitchy, some­times dri­ving with club vibes, some­times ephemeral and trans­portive with spec­tral sound­scapes span­ning vast men­tal spaces, al­ways pro­gres­sive; his songs lead you through a spec­trum of emo­tion; you never feel the same from start to fin­ish.

“I al­ways try and tell sto­ries and paint pic­tures,” says Max. “I’ll tell you a story,” I reply sud­denly, sur­pris­ing my­self. “I first came across your music when I lived in Moscow. Snow sti­fles colours and scents and muf­fles sounds, so dur­ing win­ter in Moscow you move in a world of re­duced sen­sa­tion. After six months of snow and hi­ber­na­tion, spring comes sud­denly, the sun dis­pels the snow and the city ex­plodes with flow­ers. I climbed up a tree in full blos­som in an or­chard and lis­tened to your remix of San­sula over and over. I felt like the tree was grow­ing around me.” I stop sud­denly, em­bar­rassed, re­mem­ber­ing that I’m in­ter­view­ing Max, not being in­ter­viewed by him. But Max smiles and I feel vin­di­cated. He says his songs are in­spired by pow­er­ful emo­tions, ideas or ex­pe­ri­ences. He looks up dream­ily and tells me ‘Mead­ows’ was in­spired by “a sum­mer day out in the Eng­lish coun­try­side, with all the flies and the bees and the sun”.

Max says his music is all about cap­tur­ing his feel­ings and in­spir­ing the same in his lis­ten­ers. My day in a tree in Moscow and my night in a club in Paris tell me that, as far as I am con­cerned, Max has achieved that and then some. He prophet­i­cally tells me that biotech­nol­ogy will rev­o­lu­tionise the world in a hun­dred years. I tell you that ‘Human’ will rev­o­lu­tionise your day in a hun­dred min­utes.

The full in­ter­view will soon be avail­able to read here.