Meet the mad scientist of minimal techno
Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.
Max Cooper has been releasing 12-inches that exist in the space between sweeping post-rock, neo-classical music and club-primed minimal techno for the best part of seven years, but his new album, Human, is the first time he’s taken his music to a full-length format—something that’s surprising given its nuanced, intricate production, which lends itself so ideally to home listening.
Human is Cooper's most personal and conceptually cohesive album to date, with each track relating in some way to what it means to be human. It’s a significant milestone in his career, made all the more awe-inspiring by the fact that music was never actually meant to be his career: Cooper used to be a genetic physicist, although he left that world behind not long after completing his Ph.D. in order to pursue composition full-time.
Spiritually, though, he’s still very much a scientist, obsessed with the way that music and technology interact. The booklet that comes with the Human CD, for example, features images of Cooper’s body, transformed into audio spectrographs with a program called PhotoSounder. Cooper outlines the grisly procedure: “I took parts of my body and turned it into audio,” he says. “Some legs, some hands, some ears, some shoulders… all sorts. I turned it into audio, mixed it with some tracks, glitched it all together and turned the audio back into images. So you can see the music—the chords and the notes, and some of the pitch bends and the musical structure—but there are bits of body parts mixed in with it.”
In conversation, Cooper speaks at a mile-a-minute rate. When he’s at his most enthused, he speaks even faster, and if his voice can’t keep up, he starts talking with his hands. We met in a Central London café—our initial plan to meet at The British Museum around the corner having been thwarted—to talk about Human, Cooper’s scientific background and some of the mind-expanding projects he’s currently involved in.
I saw your touring schedule recently, and it’s bananas. You go from Dublin to Singapore to Australia to Paris in the space of about a week. How much time do you spend moving about? Two or three days a week, most of the time. Sometimes I’ll be going long-haul to the States, or Asia, or Australia, or whatever. I try not to spend more than three weeks away so that I can maintain some of my sanity.
Do you write music on the road? I try. In practise, I rarely come up with good ideas when I’m traveling. Being in the studio in the middle of the night is much more conducive to making good music than sitting on a plane.
That’s your ideal working environment? I do my best work between 11pm and 4am. I have to be careful not to stay up too late; you feel a bit wrong if you do it too often. There are biological rhythms that your body responds to. But I was never a morning person; I've hated getting up in the morning my whole life. So this is a perfect job.
Before music became a full-time concern, you used to be a scientist. Yeah, a proper scientist. I did my Ph.D., I did a post-doctorate—though that was quite short-lived. I published some papers—I guess that’s the proper measurement of science. I added a small drop to the ocean of scientific knowledge, a small, inconsequential drop. I was trying to set up my own research programme, but I didn’t get any further funding to turn it into a bigger project. And at that point, I decided to do music. I’d been doing it in parallel the whole time, and it really got to the point where I had to choose one or the other and do it 100%, because I’d always been splitting my efforts.
That must’ve been a pretty big decision, though. The thing is, there was never a moment where I made that decision and just said, “I’m stopping science, I’m going to make music!” There was a long period where I was still thinking that I might go back into it. I was working pretty much full-time on music and still applying for science jobs, and if the right thing had come along, I’d probably have taken it.
If anything, it’s sneaked up on me that I can’t really go back to it—I’m stuck in music! Not that that’s a bad thing—it’s a great thing!—but for a long time, I thought that it’d tide me over until I go back into science. The more time’s gone on, the more I’m realising that that might happen. The reality is that [I’ll probably go into] academic music and music technology, and the interface between music and science. I love that sort of stuff.
"I added a small drop to the ocean of scientific knowledge, a small, inconsequential drop."
Yeah, you sounded so enthusiastic just talking about something like PhotoSounder… Exactly. And there are things like the 4DSOUND system, I love that.
What is that? Again, it’s a really geeky, scientific, music academia thing. It’s like an array of columns, and each column contains speakers at several heights. It’s a big structure—it can fit about 500 to 1000 people inside. The sounds can come from anywhere, not just the speakers. You can set up every part of every track to have a position, so that it can actually move around: you can have a hi-hat coming down from your foot, which will explode outwards or fly past your head, or lightning might strike your head. It’s totally immersive and totally spatial. And it’s a physical thing—you can explore it yourself. You have to write music [for the system] as a physical entity, thinking about the how different parts interact. I love that technology/science/music crossover.
At what point does an interest in the technological override the basic emotional aspects of music though? That’s a good point. In terms of the 4DSOUND system, I’m interested in the technology, but the guys who programme the software are mathematicians—proper scientists. I still think about it on an emotional, experiential level. I’m not that interested in knowing the code or the mathematics—well, no, I probably would actually enjoy the mathematics—but it’s still primarily driven by the emotions and experience.
I use a lot of scientific names in my tracks. “Woven Ancestry” is the idea that each person is a product of all their ancestors—not only in their genetics, but in their cultural ideas—and this weaves together in this complex mesh to create an individual. The track is full of ancient instruments from different parts of the world playing different melodies and different rhythms, and they all interrelate to create a complex mixture but coherent whole. It’s an abstracted representation of what people are. Every track on the album is some sort of concept about what makes people people.
Last question: I left it up to you to choose where we were meant to meet, and you suggested The British Museum. Why did you want to meet there? I love the inside of it, the combination of old and new—the courtyard with the super modern architecture in the roof, and then the old buildings. And I love the ambience in there, it has a really nice sound. I did a mix for Magnetic Magazine called Sounds & Spaces, where you choose a space and turn it into a mix, and I chose The British Museum. I recorded the sound there with binaural microphones, and found lots of ancient music relating to the exhibits—like Ancient Chinese music, or Tibetan Monk chanting—and mixed the ambient sound with the ancient music, some of my own music, and some super modern music. It’s one of my favourite places in London.