Published Sep 20, 2018Max Cooper has never been one to shy away from grand concepts. Having boldly devoted his last album to exploring nothing less than the foundations of the natural universe, on One Hundred Billion Sparks, Cooper turns his eye inward, seeking both the specific and the universal in the hundred billion neurons that make our beings. (His Ph.D. in computational biology likely comes in handy here.)
Those familiar with the sparkling and granular textures of Cooper's ethereal take on ambient techno will immediately understand the linkage between this image and his musical style. Explaining some of the key ideas behind the album, Cooper expounds on the tenuousness of our individual selves in the ocean of humanity.
"The whole idea of how we construct ourselves — all these ideas, all the unusual and fairly abstract ideas that we take on based on where we live, our religious background, nationality, sexuality, peers, class — we feel very set and solid in our identities," Cooper tells Exclaim! "But a lot of the time when you delve in, a lot of it is more like stories we tell ourselves than it is anything particularly solid."
There's something frightening about this fragility, but there's beauty as well. Describing the video for "Incomplete," for instance, (itself named after the theories of Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel, who proposed that a complete or consistent logical system is always an impossibility), Cooper gives an almost textbook account of the notion of the sublime as it overlaps with Gödel's infinitudes of the unknowable.
"We have this man in this huge beautiful expanse in Ireland, with all these rocks, and he's standing there and we got this massive zoom with a drone, and it's this human lost in the expanse — the idea of the unknowable, exploring the idea of us as that speck."
Cooper goes on to explain that even the track itself is somewhat incomplete, given its brief duration and the fact that it only consists of a few layers (most of his tracks have hundreds, he says), highlighting the clear connection between concept and artistry in his work. That artistry comes in two forms on One Hundred Billion Sparks, as Cooper has devised accompanying videos for each track, with various artists and graphic designers featured on a website set to launch alongside the album.
The inclusion of the visual element from each track's inception is striking. "I actually had devised the visuals right at the start, at the same time as creating the music, so I'd send a brief of all the visual and conceptual ideas to the visual artists. It's a collaborative process, but certainly the music is, to some extent, scored to the visuals when it's first made, because I already have in mind a certain aesthetic, basically."
In addition to Chris Cunningham's work with Warp Records in the '90s (perhaps most famous for his uncanny Aphex Twin videos), Cooper cites Philip Glass and Ron Fricke's 1982 masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi as one of the major works that opened his eyes to the possibilities of unifying the audio and visual into a cohesive whole.
"It was the only thing I'd seen at the time that was like a full-length film that doesn't have any characters or narration, but just epic visuals, and then this minimalist, hypnotic, repetitive, really beautiful score in Philip Glass's typical style. That was something that I'd never seen before and it still informs me to this day as something that I'm aiming for."
The immersive, wrap-around screens that Cooper says will be accompanying his upcoming tour will surely give his live shows a similarly epic feel, and it's clear that he never thinks of one without the other.
Cooper even laughingly remarks that he's been asked before about doing an event in a restaurant, adding taste to the list of senses being titillated, but goes on to mention, in all seriousness, the often overlooked tactile experience of being in the club itself, with its booming bass frequencies, and how he tries to include as much melodic content as possible in his music's low end to capitalize on this.
"Everything that I'm trying to do is all about trying to figure out how to make it more immersive." Cooper may demand more of your sensory attention than most artists, but you won't regret losing yourself in his expansive vision.
One Hundred Billion Sparks comes out September 21 on Mesh Records.