Photo: Alex Kozobolis
Photo: Alex Kozobolis

Max Cooper
Yearning For The Infinite
Barbican Hall, London
28 October 2019

Max Cooper unveils his new album with a specially commissioned project at the Barbican. Tim Cooper (no relation) opens his ears and shields his eyes from the glare of the electronica maestro’s latest audio-visual extravaganza.

Behind a gauze screen stands the silhouette of a man at a console where lights flicker as a low-pitched hum begins to emerge, interspersed with crackles of white noise. A disembodied voice begins to speak, gathering momentum, concluding, enigmatically: “A droplet forms. A droplet falls. And, if we are lucky, we have grace.”

Immediately the screen starts to fill with a vast cloud of billowing computer-generated images, rapidly engulfing the entire stage and the sides of the auditorium. It’s like the birth of some sort of virtual being, accompanied by a wave of sound that would be soothing were it not for the industrial glitches and flickering klieg lights that puncture the consciousness.

This kind of sensory overload is the stock in trade of a musician with a PhD in computational biology and a previous parallel career as a geneticist. Cooper has always seen science as a natural partner for his musical endeavours; hence the Barbican’s invitation to him to develop a new work for their Life Rewired festival, investigating how technologies are changing society and asking artists to respond to those innovations.

Photo: Alex Kozobolis

The Belfast-born boffin says his new album “examines the human desire to pursue the unreachable,” using his trademark technique of big chord progressions and micro-glitch detailing to produce a soundtrack that is lush and emotive, partnered with abstract visuals.

Over the past decade and more, Cooper’s music has spanned a range of styles from walk-through light installations and explorations of 4D sound to hardcore techno – and all of them are in evidence in the new project, premiered at this one-off performance.

At its most soothing moments he creates a kind of glitchy ambience: there are neo-classical melodies on treated piano accompanied by geometric patterns, while at other times, like the aptly titled Repetition, monochrome vertical images flicker while synths shimmer and throb metronomically.

“I spend most of my time thinking and reading about ideas,” says Cooper, “and adding the visual component has allowed me to integrate ideas much more fully into my work. The visual medium can convey much richer literal information than music can, while the music is great at conveying the associated feelings. Together they make a great tool for communicating things which are hard to put into words.”

Photo: Alex Kozobolis

Transcendental Tree Map shows the digits of pi, endlessly and formlessly repeating into a huge branching structure around the audience, while Aleph 2 uses a counting method employed by Georg Cantor in the 1800s to first get a mathematical grip on the concept of infinity – “and show that different sizes of infinity can exist” – in an unconscious echo of electronic sound artist Ryoji Ikeda’s formula (ver 2.3) performance at the same venue in 2006.

A series of Rubik cubes bring a blaze of colour before deconstructing before our eyes and morphing into miniature versions of themselves while a 4/4 beat brings a reminder of Cooper’s credentials as a floor-filling techno producer. On another occasion jungle beats bring a drum and bass dimension to proceedings alongside arresting images of nature being subsumed by technology, simultaneously suggesting the paradox of technological advance at the expense of the natural environment.

Cooper says the album “explores concepts of perpetual growth, Penrose tiling and parallax perception” but I’d be lying if I said I understood that: then again, I don’t have a science degree. But it’s certainly a different experience from the run-of-the-mill music gig, and an all-enveloping one that packs a powerful emotional punch.

The most arresting moments are aerial footage of a circular running track upon which a lone athlete sprints endlessly – a metaphor that suits the repetitions of the music, though the polite volume at the Barbican Hall means it’s not as immersive as it might have been at a larger venue.

When he lifts the pace and the beats start to pump in the final section, particularly on the recently released Perpetual Motion, a shimmering reminder of Underworld’s Born Slippy, the retired ravers in the audience perk up with whoops of excitement.

The 90-minute performance concludes with Transcendental Tree Map, with the digits of pi endlessly and formlessly repeating into a huge branching structure in front of and around the audience. At the end Cooper, looking genuinely humbled and slightly uncomfortable away from his consoles, appears in front of the gauze curtain for the first time to acknowledge the applause.

The Barbican Hall, a classical concert venue with fixed seats, is not the first place you’d choose for music as visceral as this, designed to engage the body as much as the emotions and it would be interesting to see it in a less formal environment, and on a larger scale, with more volume – for example Printworks, where Aphex Twin recently performed to widespread acclaim, or even the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

Nonetheless, experiments are by their very nature works in progress and this one succeeded on its own terms, while suggesting further development could bring evern greater rewards.

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