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Maxing Out on Science & Art

Posted: Wed Jun 13, 2018 06:15
by shipra
Photo by J. Rosenberg

Max Cooper is not your average electronic producer. With a PHD in Computational Biology, Max is what we like to call an Audio-Visual Scientist. Through his work he tries to bridge the gap, or reinforce the deep-seeded relationship between science, art and music. A look through his work and you realize how successful he has been.

From his experiments with a 4D sound system using Max4Live & Abelton to his first album Human in 2014, Max’ work has been cutting edge, beyond meaningful and focused on a wholesome approach to music as opposed to one that is purely auditory.
On 20th September 2018, Max is dropping his third studio album- One Hundred Billion Sparks. As per Max, each and every one of us are one hundred billion sparks. One hundred billion neurons that fire feelings and ideas, that make us different yet connected. Deep, right? You can check out the first single from this album here.
But before we dive into this one, we caught up with Max to get the scoop on his second studio project and AV show- Emergence.
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Emergence as a concept is remarkable. It focuses on different properties of nature and what it can give rise to, or what can “emerge” from it- not just on a physical level but also a mathematical & functional level. It finds art in simple natural processes, something we might be quick to take for granted or disregard.
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Photo by Alex Kozobolis

Emergence is divided into multiple chapters- each chapter a different representation of the universe and its evolution from the distant past to the future. All the visual content is so well interwoven with the audio that naturally the question arises, What comes first the audio or the visual?

The concept for the project came first, which then spawned many visual and musical ideas. The narrative form and the fact that it needed to be a live music show, meant that there was already a lot of structure imposed before I had started on the musical or visual specifics – for example, I knew that humans were eventually going to emerge later on in proceedings down the universe timeline, and that things were going to start to get darker as complex forms of subjugation, and the like, came along.
So, I knew how it needed to progress musically too, which also fitted with a live show arc of increasing musical intensity. There were these sorts of macro structures to work to from the start as I began to pull together a palette of rough ideas.
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Then there were all the specific chapters, the different science-related ideas, that I thought would lend themselves to the story, and to beautiful visualization. They were designed to fit the macro-arc of the show, and each to also tell their own micro-story of emergence.
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For example, the emergence of the first cell structures with the audio track “origins”, which fits into the wider part of the narrative of the emergence of life, which fits into the wider story of the emergence of the universe and all of its complexities. Sometimes I would create a piece of music with a particular part of the story in mind, sometimes I would send the concept to a visual artist and receive visual drafts to which I would score the music.

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I’m often asked to describe the audio-visual link more specifically, people want to know what the process is. I can describe the explicit links between the scientific ideas and the visuals in detail, as we can absorb a lot of varied information from visuals and the mapping is usually quite straightforward.
But if you try to map data to music you invariably make a non-musical mess – we have tight constraints over the data-format for music. But what music can do better than data (usually) is convey emotion. And that’s how I’ve always written music anyway, I’ve never had formal training, and have always approached each piece of music by an emotive-optimization process: I have an image or idea in my head and I know what feeling I have associated with that image or idea. I then have to keep sculpting the melodic form and sound design until the feeling it creates is aligned with that of the image or idea.
It’s a bit of a mysterious process, but we all feel things which are associated with different ideas or scenes, so it’s something anyone can do, it just takes a lot of time.
Perhaps the fact that I approached music like that from the start, lent itself to visual work, although again, the links are subjective, so I don’t think it’s so hard to do. The most interesting part in this process for me, was the links to science and nature visually, and the research process of delving into the themes, by which I learnt a lot of artistically inspiring things (Read more about this here)
From visual representations of hard core mathematical data to artistic illustrations of real phenomenon like the big bang; from deliciously cringe-worthy depictions of the emergence of microorganisms to quirky infographic portrayals of humans; from cool facial mapping with Kinect to a good old fractal zoom ending, with a twist- Emergence has it all.

Can you tell us a few different software/ tools the visual artists you work with use to create content?

I can only give a generalized overview rather than getting too specific. But the main approaches were as follows:

1. Traditional video tools like Cinema4D and AfterEffects: As used by Nick Cobby. Plus, he uses Processing.

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In the case of Morgan Beringer, he uses Adobe creative suite tools also.

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2. Programming approaches using Matlab, C++ etc: This was when I was working with scientists or mathematicians who use these tools for their work. Dugan Hammock used Matlab (for ‘The Primes’) to render my requests for Sacks Spiral, Riemann’s Zeta Function and the Sieve of Eratosthenes.
Andy Lomas used C++ for his cell morphology simulations.

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Csilla Varnai from the Babraham institute, well, I’m not sure what they used for their process of gathering DNA binding sequences from real Hi-C chromosomal conformation capture experiments, but I’d guess C++ (See next video)

3. Gaming engines, specifically Unreal: As used by Andy Lomas to map the DNA structural data to a 3D environment with which we could render video content as well as interact with the DNA molecules in VR.

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4. Hand-drawn animation was used by Henning M Lederer as well as Sabine Volkert. Sabine hand drew every frame of the Organa video!

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That is just amazing. So, Emergence is a product of 3 years of hard work and ideation and a fruit of the labor of a wide range of visual artists. It might be hard, but can you pick one or a couple of your favorite bits of content from the lot? What are you particularly happy with/ didn’t expect to turn out so good?

I was heavily involved in some of the video projects, directing the content and having long discussions over how to move forward on the ideas. Whereas for some of them I just sent the concept and brief to the visual artist and they nailed it with minimal additional input. One of my favorite examples of this, where the concept also fitted neatly into the musical form too, was the chapter/track called “order from chaos”, with the video created by Maxime Causeret.
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I was playing with an explicit emergence technique musically for this part, where I had recorded random raindrop sounds during a storm, and was then gradually forcing these percussive hits towards quantized grid positions during the intro, to yield an emergent rhythm from the rain, around which the rest of the track was built – order from chaos.

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Maxime applied the idea to early life with beautiful effect, showing complex cell structures and simple life forms, plus other emergent behaviors – murmurations, competition for resources etc, in a very artistic and colorful manner. It’s a great merger of different worlds, and was an exciting surprise to receive his first draft.

Personally, my favorite bits of content are those that involve science & simulation- the awesome visual representations of scientific data.
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Those are definitely my favorite bits of content too. Can you tell us a little bit about working with computer-generated simulations? How much of a hit and a miss is it working with simulators and data entry?

Andy Lomas’ cell growth simulations already existed before my project, he is a mathematician and artist who has been working with generative art techniques for many years, and I was just lucky to have his work put in front of me by a mutual friend, upon which I started some very interesting conversations and collaborations which are still ongoing now. It just happened that Andy’s work fitted perfectly with what I was aiming for with the project.

Whereas with Dugan, the process worked in the opposite direction – there had been several animations I wanted for some time and which I had asked many visual artists about, and found that they couldn’t do what was needed, and I needed to find a mathematician instead.

One of these ideas was that of showing higher dimensional forms – structures that exist in more than 3 dimensions of space, for the part of the story about spatial dimensionality.

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And, the other main chapter of relevance here is the first chapter, on the distribution of the prime numbers. Because I was working with a mathematician rather than a typical visual artist here, we chose to minimize and simplify the visual form to its basics, black and white wireframe representations of the data. The Chromos chapter also used real data.

But all in all, there wasn’t too much “hit and miss” involved. Nature seems to be inherently beautiful, so we just had to be true to nature’s form and it worked.

Staying true to Nature’s divine form. Believing and falling in love with Nature’s perfect imperfections. That is what Max is about :)
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Photo by Alex Kozobolis

With all of this amazing content, it is but natural that Max had to develop a cracker of a live show. People often describe his show as “hypnotic”- something which is only possible with some great blurring of the lines between audio & video. Of course, his setup was never going to be standard. We cover all of this and more in the next part, so stay tuned.

Notes from Max:

1) A big thanks to Vimeo for being so supportive of the Emergence project.
2) All of the collaborations, credits and ideas, along with stills and videos, are on the Emergence mini-site here
3) If you want updates on my projects as they arrive, drop your email onto my website and I’ll send you previews of each project as it comes.