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Approaching the infinite: Max Cooper

INTERVIEW! We caught producer Max Cooper before his show at Silent Green Kulturquartier on Oct 23 to chat about the beauty of nature, visualising the infinite and why it's the human condition to always be yearning for more.

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Photo by Alex Kozobolis. Catch Max Cooper’s Yearning For The Infinite at Silent Green Kulturquartier on Oct 23.

Producer Max Cooper is famous for his interpretations of natural phenomena, ideas taken from science and nature, and representing them in vast audio/visual shows. Created in collaboration with London’s Barbican Centre, Yearning For The Infinite, is his most expansive performance to date, an exploration of humankind’s obsession with the unobtainable. Ahead of his show at the Silent Green Kulturquartier, on October 23, Cooper talks the inherent beauty of nature and how music can approach the infinite.

What is Yearning For The Infinite?

It’s a project that tries to visualise something about our nature. More specifically, the endlessness of the system in which we exist.

How did your collaboration with the Barbican come about?

We’d been speaking for some time about doing something. The basis of the Barbican programme for that year was the influence of new technology on society. Fortuitously, society and new technology are both elements that are featured quite heavily in my work. 

Was the architecture of the Barbican Centre an influence for you?

The architecture of the Barbican hall itself featured heavily in the first show. I designed that into the performance. With Yearning For The Infinite, I wanted to convey these huge themes in an audiovisual format, and I decided to use the hall of the Barbican Centre as a canvas. I projected all over the inside, onto the floor, the roof, and even on to the audience themselves. I wanted to amplify the idea of these infinite structures.

What makes a good space for this show?

I need a big engulfing space. It’s not a rave – actually, there is a version of the show that’s a little bit more dancey, but the optimised version is a seated one – so I need it to be comfortable too. After that, it’s all about acoustics. It’s about finding a balance between the three. I want to be able to reach that intensity visually and musically, using what each space has to offer.

Are you excited to be debuting your show in Europe at the brand new Betonhalle?

Yes, it looks like a special venue. Right now, I’m looking at plans and thinking about how I can turn the space into an engulfing three-dimensional structure that can convey the story. 

Would you consider the show to be a theatrical experience?

It sits somewhere between live music, cinema and theatre. Sometimes, I’m inside the visuals, and you can’t see me at all. At others, I’m more visible, and it has more of a live performance aspect. 

What does the infinite mean to you?

The core idea of this whole project was this brief from the Barbican. We are locked in a system where people always want more. People are always seeking things. It’s part of what makes us human. If we stopped wanting anything, then it would be hard to imagine what we would do. We’re locked in this endless attempt to do something. Whatever it is, we’re all yearning for the infinite in some sense. That was the human side of the story. 

Talk to me about your interest in science?

The show also uses more scientific renderings of the infinite, and there are many ways of representing that. Georg Cantor had this idea that there could be different sizes of infinity. If you can take two endless lists, and pair up all the elements of each one, then they’re the same size, in a sense. Great. But if you have two lists which never stop, and you can prove there is no way of pairing up those individual elements, then one has to be bigger than the other, even though they go on forever. I worked with a mathematician in the USA called Martin Krzywinski. He did some rigorous visualisations of these ideas. The result was an incredible flowing list of numbers getting ever more intense with bijections, diagonal arguments, powersets and all the rest. It’s a fun visual and also a great way of taking something that didn’t have a visual component at all and turning it something aesthetic. Every chapter and associated piece of music has that sort of back story and level of attention and planning.

Is yearning for the infinite a story of natural desire or a manipulated one?

It’s both. But obviously, technology has changed the way we desire. If we looked at people 100,000 years ago, their yearning could be for basic, fundamental human needs. Our yearnings now have become more and more abstracted. People may spend their whole lives obsessing about something foreign to people of the past. Yearning changes form, but I think as a species, we’re somewhat hardwired to search for more. We’re slaves to the system. One of the main points of the whole project is to show people, the earth, and life generally, as part of the same system and not as separate entities.

What do you desire that you find out of reach?

My music and my work is an expression of a drive within me that I can’t put into words. That’s what pushes me forward. I’ve thought about it a bit, and it could be a fear of death. Death, this inescapable infinitude – is one chapter of the show – and the feeling of art as a rendering of the soul in a more permanent form. It’s not the whole story of my yearning, but it’s part of it.

One of the singles on the LP is called repetition. Repetition is a mathematical feature that is expressed everywhere in nature. Do you think it is a coincidence that the basis of our most entrancing musical forms is repetition?

Repetition is the basis of all music. If you have no repetition, then you have no structure. As soon as you create a tone, you have repetition because by it’s nature, a tone is just a repeating frequency. So you can’t have music without repetition. You can certainly have more, or less, repetitive music, and it’s also true that some of the most entrancing music is also some of the most repetitive music. 

Nature is inherently beautiful, and I’m definitely drawn to these patterns in nature. I’ve made my career on looking at these things and having a love of natural form. There seems to be a connection in our aesthetic judgement between nature and the things we create and enjoy, even if it is unintentional.

Tell me about your process in expressing these grand concepts musically.

I wanted a way of visualising the infinite. I thought about Penrose tiling, a method that can tile an infinite plane without repeating, that’s an impressive mathematical structure and a representation of the infinite. At that point, I have an aesthetic; obviously, I don’t know what it looks like precisely, but I have some idea. I extend that idea into a show and think about how to tell that story. There are troughs and peaks, and, naturally, it becomes more intense towards the end. At that point, it’s almost like scoring for a movie. 

I’m always looking for exciting ways that tie those elements together. For example, Penrose tiling is aperiodic, which means it has structure, but it doesn’t have a single repeating unit; it continually changes. So, I became interested in creating an aperiodic piece of music. When you’re making music, you have all these different elements, and they all interact, but they don’t have to be the same length. So, I made a system where the loops would never interact – in the same way that the tiling system never repeats. Musically, you get this incredible syncopating effect.

Who are your collaborators on this one?

It’s a mixture. There are a few traditional animators and filmmakers. Then there’s also mathematicians and computer scientists and architects too. There’s a spread of different backgrounds to making those visuals like artists Memo Akten, Maxime Causeret, Nick Cobby, Jessica In, Sage Jenson, Martin Krzywinski, Andy Lomas, Kevin McGloughlin, Paraic McGloughlin and Thomas Vanz. There will be a website explaining the project as a whole for the album release on November 7.

Max Cooper Yearning For The Infinite | Betonhalle, Silent Green Kulturquartier, Oct 23, 20:00.