As the finish line of 2016's marathon of socio-political disasters comes into view, never has there a been a more pressing time for reflection. Even more soul-searching and scrambling for answers will happen in closing weeks of the year.
Max Cooper's latest album, Emergence, which is out now on his own label Mesh, offers an alternative perspective on our times. One that strips human rights back to their biological foundations, probing how systems—natural, or otherwise—evolved to bring society to where it is now. The album is influenced by the scientific theory of emergence—that all natural processes are built upon systems that started small and iterated into complex entities. Simples rules created complexity. Think about how snowflakes are formed; a tiny dust particle in the clouds catches water vapor and turns into an ice crystal, as the flake falls through the earth's atmosphere the pattern multiplies into a complex formation.
Today Cooper is sharing an animated video for "Trust"—an intricate and fragile track haunted by Kathrin deBoer's searing vocals—directed by motion design artist RC Aksun. It follows a kindly space robot who unwittingly topples a power-hungry, large-chinned, dictator.
"The subtexts [of the video] are pretty clear: A commander out of his depth, finger on the trigger, lack of humanity laid bare compared to our robotic hero who just simply cares, who has more humanity than the humans," Aksun said in a press release. "And then said-commander turns out to be a monster in the end anyway, which may or may not be a parable."
To accompany the clip, THUMP caught up with the Northern Irish producer to talk about how emergence theory influenced the album, and what it can tell us about the world.
THUMP: Your music has been described as orchestral. How do you feel about that?
Max Cooper: I've always been into the post-classical thing. The combination of old classical musical elements with synths and modern techniques—I'm really into that. A lot of the time, with classical music, there are a lot of traditionalists in there who are resistant to the idea of fusing electronic music with classical. But now there are a lot of artists who have done great things in electronic music that is outside the club realm.
You have a PhD in computational biological. What is that?
It's making computer simulations of biological systems. Biology is very complex—it's messy and too complicated to be broken down into simple equations. In biology, reductionism doesn't work—you have to consider the complexity of the systems to really understand it, you cant simplify it down into a bite-sized unit. So computers come in really handy to simplify things that are really complex in order to be able to play around with systems.
The album is influenced by emergence theory. What's that all about?
The whole narrative [of the album] is this emergent narrative—it starts off with the simplest building blocks. If you follow the modern scientific dogma, then this is the idea that things existed in some sense before the physical universe came into being. So I'm presenting these basic building blocks of laws and structures which give rise to the physical world and natural life, and then later on to us, and all the complexities of our world. The idea is emergence—one system yields the next in an emergent form.
If the album is about how all the little building blocks of life come together to form our world, seems like there might be an important takeaway in that concept given our current political climate.
I guess it's linked to the idea of the meme—Dawkins' meme—where you're treating the modern world of ideas and information spread like a biological system. In the same way that a communication which is very virile, has an advantage or makes something replicate more quickly, those ideas spread through the system faster. That is the sort of effect you see with the current political situation: the politicians stand up and say something and it doesn't matter whether it's true or not, what matters is the vitality of their idea—how quickly an idea can spread. It's irrelevant whether it's true if it taps into the person's emotions and makes them want to tell their friends about it.
The same system is how evolution works. We're all a product of the natural world. Even if we feel like we're not part of it, we very much are just another natural system. We're the human machines which are the victims of our circumstances. If you're brought up a certain way to believe certain things, then you're a machine and will behave in a certain way. People like to feel like they have free will, that they can decide what's the right thing to do but actually we all do what we've programmed ourselves to do. We're all slaves to the natural system as much as anything else. I guess the difference is that we're aware of it, and maybe we're not totally enslaved by it.