Sound ideas at Melbourne’s festival of the future

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Imagine an artwork that unified absolutely everyone. An act of creation that triggered a common neurobiological response. Some kind of thing or event or experience that opened a shared window of enlightenment, rendering divisions and differences obsolete in the flash of a single idea.

Max Cooper, one of the featured artists at Now or Never festival, says he’s not the focus of his audiovisual compositions.Credit: Alex Kozobolis

An example might be that photograph by the Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders of planet Earth as a precious blue marble in a vast black sea. Hard to credit now, but that image resulted in a quantum shift in human awareness in 1968. Now apply the 21st century art experience buzzword “immersive”. Can you imagine that?

“Yeah, absolutely,” Max Cooper enthuses. “I think the best pieces of music are ones that do evoke a common experience… [that] capture some feeling in the most simple form. And that means that it’s most likely to be communicated to the most number of people… That’s the holy grail, musically.”

The audiovisual electronic artist from Belfast, returning to Melbourne for the inaugural Now or Never festival of “art, ideas, sound and technology” this month, offers a recent piece to illustrate. Small Window On the Cosmos wound up on his Unspoken Words album, but it was originally commissioned by the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow.

“The brief was ‘OK, Trump and Putin and all the world leaders are going to sit down and listen to this piece of music, and they will close their eyes and…’ It was about environmental awareness.

“I was like, wow, what an amazing task to be set musically. What sort of music can I make to make people who are obviously consumed in their own power and success think more altruistically? How do I make them feel small, essentially, as part of the bigger system?”

‘It sits somewhere between cinema and theatre and traditional music.’

Alas, there’s no evidence so far of Small Window… inspiring epiphanies at world leader level. But with its stunning cosmic eye video by Parisian visual artist Thomas Vanz, the piece has served as a curtain-raiser for Cooper’s (here’s that word) immersive AV performances in recent months.

“It fulfilled that brief of essentially communicating something which is really hard to put into words,” he says. “If I can find something to create that feeling of awe and I can put that into music, that’s usually some of the better pieces of music that I make. Those sorts of feelings can make us behave more thoughtfully, and they can be actually helpful.”

Trust him: he’s a scientist. Cooper’s PhD in computational biology was about setting up “self-optimising gene regulatory networks” and then cracking their operating codes. You can try and understand what that means, or you can just soak up the big ideas through his music and 3D digital video commissions.

“It sits somewhere between cinema and theatre and traditional music,” he says, about his music and 3D video commissions. “I play between screens so as a performer, I’m not the focus. The focus is the natural ideas and the musical interpretations and the story.” I try to immerse the audience and take myself out of that a little bit. It’s not a traditional music show.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp calls Now or Never “a grand experiment”: a hybrid revamp of Melbourne Music Week and Melbourne Knowledge Week encompassing dozens of events which “call for curiosity and collective awe” through “digital art and future thinking”.

Max Cooper is part of an experimental electronic gathering with fellow UK artists Autechre, Actress and Giant Swan that lies at the heart of the festival, both in terms of its 17-day timeline and its flagship space, the Royal Exhibition Building.

In an exclusive Australian show, Kelela will be on stage at Now or Never on August 27. Credit:

“We are really transforming this heritage-listed building into a venue of the future,” says NoN Artistic director Elise Peyronnet. “We are building a really massive screen to take advantage of the height of the ceiling, to use it as a canvas, to project onto it.”

Of the music component specifically, “what’s really important is that we handpicked artists who have something to say that is beyond just the aesthetic,” she says of a program curated to represent multiple generations of experimental/electronic artists.

At the ancient history end, Steve Reich’s mid-’70s minimalist landmark Music For 18 Musicians will be performed by Orchestra Victoria. Current techno and R&B frontiers will be defined by German DJ/producer Ame and underground pop provocateur Kelela. In that context, “I would say that maybe Max Cooper is the future,” she says.

Cooper clearly sees his work in terms of the big arc of life, human progress and self-awareness, whether he’s invoking the physical universe, patterns in biochemistry and civilisation or charting the digits of Pi in sound and video.

“It’s funny,” he says, “all my shows still reference my first audiovisual album [of 2014], Emergence, because Emergence is this grand scientific narrative: how the universe came to be and how we came from these systems. All subsequent projects somehow slot into that grand narrative.”

They also slot into a more recent narrative, in which a boy from war-torn Northern Ireland fell into 1990s rave culture and discovered the social cohesion and unity of purpose that eluded him in life.

“To see that there can be this positive space that electronic music had enabled … that had a major impact on me, which I then have taken into everything I do,” he says. “My music is structured around those [scientific] ideas I mentioned, but behind all that is the feeling of emotional engagement with these things.”

Which steers us back to the holy grail of a common neurobiological response. Even if the science of unifying absolutely everybody remains imperfect, even to computational biologists.

“People interact with my music in very different ways. Some people just love the ‘trippy visuals’,” he says, smiling between air quotes, “and some people come and say, ‘You were talking about this philosophical idea’, and they really delve into what it was and why it’s important.

“That’s fine. Art should be something that we’re allowed to interact with and take what each person needs and wants from it. The deeper you go into it, the more there is to find. You can get the surround sound system, and you can read the philosophy paper and … delve into all the details and all the structure…

“But at the same time, I also love going to a club and having a good time and not worrying about any of that stuff. I guess there’s sometimes a bit of a tension there between the two things. But my music can function in that way as well.”

Max Cooper is at the Royal Exhibition Building with fellow UK electronic artists Autechre, Actress and Giant Swan on Friday, August 25. For more Now or Never events, see

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