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Interview with Max Cooper 2

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, electronic producer max Cooper speaks about his preference for experimentation – and finding the right balance between originality and familiarity.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
For me it was a matter of trying lots of different styles and ideas, informed by my favourite music at the time, until I started to find what fitted for me most naturally. I think that a good way to find your own sound is to find what seems to be closest to you as a person musically. If you can capture a little piece of your soul and put it into musical form then you stand a good chance of it sounding original, as every person is different. But yes, I went through this usual development from sounding like other artists, to slowly finding my own thing, which is still on ongoing process, it’s a long road.

What's your own definition of originality?
Music that sounds different from others.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
I used to try and make music to fit into a particular scene or genre, where originality was constrained by the rules of the genre – this drum sound should be here, this one there, this BPM range etc etc. But as time went on, I started to get bored with these rules of electronic music genres, because there’s a whole world of music out there, so why restrict ourselves? So I’ve pushed things out in recent years, experimenting with generative elements, vocals, jazz musicians, concept driven tracks, classical elements, glitch, unusual rhythms and drums, and generally more an experimental approach to each piece of music. The nature of experimenting like this has been that not every track is to everyone’s taste, and I’ve certainly annoyed some of my old fans who would be content to hear the same styles as times past, but hopefully in the end, even if I make 100 shit tracks, there will be one in there which is really original and has some quality that will stand the test of time. I don’t think I’ve got there yet, but I’ll keep experimenting.

With more and more musicians creating more than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Yeah there’s certainly a content overload, but nearly all of it is just standard reworked formats. Trying to do something a little different is a good way to stand out amongst the mass of music, although it’s also very difficult to make something different that will still work for enough people, if people liking your music is a consideration – as people do love recognisable themes in music of course, ranging from the totally formulaic pop music formats to the most experimental music that some people refuse to even admit as being music! There is certainly a balance to be found, often the best new music, in my opinion, is that which can present a familiar theme or feeling, but in a new way – it’s a balance between originality and familiarity, where the originality can often be applied to one thing like the sound design or rhythm, while the familiarity could be present melodically, for example.

For me at the moment, my favourite music often comes from labels like Leisure System, Killekill, Erased Tapes, Houndstooth, Kompakt and Monkeytown/50 Weapons, and people like Rob Clouth, Donato Dozzy, Throwing Snow, Vessels, Rrose, Rival Consoles, Dauwd, Nils Frahm and Objekt.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
All of the writing process is challenging, it’s not easy to make good music! I’m always thinking about ways that I can apply new experiments to each tiny part of the process, from concepts that I can link to music, and experiments I can try with new techniques, synths, processing, systems etc – There’s almost an infinite parameter space to be explored out there with all the different systems available for making music, so I find it’s good to find your techniques that work, and then build from there, making small new experiments each time in order to make a step in parameter space, and hopefully allow for a hill climbing over time up to the most productive set of techniques. If you just totally randomised your approach every time it would become very difficult to consistently find good results or maintain consistency in your sound, although if you have the time to spare this could be a good thing to try as you’ll eventually land on some gold – the question is whether there are peaks out there which can’t be climbed to.

Aside from the technicalities of production technniques, a simple approach to finding fruitful new ground musically is to collaborate with others. I recently worked with some jazz musicians, and found the process a lot of fun, and rewarding musically. It was as simple as us all meeting up in a recording studio, and me playing my pre-made music to them as they improvised live over the top. Then I took away the recordings and edited and built the final tracks incorporating their alternative musical approach. That EP is just out now on Gearbox records. I also have another collaboration recently released on Killekill with Satirist (with me using the name Skew), where his alternative approach to music has pushed me much more into the screaming synth realms of dark room music.

One final technique I’ll expand on a little would be concepts. My last album, Human, was very concept driven, whereby I knew what the overall concept was – the musical representation of the human condition, and I had to design each track to fit into that story. Each track representing a different, common theme in being human. So for example, the first track is called "Woven Ancestry", and is about how each person is the product of all of their ancestors' genetic information and their ideas, passed down the generations, and spanning back in time out over the world along your family tree. This idea lead me to try using some old instruments from around the world, and have them all playing different melodies and loop lengths, but in a way that should combine to make a coherent whole like an individual. Using non-musical concepts in this way can push you into making music in new ways, which can be useful for originality, although not always conducive to popularity.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
For me, creativity is simply the process of combining existing things in new ways. Individuality comes into play again here, in that your strength lies in applying your one-of-a-kind life to a problem, so that you can solve it in a way that no one else has done before. Taking in as much information as possible is important, as the more you learn about the world, the more likely you are to make a new link between seemingly disparate ideas.

Art happens when something is bestowed with meaning. So for example, sound becomes music when someone intends meaning to be communicated by the waveforms they have designed.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
No one can claim anything to be totally their own, as everyone is the product of their genes and environment, and their thoughts and actions are determined by what has come before – ideas do not come from nowhere. So it’s just a matter of where on a scale any work of art, music, or scientific, religious, any idea, sits. Most of the time there are clear links to other preceding ideas that can be heard or seen, tying each work to the artists interests and life. Isaac Newton’s famous quote “standing on the shoulders of giants” is applicable to all areas of new thought.

But of course, there are times when people make bigger steps away from pre-existing ideas than others, and those people capable of making the biggest steps deserve credit. When it comes to music, there are very few people who make these sorts of steps, and I wouldn’t claim to be one, although I hope that if I keep working hard there is always the possibility.

As for a model for recognising originality – only an all knowing computer with all of earths history could do this, as for each new person alive, everything is new, even if it happened before – especially for music, we often just go round and round in cycles of what is fashionable, adding small changes each time. So it can only come down to the individual, if something sounds new and great to you, that’s all that matters.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
One great way of making new music is to use new technology, as that can open doors that simply couldn’t be opened before. For me recently, bringing generative techniques into my digital productions has been really useful – where I can set up partially random controls inside my projects, so that rather than having full control over everything, I’m more focused on having control over the changing system and it’s boundaries, that’s one nice way I’ve been able to bring high levels of complexity into my productions, but still in a way that maintains a human element.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
We live an an era that celebrates free thought in certain areas, like technology and in business, even if it’s not always celebrated in a wider political and religious context. Free thought in anything that can make money is encouraged, and that is conducive to originality in music too, but for things that don’t make money, we probably still have a way to go, particularly in some parts of the world.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Yes. I’ve always got too many things I want to try, and not enough time or resources to make them happen. But as time is going on I’ve been lucky enough to meet the right people who share my interests and have the technical expertise and ability to try some of the more challenging ideas out. More coming on this point very soon.

Max Cooper Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Shaun Bloodworth

Homepage: Max Cooper