Live Music + Gig Reviews

Max Cooper @ Barbican, London

28 September 2019

Max Cooper

Max Cooper playing Yearning For The Infinite at the Barbican (Photo: Alex Kozobolis)

One Hundred Billion Sparks, Max Cooper’s album from last year, portrayed an artist interested in music informed by the possibilities of scale and volume and this show at the Barbican based around the concept of infinity took this idea to the next logical step. Specifically, the show was titled Yearning For The Infinite and was part of the Barbican’s Life Rewired season which explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything. In this respect Cooper felt a doubly appropriate choice to be involved in such a season given that his music, although predominantly electronic, features a strong human, emotive element to it.

It’s immediately apparent that tonight will also have a strong visual dimension to it as a large semi-transparent screen separates the stage from the audience. As the partially obscured Cooper begins to play the visual representations of infinity (both figurative and abstract) quickly begin to appear on the screen and the wooden panelling of the Barbican Hall. Early images focus on broad themes – cosmology, nature, people, religion – before they proliferate into more arcane territory, simple lines darting in ways that simultaneously suggest mathematical formulae, microbes being examined under the microscope and non-standard musical notation.

Sonically, the opening stages see Cooper pull from his familiar pool of electronic sounds, soldering them together into one cohesive whole. There’s also occasional moments of restrained piano that help add a softening, reflective touch. The music heard tonight will be released on album in November and the lead-up track Repetition arrives early tonight, all slow build and linear extension.

Half way in, it is clear that tonight will be a metaphorical feast for the ears, eyes and soul as Cooper effortlessly takes on big subjects and subsumes them into his art. Infinity may have one relatively straightforward definition, but Cooper shows how aesthetically it can be extrapolated into areas such as travel, data, biology and architecture. Anyone who has driven long stretches on a motorway at night can surely appreciate how infinity can work its way into everyday life.

Musically, it’s a thoroughly absorbing spectacle also. The sudden increase in tempo and appearance of strobes is a reminder that Cooper’s music is equally at home in a club or non-club environment and there’s a pleasing mutability to much of the music. There’s a section that sounds like it would be extremely well-suited to being released on the Warp label and further down the line we even get hints at drum ’n’ bass. There’s a short period that recalls the likes of electronic titans Orbital and Underworld before he signals a return to classic territory with some intensive, searing, marauding techno. It shows he’s one of the leaders in creating a sort of managed hedonism. Artists like Jon Hopkins may have edged ahead of him in the stratospheric electronica stakes but Cooper is still a masterful conjuror of emotion-soaked sounds and moods.

This is seen in the slightly darker, more sombre episode towards the end of the show which pits one person against the immensity of the universe. Pondering infinity can easily result in confusion and feeling overwhelmed and he channels these into his music, concepts which receive suitable visual backing. He soon offers redemption however as we are swung back into benign territory as a peaceful mediation on the beauty of Earth plays out, all flowers, wildlife, horizons and oceans. Along with considered sounds it brings the focus back to the here and now.

The only possible minor negative is that it could be construed that he doesn’t seem to know exactly when to bring the piece to a close. Just as what seems to be an appropriate moment ends, the music starts up again (admittedly appropriate for a piece inspired by infinity).

The appearance of sequencing numbers at end seems to suggest the idea of ‘pure infinity’ and despite the negative connotations of being human in a world dominated by technology these closing stages conversely feel almost like a celebration of infinity, a celebration of worldly possibilities and artistic creation. It’s a hugely ambitious, brilliantly executed audiovisual show and as Cooper steps out from behind the screen to acknowledge the crowd he deserves every piece of acclaim he receives.

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