In concert – Max Cooper: Yearning for the Infinite

Max Cooper: Yearning for the Infinite

Part of the Barbican’s 2019 season, Life Rewired, which explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

Barbican Hall, London, Saturday 28 September 2019

Written by Ben Hogwood
Images courtesy of the Barbican: Alex Kozobolis

How do you capture the infinite in music? Composers through the ages have come close – Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner and Messiaen come to mind, as does Morton Feldman and, more recently, the Indian classical music greats.

That may be a relatively casual list of ‘big dimension’ composers, but it gives an idea of the task facing Max Cooper, responding to the Barbican’s commission to ‘capture the overwhelming vastness of infinity within the spaces of the Barbican Hall’.

Incredibly, Cooper succeeded. His means were clever, too, exploring the infinite possibilities of data and science through tiny building blocks that combined to make cavernous structures to which we could easily have listened all night. For this he drew on his experience and knowledge of computational biology, for which he has a PhD, and made this potentially tricky area of science wholly approachable to the more casual Saturday night concert goer. To do this he added genuine emotion to the more calculated cells, drawing on historical religious traits which added even greater weight to the concept.

The music would not have made such an impact without the visual counterpoint, whose impact could not be overestimated. Jessica In (channeling Roger Penrose), Andy Lomas and Memo Atken all achieved the admirable balance of covering their brief, complementing the music and taking the breath away with the originality of their projections, which used two-thirds of the Barbican Hall walls and ceiling, creating a true 3D experience. Nor was the music lacking in emotional substance, Cooper having created a score of vast possibilities but also, in its quieter moments, of great intimacy.

This was borne partly of thick, semi-ambient chords with consonant harmonies but also melodic cells that grew outwards in tandem with the images, sweeping towards a conclusion where it felt as though all the positive energy in the hall was heading towards the feet. When the music did cut loose with powerful four to the floor rhythms it was all we could do not to get up and dance – a few did – though the complexity of the following breakbeat section would soon have placed us out of our collective depth!

It was that sort of evening, awe-inspiring, intimate, emotive and powerfully primal by turn. The modesty of Cooper’s bow at the end spoke volumes, showing that he sees himself as a channel through which this breathtaking art can flow. Yearning for the Infinite is due for an album release in November, and if it replicates this night then it will be essential listening. For now this evening was another feather in Cooper’s increasingly colourful cap.

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