Beneath the red, green and blue-lighted pillars of Sproul Hall, London-based electronic artist Max Cooper played to a mostly student crowd of about 120 Thursday night. The free outdoor concert, put on by UC Berkeley’s ASUC SUPERB, featured a half-hour opening set by student group String Theory followed by an almost two-hour performance by Cooper.
A former genetics researcher at University College London with a doctorate in computational biology, the 33-year-old Belfast native has been writing and performing electronic music professionally since 2007. Starting out as a dance DJ in the late ’90s, Cooper came to realize his inclination toward composing and producing music while pursuing his doctoral and post-doctoral degrees in the mid-2000s. He has since released more than 50 original tracks and remixes.
Cooper has caught the ear of publications like Clash Magazine and IDJ Magazine, and his music has earned him accolades such as the title of one of Resident Advisor’s top live acts of 2012 and the fifth position on Beatport’s list of the top artists of 2012. Thursday’s performance came at the tail end of Cooper’s roughly weeklong North American tour, which included appearances in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakdale, Calif. (for Symbiosis Gathering), and Juarez.
The artist began his set Thursday night with a resounding crunch. Reacting to what Cooper considers his more academic material, the crowd nodded sporadically to broken, mechanized sounds coming at a crawling pace. With the introduction of more sounds, both rhythmic and melodic, there eventually emerged a recognizable song to which the crowd was able to move in sync — but always with abstract, soundscape-like underpinnings.
Through his music, Cooper tries to evoke feelings, images and different states of mind.
“I write music to communicate a concept or a feeling,” he said after the show. “I usually start with an image or an emotion, and I ask myself, ‘How can I translate this into music?’”
Throughout the show, Cooper created what he calls “musical environments,” characterized by minimalist instrumentation and effected sounds, heavy on the reverb. But these more thoughtful, evocative compositions were interwoven with undeniably danceable tracks, full of throbbing bass, hard-hitting drums, rhythmic sequencing and totally graspable melodies. For Cooper, it’s all about toeing the line between the academic and the danceable.
“I want people to have fun with my music, so it should be danceable,” he said. “But I also want to challenge people — I want it to be musically interesting.”
Though stressing the fact that his creative process is emotive and feel-driven, Cooper recognized some crossover between his previous career in genetics research and composing music.
“What I was doing before and what I do now both have a lot to do with taking something that’s more abstract and recognizing patterns within it,” he said. “Genetics is recognizing patterns in signs, and music is recognizing patterns in nature.”
As the night progressed, so did the amount of bounce in the music and movement in the crowd. Speaking to the musical evolution of the set, Cooper said that he never plans a setlist in advance.
“I don’t plan out the songs I play beforehand,” he said. “I get a feeling from the crowd and I stick with it. It’s all improvised.”
As shown through the multiple times he raised his hands in appreciation toward the audience, Cooper said that he had a great time playing on Sproul.
“The crowd was really open-minded tonight,” he said. “I felt free to do what I wanted to do.”
With a new album in the works, a busy touring schedule for the coming months and increasing critical and popular attention, Max Cooper’s continued success in the electronic music scene is as guaranteed as his groove.