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Max Cooper Emergence

Emergence is the story of natural laws and processes, their inherent beauty, and their action to yield the universe, us and the world we live in.

I started working on the project around 3 years ago, when I was thinking about how I could link my interests in science, music and visual arts together. The theme was one already touched on in previous music video projects, and one that provided potential to incorporate many different ideas and audio-visual experiments into a single narrative, so I got stuck in to see where the project would take me. The result was initially a live AV show, which then turned into an album, and for the final piece to close the project next year, a surround sound movie format.

The story is told using a universe timeline, from pre-big bang to future, with each chapter a collaboration with a different visual artist, including some collaborations with mathematicians or scientists for those chapters using real data visualisation. As such, there is a huge range in visual styles, and for each different idea and piece of music I had in mind, it was a matter of finding the right visual artist and approach to try and tell that part of the story. My aim with this approach was to have plenty of variation to make what is an often abstract narrative, interesting, and also a hope that the over-arching story links the different visual styles together.

This site outlines the narrative of the Emergence show with information on the ideas involved in each section and chapter, as well as a summary of the visual and audio content, and credits and links for the many collaborators who took part in the project. It is not supposed to be a rigorous scientific presentation of ideas, the project is my own interpretation of the modern scientific story, told through visual art and music, with a focus on those ideas that I find most interesting and revealing.

It’s been an absolute pleasure working with all the amazing visual artists and musicians involved, and all the better because I’ve been able to learn a lot of interesting things, and delve into ideas that I find exciting as part of a music project. This approach has encouraged me to create a new label called Mesh, focused on music which is part of bigger arts and science projects such as this.

Thank you for having a deeper look into Emergence, and I hope you find some things in there which you enjoy. Max

Fundamental Natural Form
The Primes
Dimensionality
Symmetry
Waves

The Physical Universe
Gravity
Inside the Black Hole
Planets
Alien Landscapes

Life
Protolife
Biochemistry
Heredity
Multicellularity
Adaptation
Waterforms
Complex Morphologies
Cycles
The Human Machine

Civilisation
Self-Awareness
Population Growth
The Capitalist Machine

The Digital Age / Future
The Digital Self
Self-Contained Universe
Altruism
Future Entities
Unbounded

The early chapters of the Emergence story focus on the fundamentals of natural laws themselves, the basic principles of nature which needed to be in place before the physical universe could come into being. These building blocks of nature often involve beautiful abstract forms, which was another reason this whole concept appealed to me for an AV show theme.

The Primes

I decided that the structure of numbers themselves could be a good first step, as a view into natural form which comprises a most basic level of order which must exist before quantifiable laws or inter-relationships can operate - more specifically, a visualisation of the primes, which are the building blocks of all other numbers.

The form of the primes are viewed first through visualisations of Riemann’s Zeta function, then The Sieve of Eratosthene’s, and finally, Sacks Spiral. One interesting thing about this last visualisation, of the distribution of the primes amongst the non-primes, is that it is formed of imprecise patterns and the distribution of the primes in general cannot be fully understood or predicted even by today's mathematicians. This seems to highlight a generally recurring, and I think, important, feature of nature - A combination of clear order, with apparent randomness or form which is beyond our capacity to understand: A visualisation of the general feature that nothing in the real world is perfect.

Dimensionality

We exist in a familiar 3 spatial dimensions, up/down, forwards/backwards and left/right. But our best understanding of nature tells us that there can be systems with different numbers of spatial dimensions.

For a long time I wanted to experiment with visualising worlds in higher dimensional space, folded down to 3-dimensions for viewing (just as we can view a 3-dimensional world folded down to a 2-dimensional screen). When higher dimensional shapes are rotated and viewed from a lesser dimensional view-point, beautiful structural warping seems to occur, even though the objects are not actually changing shape. I wanted to use this natural process to give insight into the property of spatial dimensionality, and eventually I was lucky enough to find a mathematician, Dugan Hammock, with a shared interest in these forms of visual system, and the skills to build the required Matlab code to model them.

Here we view the beauty of the simple act of rotating objects that exist in 4 dimensions of space, as a means of introducing the concept of dimensionality.

Symmetry

Symmetry is one of the most fundamental principles of nature, and forms the basis of music. So this music video is an early chapter in the Emergence audio-visual project, where the basic principles of nature are visualised, setting the stage for the physical universe to come into being.

Symmetry is the idea that one aspect of a system can change while another remains constant. The idea of natural laws themselves, rely on the forms of symmetry that mean the same forces will apply to you as they do to me, independently of our position in space or time. And scientists searches for nature’s symmetries lie at the heart of much of our best models of reality.

The principle is also responsible for music, in that our enjoyment of tonality, melody, harmony and rhythm comes from our subconscious appreciation of different types of patterns (i.e. symmetries) in sound waves.

I wanted to visualise the idea that some properties of a system can be changed, while others remain constant.

This gives rise to predictability and patterns in the world around us; things follow the same rules today as they did yesterday, and we stay the same person irrespective of what direction we face or where we are. Symmetries in nature cause what we call natural laws, to exist.

Kevin McGloughlin explored this idea in the video by using simple symmetrical forms (primarily the circle), and symmetrical operations applied to them - rotations, translations and reflections. The animation demonstrates the beauty of this simple concept when applied in an iterative journey towards ever increasing complexity, both visually and musically.

Waves

Nature at the smallest scales is thought to be composed of something wave-like. Waves are also the basis of music, and they yield beautiful visual form in addition. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that nature’s fundamentals are often linked to our aesthetic tastes in this sort of way. Maybe we have some subconscious appreciation for their importance, or it could just be through social conditioning and the fact that they are common forms because of their natural irreducibility.

The idea seemed like a simple one visually, so I wanted to create a simple classic synth approach musically, and find a strong retro aesthetic visually to match. Tom Hodge added some Fender Rhodes noodling for extra retro feel, and Kevin McGloughlin nailed the visual approach with a great technique for presenting waves as the product of strong moving lines in a simple colour scheme. Some of the video work reminds me of 60’s or 70’s modernist imagery, which fit right in musically.

I chose the concept of waves for part of the Emergence story, because they are a very important idea in much of our understanding of the world around us, and within us. They form the basis of light and wireless communications, and our source of energy from the sun which creates almost all plant and animal life. Our best understanding of the fundamental nature of reality at the smallest scales is purely waves, apparently. And even the process of neuronal action that produces our awareness relies on waves of charge flow created by forces which are supposedly themselves mediated by waves - the virtual photon, a massless wave (i.e. light), being the force carrier of the electromagnetic charge which shunts particles around inside your neurones to make you think. And then there’s the more familiar waves that can dump you under and make you swallow some rank sea water.

There are different ways in which waves can operate, and what constitutes a wave at all, with or without a medium for example. But they all seem to involve energy transfer without needing the transfer of physical mass - like you can see in the video, the mass (each particle, or a charge) moves up and down on a single axis, and the wave, and energy, is propagated through the medium by these point oscillations.

Now the stage has been set with natural law, the physical universe of matter emerges with the big bang, and the familiar physical forces of nature start to shape this initially formless sea of hydrogen towards the universe we see above us.

Gravity

Finally it’s time for the arrival of the physical world in the emergence storyline. I didn’t want to make an overstated big bang, so I opted for a transition to white screen for the arrival of a formless universe full of the simplest chemical element, hydrogen.

Slowly gravity starts to take its effect on any tiny irregularities in the density of this huge cloud, and matter starts to clump. Eventually so much hydrogen clumps in one place that the forces involved initiate the first nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, and the first light is produced as a by-product, with the birth of the first star. The gravitational aggregation process continues however, and eventually the forces become so great that even light is sucked in, and the first black hole is formed, eventually swallowing us, the viewer.

Inside the Black Hole

Now we’re inside the black hole and things get absolutely speculative with full artistic licence. I’ve experimented with a couple of different ways of telling this part of the visual story, initially with the music video for “Gravity Well” by Vicetto, and now with this collaborative piece of music with the pianist Tom Hodge, with a video created by Susi Sie. This particular chapter of the story delves into the ineffable side of the process of emergence, and the almost mythical nature of some areas of science.

Scientific ideas should be falsifiable and demonstrable irrespective of who is performing the tests. Most of the foundations of science are made solid with these principles, but much of modern science sits on more shaky ground as it becomes harder and harder to test new ideas.

Often these untested or untestable ideas are the most exciting and exotic, so they enter popular knowledge, and while being part of science, have a lot in common with myth and dogma. The idea of emergence also involves an unexpected, or unknown outcome, resulting from a simple defined system - it’s a principle that specifically points out when we’re surprised about how a system functions.

I wanted to try and capture this mysterious feeling musically, and apply it to part of the visual story which sits outside of our knowledge - the part where we (the audience) fall into the black hole. I set up a feedback matrix which sent audio around in complex loops of effects, again yielding a form of emergent or generative audio.

Susi Sie is an artist from Berlin who specialises in filming secret combinations of different liquids with beautiful results. I thought that could be a nice way of unscientifically presenting what it might be like inside a black hole with light bending and warping under the influence of extreme gravity.

Planets

This chapter in the story deals with planet formation. A sea of rocks and gas clumps continue to aggregate under the force of gravity, with footage taken from Tom Geraedts video for supine showing floating segments of smashed mirror floating in space, and far off views of planetary surfaces. This footage is complemented with work by Murat Sayginer, showing an emerging earth forming from a particle cloud. There aren’t any hidden scientific messages in this section, it’s just a simple artistic interpretation of the process.

Alien Landscapes

We return to some mathematical modelling for this chapter, a collaboration with the artist Cornus Ammonis, whose beautiful models of pattern formation systems caught my attention as a great way of presenting an otherworldly planetary surface warping in intuitively natural ways. These geological forces are unlike anything in our solar system however, with an oscillatory behaviour between states as well as a more traditional fluid dynamic. The result is something beautiful and unusual, but hopefully still familiar in relation to our reality’s form.

The story of the emergence of life is told by looking at some key components, the cell, cellular organelles and biochemical processes, heredity in the form of DNA, then the development of the simplest cellular forms into ever more complex and adapted structures, all the way up to the morphological richness and complexity of the plant and animal worlds.

Protolife

This video used real physical process to demonstrate nature’s tendency towards generating the cellular building blocks of early life.

RabbitHole and BlackBox filmed two immiscible liquids to demonstrate the process by which cells can form, forcibly mixing the liquids by mechanical means resulting in the formation of isolated spherical droplets of hydrophobic oils in water.

Even now, our cells rely on these same electromagnetic forces involving water to create their cell membranes. All living cells have the same sort of hydrophobic barrier to the outside world, to allow them to be self-contained units upon which selectional pressures can start to act to spur on protolife moving towards life.

Living cells membranes are much more complex than what is created here, but the general idea of how simple natural forces can lead to simple self-contained units in which competition could begin, was something I thought was interesting and a good way of showing this part of the start in an artistic way.

Biochemistry

This video sequence by Nick Cobby shows cell-organelle-like structures developing, and lock-and-key-like interactions for the glitch sections. So I thought it would be a nice abstract way of presenting intracellular form and dynamics; the factory operating inside every living cell, reliant on a vast shipping network, countless tiny molecular machines and complex molecules bouncing in a hot soup and fitting together in precise forms to direct metabolism and cell behaviour. It’s a miracle it works at all, but nature is great at robustness after billions of years of failed attempts.

Heredity

This part of the story was a collaboration with geneticists Mikhail Spivakov, Peter Fraser and Csilla Varnai at the Babraham Institute Cambridge, and the mathematician/visual artist Andy Lomas.

The Institute provided data from DNA folding experiments which map the points of contact between chromosomes. Real chromosomal conformation data was used to create videos showing how DNA folds into complex structures which help define its function in every cell.

Andy Lomas built a visual system to make a music video (and later VR experience) showing a simulated model which tries to predict how the chromosome must fold in order to produce the correct final structure matching the points of contact data. It’s a beautiful process showing how science and modelling proceed to try and predict what our DNA looks like inside the cell, so that it can carry out particular functions i.e. it’s folded in a very specific way, and how it is folded, influences how it, and how we, work.

Multicellularity

These beautiful generative visuals by Andy Lomas are built from a mathematical model of cell division, mechanical forces and responses to nutrients and light.

This is a key part of the live visual show as Andy’s models illustrate the capacity of cellular systems to form complex structures. Perhaps surprisingly, his simplified system regularly yields morphologies reminiscent of real biological forms, even though it is not set up with specifically biological rules.

Andy sets the parameters describing the physical forces between cells, and their growth responses to nutrients and light in the simulated system, and the cells replicate to create a new physical structure every time.

His work demonstrates the huge potential of multicellular forms and growth processes to create beautiful ordered and adaptive structures emerging from simple natural laws.

Interestingly, the most aesthetically rich growth behaviours tend to occur at the boundaries between parameter space regions for specific forms - complexity and potential for rich functionality being a product of phase transition regions. A general principle that seems to reach far into other areas of science.

Adaptation

This is one track where I used the ‘emergent’ principle a little more explicitly in the musical creation. I forced an emergent rhythm by sampling the sound of rain hitting my window using binaural microphones, and then took the random rain hits and gradually during the track force them towards their nearest grid positions on a live-drum grid pattern. This process causes the initially random rain hits to slowly produce an emergent rhythm, which forms the basis of the percussion for the rest of the track i.e. it’s an emergent musical process, yielding order from chaos, with the video about the same principle, applied to living systems emerging from disorder.

Maxime Causeret has created a beautiful colourful exploration of simple living forms in an ancient marine environment, looking at morphological specialisation, emergent swarming behaviours, reaction-diffusion, immotile plant forms and simple motile life competing for resources - Some of the sorts of systems important in leading to the rich variation and specialisation of life we see today, with a near-perfectly adapted form for every different ecological niche.

Waterforms

Vincent Houze has created a great audio responsive living environment for this chapter. Where the ebb and flow of the water, and the action of the anemone’s and sea grasses run in sync with elements of the music, creating a strange dance. Sea life is still dominant at this period in the story, before complex land-life has taken hold.

The music for the section is the track, Seed, with Kathrin deBoer, where I recorded a many takes of her vocalising over a tremolo chord progression, and then layered up the vocals as an instrument. I ended up pulling out all of the lyrics to focus the track in on the core feeling of Kathrin’s vocal layering which create beautiful harmonies throughout.

Complex Morphologies

This chapter is told by Sabine Volkert, an amazing artist who hand draws every frame of the video sequence to yield a very different, very humanised type of music video. Her style also lends itself well to the general idea of Darwinian evolution - the tinkering of natural living forms by mutation and genetically directed development, yielding the warping and experimentation of morphology, told through Sabine’s hand-warped recursive sketches.

Cycles

We are surrounded by cycles, in our days, seasons, behaviours, growth and decay, birth and death, the repeating of all things and their impermanence. All of life and the natural environment has cycles operating at many levels from cellular protein turnover, to growth phases, sleep and wake cycles in complex organisms following the cycles of the day, monthly and yearly cycles of tides and seasons.

This idea is captured musically with a simple arpeggiating riff and looped musical structure that only builds without deviating from it’s repetition.

Craig (Numbercult) set up a live generative visual system for an abstract exploration of the concept of nature’s cycles in this video, programmed to react to the different elements of the track, as well as being controlled live. I asked him if he could create a system full of different cycles, each mapped to the different audio elements, many of which are layered in the piece of music, and in parallel, in the video. The result is this final live rendition of Cyclic, with all of it’s complex interlinking geometries representing the complex web of interacting cycles in the real world.

The video captures this idea of nested cycles one within the other, forming a complex developing system. I love how it sometimes seems to create 3-dimensional objects and recognisable forms, in amongst the chaos!

The Human Machine

After the establishment of complex life in the story, I wanted to take a look at the human as a machine, presenting each organ as a different module performing its function. Every organ is just another form of machine, but as a whole they function together to yield something more than the sum of their parts - you and me - an example of the idea of emergence (with a small “e”) in operation.

Henning M. Lederer has a great hand-drawn info-graphics style of video animation which I thought would lend itself well to this chapter, showing the lungs, heart, circulatory system, blood cells and the brain in a playful way. I wanted to match the music up with this playful style and also get across the idea of a never-ending process that keeps us ticking over for our entire lives without ever stopping. To this end I used multiple instances of polyrhythmic arpeggiators playing interlinking patterns that don’t have a clear beginning or end.

This section takes a turn for a darker mood visually and musically, as modern humans and sophisticated self-awareness and mental capacity emerges, with the resulting population boom, unstoppable growth of civilisation and resource depletion begins.

Self-Awareness

I thought I should give special attention in the story to the emergence of self-awareness, given it’s importance in the human condition. I decided to do this with a slowly materialising eye, where the audience is forced to look back at something which reveals to be themselves, as an analogy for the emergent process.

Population Growth

The story takes a darker turn visually and musically at this point, with the human species starting to dominate the natural environment and replicate at ever faster rates with the creation of new technologies.

Imagery of the emergent foetus, the growing city, and the tree turning to oil signify the scourge of humanity on resources. I like to match this visual turn with much darker more intense techno music than featured in the show previously, it works nicely! The usual choice musically is a collaboration with Gareth Williams which released under the names Skew and Satirist, on Berlin’s Killekill label.

The Capitalist Machine

The modern man, stuck inside the capitalist machine has arrived. Surrounded by advertising, market forces, stories of war, relaxation and yoga, cycles of tooth brushing and rushing to work, the man’s directed efforts turn the cogs of the machine. This is the systems view of our money-driven world, with the man’s imprisoned life as the emergent outcome.

The information age begins and human forms become digital, the objective world becomes a self-contained subjective entity, and the external world becomes dry and dominated by robots, before eventually a new form of abstracted life develops in a more harmonious relationship with nature.

The Digital Self

Nick Cobby had put a great video together for this one, mapping people’s faces with a Kinect, and syncing them to the vocal snippets of the audio track. I use this as an analogy for the information age, where the human form becomes digital.

Self-Contained Universe

I’ve always loved the idea that the world outside is only a figment of our imagination, while the brain creating the figment is also contained by the supposed world. So I set about making a video around this idea of the self-contained mind, and the role of the incompatible opposites of the subjective and objective world in creating reality.

Nick created some beautiful audio-responsive landscapes representing the brain’s response to external input, with the internal state eventually simulating the platonic solids to represent our internal understanding of natural laws, and eventually the internalised universe.

Altruism

Max
Now time for something totally different! With the Emergence project, I set out to work with different video artists for each chapter of the story, so that it could be varied and stay fresh throughout a 90 minute live show, while still following a single narrative.

For this music video, I found an amazing artist called RC Aksun who specialised in comic-style animations full of hidden meaning and political messages - this seemed fitting for the part of the story where humans had arrived and had started to establish complex societal structures.

The video brief was to focus on the emergence of altruism, and Cenk came up with the interesting idea of transposing this from a pre-human evolutionary process, to a future emergence of altruism in robots. This opened the door for some additional scorched world and warring political system narratives, which fit in well with the generally darker themes in the other videos upon the arrival of complex human society. I'm not a pessimist though, things do eventually get better in the overall Emergence story, it just happens when humans and society as we know it have transitioned to a new state.

Cenk really went to town on the animation work and detailing on this, I have to say a massive thank you to him for the time he put in, which is pretty obvious watching the video, which has been hand-crafted from the bottom up. It's very different to all the other videos in Emergence, in that it's a more traditional self-contained story than the others, so I hope it will appeal to those of you who aren't so into the more abstracted parts of the project.

RC Aksun
Moving forward just purely with the theme of altruism in mind, I wanted to create a character-based fictional piece that focuses on kindness against a harsh background, in this case, a galactic war. I also wanted this unlikely hero's role in it to escalate, much like the video escalates. It starts small, ends substantial, mostly through those acts of kindness, being brave. But what makes him brave really? It's his nature to feel different, to go an extra yard or two, his selflessness (particularly in contrast against others around him) that sets him apart.

But while that main story of the 'pointlessness' of war unfurled, other subtexts would pop up as the video progressed, particularly as the timely US presidential race ran it's course during this. Those subtexts are pretty clear: A commander out of his depth, finger on the trigger, lack of humanity laid bare compared to our robotic hero who just simply cares, who has more humanity than the humans. And then said-commander turns out to be a monster in the end anyway, which may or may not be a parable.

Another sub-text is the importance of kindness in today's age. Nowadays more than ever before, opinions on race and ethnicity are super-polarised and I feel it's more challenging today to spread kindness, to be open. I wanted a reflection of goodness against a harsh backdrop. I wanted that kindness to shine through, authentic, selfless altruism.

Future Entities

Towards the end of the emergence story, I wanted to push past the normal human realm, and use Islamic geometries as a means of representing higher forces existing out there in a forest and post-human industrial space. It’s an abstracted distant future where a new form of physical and mental state has emerged.

Unbounded

This chapter comes at the end of the Emergence story, after all of the physical world has been established by following through the action of the simple building blocks of nature which began the story. I wanted to finish the LP with the progression left open-ended, the laws of nature being unbounded and any particular consequences impermanent and ever changing.

The best way to present this seemed to be with an infinite fractal zoom, where we experience delving into a system that seems to have no end. But the problem was that I really don’t like most fractal zoom videos, as it’s a technique that has been much overused, and often relies on the same methods of synthesis which have a particular recognisable aesthetic.

Luckily for me someone got in touch to suggest Morgan Beringer’s work to me, which I loved, so we started chatting about video ideas, and it seemed that Morgan might be able to pull off a new way of the presenting the unbounded zoom! Safely to say, he did an amazing job with this (un)ending, with his warping saturating abstraction and hints of traditional fractals.