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Max Cooper One Hundred Billion Sparks

One Hundred Billion Sparks is an audio-visual story about the creation of our internal world. Each piece of music was written in parallel with a visual chapter, charting the emergence of experience from molecular mechanisms, biological machines, computation, mental constructs, and feeling.

The creation process itself was designed to reflect the task of looking inward, via a period of total isolation, and the musical aim was that of a simple, free, and honest expression of the feelings contained in each idea. It is both a story, and direct expression, of the one hundred billion sparking neurones which yield us.

Rule 110
Volition feat. Wilderthorn

I want to start by saying why I did this project, and how it is that music can be linked to ideas in science and other arts.

Last night I was watching a lecture before bed, and it contained a simple new form of explanation of something that had always confused me previously. Which, I then realised was linked to several other things I had been thinking about recently. I couldn’t sleep because I was excited about the ideas. My feelings were keeping me awake.

Nature, in the broadest sense, is full of structure, complexity, paradox and many other things which invoke awe, beauty, peace, confusion, frustration and many other feelings in the people who study it. We could replace the word “nature” with the word “art” in that sentence and it still holds. That is why I involve scientific ideas in my projects. They are a rich source of aesthetic and feeling, which are precisely also the foundations of music for me.

I have been playing with these ideas for some time, and at least for me personally, the foundations of nature, in the broadest sense (including us), carry the most beauty and maddening incomprehensibility. The more boiled down the description, the more clearly the beauty is crystallised. That is why I am compelled to look for foundations as a general approach.

My last album project applied this reasoning outwards to the world around us, this time I decided to apply it inwards. The starting point was only the process this time, I didn’t begin with the formed idea as I had with Emergence, only the plan to isolate myself from all contact and incoming information for a month, to remove social media, collaborations and conversations, and to see what I could find.

I went to the Welsh Valleys to a place called Llawryglyn, a tiny town without even a shop, the nearest sizable town being Llanidloes. It’s a beautiful part of the world, rolling hills, farms and lakes, and not too many people around. It’s also just a short way from Snowdonia national park, where the terrain becomes more extreme.

I stayed in a place called Gribyn Cottage, near the top of a hill with a spectacular view down the valley. And I used a little attic room with wood beams and slanted ceilings to create a makeshift studio containing my favourite synths and pedals. That was my space to get weird for a month of experimentation. I didn’t try to complete any pieces of music while I was there, I just wanted to get feelings and ideas down, which meant chords and melodic elements only for the most part. I spent a lot of time getting to know my synths better, and made more than 20 hours of live recordings, trying to express myself with lots of patch design time and live modulation, meaning lots of warbling synth noodle.

That approach has given the record a certain sound – plenty of retro feel with classic synths and processing like the Prophet’s, Moog and Juno complimented with Roland RE201 tape delay and many degrading pedals. But then extreme amounts of modulation and detailing using live, and generative software, approaches. There was a lot of time spent creating chaos, and attempting to sculpt it down into coherence. The aim was for something that referenced my past upbringing on, and love of, classic synth music, as well as my current processing-heavy approaches to production.

Spending time on my own in the midst of that beautiful natural environment and thinking about the ideas which most interested me around the concept of who I am and what creates me, gave the music a very certain feel. It’s full of awe and inspiration, and perhaps that makes it sound less serious than some of my other records, I don’t know. But I hate the fact that sometimes people try and sound serious because of fears around music fashion. I wanted to escape all of that and try to be honest with myself. I just hope that has yielded some worthwhile results.


This is possibly my favourite result of all of human thought. A proof that truths exist which cannot be proven. It sets a limit on the capacity of knowledge via logical reasoning. Showing us that nature will always have the upper hand, hiding things from the sight of any attempt to uncover its secrets.

Kurt Gödel showed that any formal reasoning system must either be incomplete, whereby true statements exist which cannot be proven, or inconsistent, whereby false statements can be proven as true. So we’re stuck with either being incapable of knowing everything, or only capable of knowing everything where some things “we know”, are wrong! Either way, the full richness of existence is ever out of reach via logical means, which I think is a beautiful idea, and says something important about the foundations of thought. We can know but not prove, or prove but not know.

This idea also carries an important facet of the human condition, our constant striving for things we cannot have, and the feeling that we could be happy or complete if only we could get or achieve this next step. When in reality the endpoint is impossible to reach, but we still keep going, even though we know that is the case.

And if you let me run with this further into speculation, Incompleteness theorem also provides the nice idea that perhaps, through madness, or artistic thought, we can glimpse truths inaccessible to more rigorous methods of thinking.

The musical representation of this idea is itself an incomplete piece, just a single synth element with two chords and no repetition, but still hopefully carrying the feeling of us drowned in this inaccessible expanse, striving, and never reaching. Kevin McGloughlin has created an amazing visual rendering of the idea using drone footage and scenes from the west of Ireland. Human figures donned with headsets are lost in an immense natural expanse, perhaps trying to communicate with each other. From their perspectives they cannot see the natural structures and forms which are revealed.


Hope is an important part of our lives, but also represents an important development in our evolutionary history – our capacity to create mental models of a reality which does not exist, and our capacity to imagine the future. This mental modelling process allows us to test out scenarios in theory, and assess the best ways to achieve our goals without having to try everything in practice.

Hope also carries a very particular emotional association, one which I used to create the tonal form. I wanted to keep it as focused as possible on this idea, so I avoided adding much percussion. I also found that I could convey the idea in additional musical structure, using the arrangement and dynamics of the piece. Firstly a short motif is shown in order to give an idea of what may come later in the track, and then we have a drawn out period of a single chord, but where we can hear synths and noise swelling towards something. This creates a message of anticipation in line with that of the concept.

great film maker, Thomas Vanz, came up with the great idea of applying this concept to that of the molecular mechanisms of the brain, whereby the same sense of hope and anticipation is created by the journey of an ion towards the neural axon membrane during the neural signal transmission. We can see the particle is moving at speed towards some distant destination, but we don’t know when it will arrive, or what will happen when it does. He has created a beautiful contrast in scales with this idea, something cosmological in appearance, which turns out to be happening in a tiny part of just one of the one hundred billion neurones of the brain.

It takes billions of such ions to cross the neural membrane for just a single signal to be transmitted along one neuron. It is an example of one of the sparks from the album title. I named it “sparks” because the force causing all ions to cross neural membranes in this way, is the virtual photon, or light, in a sense. So there really are one hundred billion little sparks inside your head, each built of billions of such journeys like we see here. Of course we took maximum artistic licence, so no doubt the real thing at this scale doesn’t look the same.

The process underway is the neural action potential. As the ions cross the membrane they change the electric charge across it, and this causes channels to open nearby which allow more ions though, causing a wave of crossing ions and opening channels to sweep down the whole, long, length of the neuron cell. At the ends these signals reach the synapses, boundaries with other cells. And that’s the bare basics of how our brains transmit signals. I just loved the idea of the link to light, given light’s central role in so much of our science and religion. In relativity for example, it’s the constant around which all else must adhere to at the expense of the speed of time and shape of space, so it’s a fun idea that it’s central in our mind too.


Theories of consciousness are ten a penny, and often hinge on belief rather than evidence, so I’ll save those for another project with more room for exploration. Instead, I’m just interested in looking at one idea which tackles the problem from a mechanistic perspective, is in line with much of the rest of this project, and is one of the few testable and falsifiable theories out there. Another draw for me is the aesthetic identity of the idea, which lends itself to my aims for visualising each chapter of the story.

The model was created by Giulio Tononi, and is called “integrated information theory”. It’s a way of quantifying important properties of our experience; the vast range of different possible states and different components which make up any moment, combined with the fact that all of this information is combined into a single unitary experience of now. Tononi created a technique for measuring the degree of this “integrated information” in any system, assessing its degree of awareness. Which, has its own implications of panpsychism, but that’s fine with me as there’s no need to introduce any additional ideas outside of what we almost certainly know to exist – our experience, and the physical world we can see outside. And of course, awareness of the sort we know of can only emerge inside our brains, it’s not out there anywhere else.

Integrated information is a measure of a systems (a neural network for example) capacity to both encode many different states, and at the same time to have changes in any one of its components effect many others. So there is a coherent union of representation of the incoming data in some sense into a single entity, like the conscious experience. The value of this property is given the name “Phi”, and it has been shown to predict conscious vs non-conscious human brain states.

I’m sure this is not the final answer to this age-old problem, but it’s the best I’m aware of at the moment, and the best way I could think of to bring this general idea into an audio-visual format. Musically I opted for a simple feeling of wonder at this most important, but almost simple, process, and strong spattering of melodic detailing dancing around the main theme. Alessandra Leone has taken on the challenge of a visual representation of the idea, using complex coloured networks, sometimes reminiscent of the neural networks of the brain whose structure determines the value Phi, and sometimes straying into renderings of recognisable forms. She has built a visual system which shows an alternative mapping of real world forms into networked structures as an analogy for the process which Phi describes.

Rule 110

This chapter is based around the idea of Turing completeness, and the role of computation as a model for human thought. Alan Turing was a British mathematician who was driven to suicide at a young age for being a gay man in mid-1900’s England. Amongst his many world-changing ideas was the “Turing-machine”, a theoretical framework for the modern computer. “Turing completeness” is a statement about the capacity of a particular computer to be able to compute any feasible calculation, a property which demonstrates a machines universal potential.

Creating a machine of this potential requires a certain richness in the logical operations it can deal with, and although our brains are not Turing-machines, it seems we can also carry out these forms of basic logical operations (the first “computers” were actually humans, carrying out sets of operations, by hand). As an additional note, during my PhD research I found that simple continuously varying gene regulatory networks could evolve to emulate Boolean logic functions, so networks should be able to emulate Turing machines, in principle.

Whatever your viewpoint on this sticky topic, Turing-completeness is an important component of possible mechanisms of thought, around which this wider project is themed. And its main relevance here, is its visual representation, upon which the music, the video, and track name, are based.

n 2002, Stephan Wolfram published his book “A new kind of science”, detailing how simple cellular automata models have wide behavioural potential. While many of its claims are controversial, Wolfram’s “Rule 110” has been shown to be Turing-complete, and it is a demonstration of the simplicity upon which computational capacity can be built. Most interestingly for me however, is the artistic properties of the output of this simple rules-based system of growth of blocks of black and white squares – it creates partially ordered, partially random form. This combination of order and chaos is something I also encountered when looking for the fundamentals of nature during the Emergence project (as detailed here: So, it is interesting that this type of form shows up again here in the context of looking for the fundamentals of thought.

While Wolfram’s cellular automat models may show us something important about science, they also have a very simple blocky retro computer graphics feel about them too, which I drew on for the music. Big gated reverb 80’s snares and hints of a classic synth pop track brought to the present day in production techniques was my aim. I was brought up on synth classics, so it’s something which was a lot of fun for me to work on. The idea was brought to life visually by Raven Kwok, who created a real Rule 110 cellular automata system and used it to create his music video.


A central idea from this project is that our entire mental lives are built on constructs, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we create our values. While there can be good reasons for these constructs, they are still abstract entities which would not exist without us to create them. Nothing has inherent meaning or value unless we assign it. We must create meaning, and in order to do so we must rely on basic techniques like that of reciprocity, meaning created in opposition to what something is not. Light is only defined as opposing dark, happiness as the opposite to sadness, etc, basic semiotics. It is a symmetry breaking process that yields all the richness of thought from continuously dividing up nothingness.

While reciprocity provides a basic beginning for the creation of structure, meaning in our minds is much more complex. I’m interested in Douglas Hoffstader’s statement that “meaning is isomorphism”. Whereby neural networks map, in some sense, to real phenomena. Our mental models must capture something of the essence of physical systems in the outside world, in order to be able to simulate them accurately.

Musically, the piece is a simple reciprocal exchange between left and right channels, a fast melodic conversation whereby each side either agree or disagree on each note, but overall work in concert. Felix Rothschild at Metagon Collective created a visual representation of reciprocal forms, each defining the other, for this part of the story of one hundred billion sparks.


Numbering things is an important building block for thought, without which our capacity for measurement and many other faculties are compromised. But in the early 1900’s mathematicians were troubled by what numbers were, in a pure sense, when there is nothing assigned to be counted. Mathematics and the tools of our thought couldn’t be based on oranges or lemons to which numbers are assigned. They solved the problem with the empty set, a list with nothing in it, from which all numbers could be built.

I find this idea interesting as it fits into the more general theme running throughout this project whereby the foundations of thought must be built, in a sense, from a vacuum. Meaning is created by opposition rather than inheritance (reciprocity), the capacity for logical processing can be an emergent property of simple systems (Rule 110), agency is emergent (Volition), identity is a morphing product of conditioning (Identity), and a basic of logical thought such as counting, is built from emptiness using sets (Emptyset).

This seeming lack of firm foundations is not restricted to this area however. If we look at the foundations of the objective world in the form of matter, we can keep zooming in to smaller and smaller sub-units. When we reach the “smallest” units we know of, physicists talk of point particles with zero size, which, are perfect replicas of one another, and only seem to exist in the sense of the informational relationships we deem them to embody. The familiar “stuff” of matter we’re comfortable with seems to have been replaced by ideas.

I love this groundlessness underneath so much of what is taken for granted. It’s not the sort of thing scientists will often talk about, as it’s speculative and perhaps not always practically productive. But it’s inspiring and fun to think about, which is all I’m really interested in. The music is mainly just an expression of my feelings during my month of isolated thoughts about my foundations, and an attempt to fit the musical form to the visual aesthetic aims I had for telling this story. It is the ideas which are the main product of the project.

Getting back to the chapter thread, counting is created from the void using the emptyset, a list, with no entries. This is assigned the number 0. Then there is some meta-trickery, where a new set is constructed which contains the emptyset as one of its entries (a set is just a list of contents), this is the number 1. 2 is then constructed as being a new set which contains both the previous sets for 0 and 1 – the emptyset plus the set containing the emptyset. 3 is then defined as the set containing all the sets for 0, 1 and 2, and so on to infinity.

I wanted to mirror this process of construction by iteration with a constant arpeggiated synth line throughout, a never-ending mechanism of creation, while the track plays. Julius Horsthius, applied fractal image generation to mirror the process visually, whereby simple structures repeat, grow and evolve to create something that looks like a pencil sketch of a real-world scene to me. We spoke a lot about how we could push the process outside of that of normal fractals, using lots of disorder and fine grained noise to try and get that balance between certain form, and chaos, which we see in nature and all around us.

Volition feat. Wilderthorn

The scientists view of the brain has usually been that while we feel like we’re in control, we’re just a bunch of particles bouncing around at the basic level, so agency, as we feel it, does not really exist. I don’t have a problem with this, as I know that we use energy from the sun, via our food, to force order upon this particle chaos. And this order is carefully directed by our proteins and cellular machinery from the tiniest of scales, right up to the level of our neural networks, to yield our thoughts and behaviours. If I accept I am no more than my biological form, my neural networks and biochemistry, nothing else magical required, then those networks “making decisions” according to their conditioned learning is the same thing as me making decisions. And there is no big worry about “free will”, we just have two different points of view of the same thing, the objective description of particles and networks etc, or the subjective view of experience.

So I was surprised to read about a recent paper by a young neuroscientist, Erik Hoel, who seems to have shown that there can be real causal power existing at macroscopic levels such as those of networks, which cannot be accounted for at the level of particles. Or put another way, that human agency (maybe) really does exist. I added “maybe”, because it’s a new paper, and sometimes big ideas, especially those involving the mind, don’t stand the test of time. Either way, it’s really interesting and well worth a proper read if you’re into these sorts of ideas. It doesn’t mean we’re not our particles and not at the mercy of physical laws, but it opens the door for a more powerful role of emergence in creating who we are in a fuller sense – reducing us to particles is not sufficient to provide all the information about us. Which seems common sense I guess, but to prove it, is another thing.

The musical link here is this tension of control, between agency, and determinism being explored. We all have strong urges to get angry or to eat unhealthy food, for example, which it feels we have to use tough agency to overcome, but the more we resist the easier it gets, until a new behaviour is hard-wired into our networks. We are a constant battle of these sorts of forces, instinctual, conditioned and consciously considered. So I turned a conscious, feeling, man, into a machine, musically, using a rules-based process for generating complexity, rather than something directed purely by my agency – the structure of the vocals in the track is partially my conscious creation, and partially the creation of the computational process I set up which was unpredictable and generative.

Visually I wanted to pursue this balance between conscious action and sub-conscious predisposition using optical illusions – where we can view a single scene in more than one way depending on our conscious action, to be fooled, or not, by the illusion. I find it very interesting when viewing content of this form, how you can put in effort to see the illusion for what it is, relax to be fooled by it, as a direct example of volition in action.


This one is a 2400 year-old conundrum which still perplexes – Mathematicians do not invent, they discover. For example, when Pythagoras first found a link between the idea of numbers, and the idea of the physical world, via his famous theorem describing the lengths of the sides of triangles, did that link only start to exist when he described it? It seems obvious that it always existed in some sense, even though nobody knew about it, or at least, that’s how mathematicians tend to describe their work, as searching for nature’s form, rather than inventing something new. But if this form was always there, in what sense did it, and does it, exist? That’s where Plato’s theory of forms comes in very useful, as it’s precisely a realm of ideals and ideas, which he proposed must exist outside of our everyday physical world. Plato included all sorts of silly things in his realm, like the ideal cat, and “justice”, which presumably would not exist if we, and all cats, had never existed. But the relationship between the sides of a triangle (and many other relational structures of mathematics, for example), I could argue, should be true, and should exist, independently of us.

At this point many scientists will get annoyed for me purposely straying into messy territory. Maybe some questions have no answers and it’s against the rules to ask them at all. But I don’t care about rigorous science here, I care about art in science, and this is another great example of some fine natural artistry getting the better of us for some thousands of years. And we haven’t got anywhere near to the bottom of this rabbithole yet.

Recent research in particle physics (the rules governing the smallest, most basic interactions of nature) has thrown out the “amplituhedron”, a beautiful geometric structure, which is a visual representation of rules of particle interactions. The claim is however, that not only does the amplituhedron encode some fundamentals of nature, but that this imaginary structure, creates space and time, as emergent properties. So if we do believe what these insanely clever physicists are telling us, not only is the Platonic realm real, it’s perhaps the only real thing, with the world out there, emerging from it. Of course, this is totally speculative, and we could find other equally clever physicists to argue the opposite. But it makes me smile that this sort of thing can even start to get serious consideration.

And once again, we link back to the common theme of groundlessness, this time, the consideration of a realm of inescapable mental ideas seeming to have no place to exist, and itself attempting to dissolve the physical world entirely. And as with “Reciprocity”, “Incompleteness” and “Emptyset”, we have a self-referencing, self-supporting system which pulls itself up by its own bootstraps, to use a well-known analogy. The study of nature tangles us up into all sorts of mental knots like a great work of art.

Musically, I had the imagery of the amplituhedron and the idea of the Platonic realm to work from for this, which made it a quite straightforward job. I find visual scenes to map to music quite naturally. In this case we have a geometric form with lots of straight lines and sharp angles, and the incomprehensible complexity of the realm of all structures. All of those things I can create musically. I wanted this barrage of quantification – no soft edges and groove, everything precisely on a grid, with an attempted sensory overload of interacting parts. I used well over one hundred layers of different sounds, each with their own spatial location in the psychoacoustic space, so that when you listen with headphones you can hear each tiny element pop out in the space around your head, despite the density of different simultaneous sounds. Underneath all of this mess however, it needed a simple core, the constant chord progression.


We are told stories of naturally gifted players or thinkers, told by societal structures of class, sex and race, what we can or cannot expect to achieve. Then we are loaded with expectations by family, nationality, religion and the media, telling us who we are. There is a common narrative of identity being inherited in a passive manner, outside our control. And we hang on to our identity as something solid that grounds our existence, it’s who we are.

But we know from experience identities can change, and can be moulded by learning. It’s hard to accept, but I like the idea that I am only a bunch of malleable constructs. I also think it’s an important idea to include because of the huge pressures that we are put under to conform to other people’s ideals, sometimes with destructive consequences.

I wanted to tell the story of our personal battle with these suffocating constructs, with the true personality, always there simmering underneath, eventually bursting through with extreme effect. It’s an attempt at pure expression of a form, which to me, demanded noise.

Ukrainian artist Eugene Pylinsky applied his detailed digital human approach here, using real imagery and text in a complex tapestry around the human recipient in attempt to tell the story of our identities. He also captured the noise sequence beautifully with layers of churning strobing human forms, it’s a pretty intense video, in fitting with the track.


This part of the story of our minds is about our messed-up value systems, given to us by society and our upbringing, and further warped and used for monetary gain by business and advertising.

When we consider something, almost anything, we assign to it a personal value of whether we like it or not, and by how much. It’s simpler for foods, but when we get into products, places, people, then things become murkier. The whole idea of valuing things in this way at all, seems it may be related to the world of commerce we live in, where we are constantly bombarded with imagery about what we should aspire to have, or to be.

Because these subconscious systems are bombarded with these messages, we are embedded with a set of reflex values, largely out of our control. I have been trying for some years to free myself from value systems that I can see I don’t like, “perfect” body image, for example. But even though I’m aware of the value system at play, it’s very hard to change it.

Of course, there’s plenty of positive values we are given too, but for this project I wanted to tell the story of manipulation of our values by the modern capitalist world, so I went dark on the audio, into an intense barrage of sound that reminds me of the barrage of information I receive in the city – so many ideas that seem naturally desirable, but on closer inspection are not all good things to be embedding in us. I also wrote this after hurting my back and being in serious pain for some days, venting with a noisy Moog session. Pain and discomfort too, being important aspects of making us who we are.

Lauren Pedrosa tackled the video project here with a suitably intense barrage of retro gaming and electronics devices combining with saturated colours and stroboscopic layering. It’s a beautiful and powerful part of the visual story in its own way I think.


So much popular music is written about love that it seems to have become more of an exercise in sales than anything authentic. So it’s a topic I’ve always avoided, but one that came naturally during the process of creating this album, with the arrival of a new tiny person at the end of the writing period some months after the time away.

I chatted to Kevin McGloughlin about how we could visualise the idea in a general sense, and we decided that imagery of the human face would be the way to do it. Kevin had the great idea of setting up a platform for the viewers of the video project to submit their own photos to build it from, so as to make the video a personalised, and more meaningful rendering of the love song. Then Kevin worked his magic with the photos creating a beautiful complex blending and processing of stills. Many thanks to all of you who submitted your photos, and I recommend scanning through to find yourself in there and getting screenshot, it’s amazing how much is going on when you slow down the video to look at the individual frames. I’ve also had a lot of fun trying to spot my friends in there.


This piece is a personal expression of what memories are to me. It’s something which can’t really be put into words as succinctly as it can be expressed musically, containing both positives and negatives. A complex, powerful feeling of amazing experiences, regrets and loss, challenges, learning, exciting times, and a strong element of lost idealism fuelling the chord sequence too. It’s something which music is perfectly suited to, that direct communication to your experience of the feeling I’m trying to communicate.

I was really excited to find out that the great video artist Roman De Giuli was interested in tackling this one for the visual aspect. He creates super refined high res work full of detail and complexity, which is exactly what I love, and also something which we though could apply well here, charting the development of memories in our minds from a “blank slate” beginning, through to ever more rich and tangled form and eventually degradation and disorder. Roman has applied this lifetime narrative using an abstract system of colour and blending organic form.