Photo: J-Paske / Temporary Residence

The Nuanced History Eluvium’s Many Clockwork Fables

Ambient maestro Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) is two decades into his career, and on his latest LP, overcomes surprising obstacles physical and geographical.

(Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality
Temporary Residence Ltd.
12 May 2023

It always lands on the threes for Matthew Robert Cooper. In 2003, he released Lambent Material, his first full-length album under his atmospheric nom de plume Eluvium. Back then, Cooper was mixing waves of guitar drones with his beautiful piano composition skills, which feels quaint next to the cascading orchestration he is working on in 2023.

“I’ve listened to [Lambent] quite recently and do feel a connection with that person from 20 years ago in my curiosity and communication with instruments,” notes Cooper when asked about his memories by PopMatters. “Of course, I also absolutely feel like a different musician and person. I would hope not to be the same. That would be kind of depressing to me, I think. As much as there is plenty to be desired about that young man and his creative impulses, there was also a lot to work on as a human being. Yet, there is still that same intense drive and emotional response I get from creating music. That same deep ocean of feeling.”

The next three is 2013, wherein Cooper dropped Nightmare Ending, his ambitious double-album laced with multi-layered productions, melancholic vibes, and a guest vocal from Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. While it can be construed as perhaps a culmination of everything that Eluvium had stood for up to that point, Cooper doesn’t entirely agree.

“I can see from a certain perspective how there is a certain style or tone to those earlier records that is different from my more recent music,” he notes. “Though it seems only natural to have changes like this occur in one’s lifetime over the course of many years. I’ve been lucky enough to have fans open to this sort of change. Some people would like me to make more piano music; some want more ambient stuff like Talk Amongst the Trees. I also hear from people wishing I would make another record like Similes. Then there are those that enjoy all of it, and I’m especially thankful for the openness of those listeners.”

Those same listeners are now ingesting a new Eluvium record in 2023, titled (Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality. Lush, languid, and elegiac (sometimes all at once), it is another dense course through Cooper’s gorgeous internal world. Yet Consensus Reality comprises a far different process than what Cooper previously used, having been primarily recorded throughout the pandemic via coached teleconference sessions with the Budapest Scoring Orchestra and integrating automation and algorithmic learning into his songwriting process. If that wasn’t enough, Cooper started running into a new, wholly unexpected problem during recording.

“I developed a muscular issue with my shoulder and arm that was never really properly diagnosed but was possibly ‘frozen shoulder,’ though I was also told it could be ‘winged scapula,’ yet another opinion told me this was highly unlikely,” Cooper explains. “It seems the therapy for a lot of this area of injury is similar. I’ve had back issues my entire life, so it wasn’t exactly entirely new to be dealing with some sort of muscular skeletal thing. But it set off a bit of a chain reaction that has been hard to climb out of fully. The long and short of it is that for a while, my left arm was somewhat immobile, which then led to an extremely long period of physical therapy and strength training… which I honestly should have been better about and still should now be better about. No one really knows for sure, but unfortunately, it seems it can be linked to how I spend a lot of my time ( hunched over musical devices and computers, often with poor posture).

“Winged scapula can come from trauma to the area, and I had had a bad electrical shock up that arm sometime before, which I’ve read can be a cause,” he continues. “I was eventually able to bring things to a point of not being in constant discomfort with my PT, and I’ve regained the majority of its range of motion back, thankfully. But it is still something that is not the same, and I have to keep up with working on it, or it starts to cause problems again. The arm is very weak. Playing the piano, for instance, can be frustrating and exasperating to it. It tires out quickly. I can sometimes not be the best at taking care of myself, especially when I get incredibly focused on a project … but I’m trying. It is a seemingly years-long process to recovery from what I understand.”

As arduous as it was to grapple with all of these elements while crafting Consensus Reality, the result is an album that’s unafraid to explore some of the most richly melodic songs of Cooper’s career. Pianos and string sections balance each other in “The Violet Light”, while the sometimes-wordless vocals that back “Void Manifest” feel like the emotional climax of a film that has yet to be made. When pressed about which of his compositions took the longest to complete, Cooper notes that there is no easy answer.

“‘Swift Automatons’ was a bit of a puzzle piece and required lots of recordings to get it right,” he starts. “I was lucky to be working with Ben Russell, who was patient with me and willing to try my weird ideas and deal with my way of approaching things. The piece was originally written with the help of lots of automation, all enclosed into an instrument or two. This is quite common to do in electronic instrumentation, but I think perhaps a little less common to work into orchestral music. So it needed to be pulled apart and pasted back together again in a manner that made sense for people to be able to realistically perform it. Even still, I believe this piece requires a lot of agility and is still yet at a speed that is probably a bit too fast for comfort. So this was made in many moving parts and glued back together again, layered into mixtures of synths, pianos, and horns all rhythmically lined up.

“I think this method felt like all the many moving parts of a machine working together,” he continues. “This reminded me of an automaton. I think this would be an example of technicalities taking a lot of time to work on. Though another angle on time would be on ‘Void Manifest’. The main theme for this was written a while earlier, and it did not come together until I had already listened to it many times. I just sat with it, allowing it to be and waiting to find its purpose. I was almost on the brink of cutting it and looking elsewhere when that two-syllable vocal phrasing came to me.

“By this time, the themes of automation and algorithms had already germinated enough that I chose to apply this concept to lines and lines of thoughts, ideas, meanings, poems, just all these scribbles over the past few years that I had written, trying to find meaning and understanding in what I was looking to create with this album. This created the lyrical content that I then asked Charlotte Mundy to work with me on. Her voice and willingness, and openness to experimenting brought it to life in a way that astounded me and allowed me to view the work from a new angle entirely. It finally not only fit in with the narrative themes I had been chewing on but, in many ways, amplified them ten-fold. This allowed me to work the music even more and add a new dimension to it with the “noise solo” towards the end. It was a very rewarding experience.

“On the opposite end of things … or the track that took the shortest time? It would probably be ‘Escapement’. Which is essentially a couple of layers of synths, an orchestra playing a straightforward, almost warm-up type of motif, and some field recordings.”

While Cooper has spent years working with orchestrations, having also written for film and TV on top of his albums as Eluvium, there’s a certain brightness of tone he achieves on songs “Phantasia Telephonics” and “Swift Automatons” where the orchestrations take on an almost synthetic affectation that sounds new to the Eluvium library of sonics. What makes for these striking new textures? Well, the lack of an orchestra, for one.

Photo: J-Paske / Temporary Residence

“By design, ‘Phantasia Telephonics’ is actually the only track on the album performed entirely with synthesized and virtual instrumentation (there are no orchestral instruments implemented),” Cooper clarifies. “When it came time to record all the orchestral parts and mix the record, I simply chose to omit the orchestra or any of the performers for this one. It might perhaps seem an odd thing to do (and may even be impossible to tell for many), but I wanted this to be a point in the album where reality becomes more disoriented, and technology overreached (within its overarching technology/human narrative), and try to invite an internal discussion of what is real and not real, important and unimportant in the creative experience – and what that, in turn, meant to me (and possibly other listeners), and hopefully even speak on reality itself.

“Choosing to keep it entirely synthesized instrumentation seemed like an interesting way to implement this. This track was also the first compositional turning point for what methods were being employed in the writing process due to my physical constraint. I wanted to pay homage to this. I’m not sure if it was purely for self-satisfaction or some form of intentional secret personal bemusement, but initially, I didn’t intend to tell anyone about this. Wanting to instill a secret purposeful quiet brokenness, perhaps? Throughout the entire record, there are obviously layers upon layers of synthesizers, manipulations, and processing at play in concert with the orchestra recordings, as well as the individual performers’ recordings from their respective homes and neighborhood churches.

“‘Swift Automatons’, on the other hand, is actually several layers of takes from Ben playing all the parts weaving in and out of each other, as I’ve just mentioned. I think it was maybe 12 layered tracks of solo violin parts mixed together (along with the synths, pianos, and horns). But overall, conceptually and mechanically, from start to finish, the music is intertwined with technology and machines of some form. But on ‘Phantasia Telephonics’, I am hoping for almost an expression of a sense of virtual reality or ‘uncanny valley,’ so to speak. The title is alluding to this.”

As with most Eluvium records, the song titles are at times dour (i.e. “Void Manifest” and “A Floating World of Demons”), which are often inspired by Cooper’s deep interest in poetry. Yet despite such dour declarations, this is an album that feels birthed out of a sense of optimism, of shifting into brighter major chords, perhaps as the world continues to crawl its way out of the pandemic. “There is very much an intentional arc throughout the album,” Cooper explains. “I was hoping to touch a nerve on our complex relationship with machines and how this has shaped our lives over time.

“That was also part of my interest in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It suggested itself to me as an inspiration for discussing a time of change. A reasonable fear of modernity but also of our individual decay. Something my injury made present of mind as well. The embrace of technology as a healer and helper in our lives always feels a bit razor’s edge. It’s good to hit the pause button and reflect on how modern technology is changing or will change our lives. Unfortunately, it tends to not square with our other embrace of seemingly constant forward momentum and stimulation at any expense. Nonetheless, I try to press forward with a difficult positivity, an inspiration from life itself.”

Now, as Consensus Reality is unleashed upon the world, one must wonder, after inspiring so many others with his music, what records are currently inspiring him? “There is a record by Crush String Collective called Aeriform that I was listening to for a bit. Those Flore Laurentienne records are really nice. Tyondai Braxton’s newest Telekenesis is great. Honestly … it’s neither ambient nor orchestral, but I’ve mostly been listening to Horsegirl’s Versions of Modern Performance more than anything else. That record is amazing. On my last camping trip in the mountains, I listened to it on repeat the whole drive out there and back.”

It’s been a hell of a journey to get to Consensus Reality, and now that it’s out and hitting our ears with layers of textured beauty, we still can’t help but wonder what high points he’ll achieve between now and 2033.