Magic happened at the Barbican when Actress joined forces with the London Contemporary Orchestra.
Everyone knows London’s Barbican is culture central, a place where the boundaries of art are consistently pushed and experimented with. When we heard super-producer Darren Cunningham – aka Actress – was going to perform with the London Contemporary Orchestra we knew we were in for a night of innovation and, well, music-magic. Wonderland sent writer Matt Soczywko to capture the performance for us.
In the Barbican’s literature for tonight’s performance Actress, or Darren Cunningham, acknowledges the spiritual connections between this evening and techno forbear Derrick May’s earlier collaborations with orchestras.
On the surface the comparison works – classically trained musicians transcribe and translate the work of a techno auteur into traditional instrumentation, but there’s nothing so literal as orchestral readings of seminal techno records on show here. Cunningham and the London Contemporary Orchestra are contemporaries with a shared purpose – exploring and expanding on Cunningham’s compositions by fusing the electronic and acoustic elements into a new sound. The result is part musique concrete – where Actress and the LCO naturally meet – as plastic bags and prepared pianos are scraped and rippled to synthesise a new sound.
Early on Oliver Coates’ cello is allowed a rare moment of solo exploration following Moroderesque synth rumbles – an anchor that is soon cast asunder. The resulting sound of the violin and viola is stunning – Jerry Goldsmith’s seminal soundtrack for Alien being the closest comparison. As with all of Cunningham’s productions, there is a core concept at the heart of tonight’s performance. Inspired by the LAGEOS satellite (or ‘LAGOS’ as the setlist would have it), familiar snippets and embedded melodies of Cunningham’s work are stretched out, embedded with new elements ‘applying data to some of the tracks’ notes and frequencies, to change things in an arbitrary and quite brutal way’ in Cunningham’s own words.
Stunning, evolving visuals on a triptych of screens accompany the performance – we’re given the perspective of the satellite, or perhaps an otherworldly being, getting closer to and finally exploring a planet slowly revealed to be our own Earth. Perhaps this is how Cunningham sees the world, and it’s this Ghettoville that he soundtracks. Those who came looking to dance tonight (and apparently a few did) leave disappointed, but perhaps enlightened. A leaked set release stated that the show would close on Hubble – the closest thing Cunningham has to a crowd pleaser. Instead he leaves the stage to the sound of a lullaby as if played from a musical mobile. A gentle fuck you to those who would try pin him down, or wrap up tonight in a pre-existing narrative.
The Actress project isn’t dead and neither is its uncompromising nature.
Words: Matt Soczywko
Photography: Tom D Morgan