REVIEW: Actress with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican

Actress with the London Contemporary Orchestra at Barbican Hall
Photo credit: Tom D Morgan

Actress with the London Contemporary Orchestra
(Barbican Hall, 10th February 2016. Review by Adam Tait)

Even in its earliest incarnations, Darren Cunningham's music has tended towards the otherworldly. The discordant machinations of 2008 debut Hazyville showcased an artist fascinated with sonic manipulations. Challenging, yes, but enthralling and absorbing.

And by the release of 2012’s R.I.P., Actress had become one of the most distinctive electronic musicians in operation. Mind-expanding rather than dancefloor-filing, his work is full of intricate considerations that take it far beyond terra firma.

Taking the stage at the Barbican - following a distressingly immersive (immersively distressing? either way) opening set from Monk involving a pitch black room, aggressively distorted vocals and a strobe light that chased several early arrivers back to the bar - the musician’s appearance does little to bring him back to earth.

Shrouded in a long black coat and close fitting hood, he sits centre stage behind his control array like the organist of some dystopian cathedral.

There’s more than appearances pointing this performance towards the stars, though. Parts of it are inspired by the LAGEOS satellite, in some instances data from the satellite used to alter musical notes in the compositions. A revolving image of the spherical technology is projected above the musicians, like a vaguely sinister mirrorball.

Actress’ convoluted layering and interweaving of sounds sets him apart from contemporaries, and the ability has an immediate impact in the collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Katherine Tinker and Hugh Brunt
Photo credit: Tom D Morgan

The first sorrowful tremors of Oliver Coates' cello are swiftly distorted and bent by Cunningham. What hummed into life as a seemingly natural sound quickly becomes something inhuman and almost brutal. The shrill clarity of notes from violin and clarinet are morphed by a snaking digital crackle guided by Cunningham.

For all the ethereality of these combinations, there are some very elemental influences at play in the performance. The music has a tidal ebb and flow. Sounds of rain and thunder haunt the compositions. The unnerving aggression of the early passages is eased by stargazing twinkles from Vicky Lester’s harp and Katherine Tinker’s piano.

Actress and the orchestra stitch together wonderfully. Rarely is there clear distinction between the two components of the performance. One informs the other, both leading and following. A string sustain is picked up and manipulated by Cunningham. A thudding digital rhythm is the first layer for a mounting orchestral cacophony. Only when a garbled vocal sample bursts brashly into life does, disrupting the musical passage, is there an apparent gap between the two. And it makes for a jarring break in the fluidity of the evening.

Cunningham’s boundary-pushing attitude to making music is also brilliantly adopted by the LCO. Double bass strings become percussive tools. A plastic bag makes several appearance, breathed into or scrunched between hands to intensify the atmosphere. The silhouette of Tinker against a dazzling purple light bent over her piano interfering with its strings makes for a striking image (above).

A futuristic loneliness runs through the suite. As it builds, screens above the performs show pixelated images of cities and landscapes seen from above, or a rotating planet shifting from stark clarity to blurred obscurity. It really does feel like music beamed from a long way away. And it’s intensely exciting. It’s mesmerising and enveloping and irresistibly compelling.

Actress with the LCO convey remoteness and serenity, but at the same time their music is earthly, familiar. and very often on the brink of something genuinely new.

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