Soundcrash Presents: Chris Cunningham
The Roundhouse, Camden, London
Kicking off with Gil Scott Heron’s prophetically-titled New York Is Killing Me, Cunningham’s already dark audiovisuals gain an ominously feasible effect.
The man himself twiddles knobs beneath a triptych of huge screens: the larger central one is used as the main point of focus and the others are auxiliary, showing different images. This adds an extra, beyond widescreen dimension, more akin to an artist’s installation in a gallery than simple music videos.
Appraising something like Cunningham live is an extreme matter of opinion, but I challenge anyone to dispute the fact that Samantha Morton is the best dancer ever. Her frenzied head-banging, spewing what looks like squid and giblets from under her skirt is truly one of the weirdest things you’ll ever see, and it’s reassuring that this many people enjoy something so wilfully twisted. In the same way punters might cheer a saxophone solo at a jazz gig, people whoop as a child’s face gurns and contorts from what looks like a hospital bed. It’s similarly amusing to hear polite applause after five odd minutes of brutal synapse frazzling, perhaps something to do with the sober state of this school-night audience.
The crowd within the Roundhouse’s confines also prove the main hindrance of the night’s effectiveness. It’s an impressive building but its flat floor and high ceiling don’t make you feel particularly involved, unless you’re prepared to fight your way to the front.
Despite the stunning imagery and every effort being made for this to be an assault on the senses, staying fully engrossed was tricky. Cunningham’s show didn’t have the engagement with the crowd that you’d get at a gig, nor the mass dancefloor movement of a club – a problem with much ‘live’ electronic music in a traditional rock setting.
Cunningham’s Ether show at the Royal Festival Hall worked a lot better. The content and production was very similar, but being seated made for a far more immersive experience, free from the bustle of people moving through the crowd, impaired views and foot ache (or maybe that’s just me being pathetic).
For something like this that requires your full attention, this setting isn’t ideal. If eradicating distractions isn’t possible, I’d suggest having Cunningham play as part of a rave at 4am, where an uninhibited audience could release their own primal beasts, spurred on by this bonkers ringleader.
The vantage point at the RFH was also better, as you were looking down clearly onto the stage in a purpose built concert venue, rather than a converted railway thingy. Put simply, like TV or cinema, watching screens is something best done sitting down.
A few tracks into the set and two extremely high-power green lazers are unleashed. They’re the kind of ‘visuals’ that raves likes World Dance would proudly flag-up on flyers alongside dodgems, a 200K sound-system and podium dancers in lycra hotpants. But again, these lights worked much better at Ether as you could look into them: the beams ran parallel to the sloped auditorium rather than overhead, which lessened the effect – at the RFH they were literally firing at you.
Cunningham’s juxtaposition of high-brow art and low-brow ravey graveyness is just one exmple of his sense of humour. Others include a line-snorting, disabled alien and a pair of large breasts bouncing along to a weighty beat. His work appeals to your inner Beavis and Butthead as well as provoking lofty, Late Review-style pontification.
Movement of the human figure is Cunningham’s strong-point and the term ‘electronic body music’ has never been so apt, as figures fight, convulse and generally spasm in time to the sound. CC could be described as a Francis Bacon for post-pill urbane thirty plusses and despite gripes with the venue and how well it worked there, he’s definitely worth checking out live. The videos are truly incomparable and his versions of the tracks that they accompany are great, if you like Warp/Mu/Rephlex-style distorto-crunch-noise-beat.