Afterthoughts: Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra

The sense of anticipation is rife at The Barbican this evening. As masses descend upon London’s Brutalist hallmark, Actress prepares the first airing of new material arranged with the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO). The venue itself has undergone serious development in recent decades, though architects are intent on preserving its uncompromising foundations. This is a fitting parallel with Darren Cunningham’s efforts to explore new musical ground as Actress, without harming his fascination with non-conventional forms.

Engulfed in darkness, an erratic strobe light is my only solace. Monk remains decisively hidden and fills the room with rumbling low end, white noise and ominous pitched down vocals. The support act’s output is not dissimilar to Mica Levi’s dystopian soundtrack for Under the Skin, who now follows under her Micachu moniker. Though dwarfed by a flurry of stagehands, Levi succeeds in providing a dreamy helping of plodding, dulcet chord progressions to the room, now with few seats to spare.

Photography by Tom D Morgan - www.tomdmorgan.com

Finally, a hooded Cunningham takes to the stage. The warm glow from his Mac is one of few light sources present as he builds a steady soundscape, closely surrounded by a poised LCO. Cunningham isn’t as much conducting as he is providing cues; all absorbed tacitly by the orchestra who improvise in response. In between some quite alien sequences, smatterings of known melody materialise, noticeably rousing the crowd. The only downside is that hearing snippets of ‘Ascending’ and ‘N.E.W.’ in this setting will forever mean that the album versions never quite compare.

Performance unfolding, Cunningham enforces an increasingly astral sound. This, combined with mutating overhead visuals, hints at the show’s LAGOS satellite-inspired origins. Seemingly in response, the LCO are now mostly standing and begin to unshackle themselves from the confines of classical performance. At points, a plastic bag is used for percussion and violin/viola bows scrape down the instrument necks. In one moment the pianist transcends her keys entirely, opting instead to brush the strings under the lid of her piano.

Photography by Tom D Morgan - www.tomdmorgan.com

The show culminates with the entire ensemble abruptly switching to noticeably higher rhythmic and melodic realms, meticulously taking lead from Cunningham’s informed improvisation. Actress exits to pulsing bass laid underneath a crooning synth, returning under the guise of an encore only to grab his water. A comical and fitting statement for a man that possesses such a non-conformist attitude to playing out.

It seems natural for producers to consider the prospect of live shows, given such easy access to production tools. That said, Cunningham made it clear that working with the LCO wasn’t ad-hoc, or for the purpose of rejuvenating old material. Sure, heads will gain shiver to the sound of orchestral arrangements loosely based on RIP and Splazsh, but this isn’t the highlight. An innovative attempt was made to fuse both acoustic and electronic. Taking inspiration from both urban structures and the stratosphere, the link-up created a cinematic experience that was completely engrossing.

Photography by Tom D Morgan - www.tomdmorgan.com

Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra was commissioned by Boiler Room with support from Ninja Tune. You can re-watch the performance here on loop.

Words: Nick Moore

Images: Tom D Morgan

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