Afterthoughts: Actress x Stockhausen Sin (x) II

The Royal Festival Hall was the setting for British contemporary electronic maestro Actress to wade into high art musical society. With a world premiere of his reimagining of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Welt – Parliament (1995) entitled, Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II. This new works would feature the Nederlands Kamerkoor (Netherlands Chamber Choir), conductor and co-founder of London Contemporary Orchestra Robert Ames, pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell, not to mention AI performer Young Paint.

Welt – Parliament is a part of an esoteric and liberatingly unhinged Stockhausen 29-hour opera cycle entitled, Licht(light). During which a fictional parliament in the sky have a discussion through the medium of opera, examining what love is and the variables within it.

Actress’s take would use the operatic format to express a reality where love has been corrupted and mechanised for a malevolent, assiduous pursuit of power. The political body of this alternate universe have decided love must be quantified and understood if they are to avoid total ruin. In the eyes of Actress’s characters ‘life cannot be sustained without love’ and ‘it’s time to act’. These dialogues are recordings of real-life debates on the subject of love, held in the House of Lords in 2018, featuring Labour and Conservatives MPS, Baronesses and Sirs weighing in on the matter. These recordings were interpreted and vigorously acted out in song by the Nederlands Kamerkoor.

A substratum of all this concept and arcane musical posturing was Actress and Young Paint’s ever-malleable, dread-inducing drones, futuristic computer glitches and fizzy, wave-like textures. These were achieved through musical ideas and improvisations from Young Paint and Actress collaboratively; adding an extra layer to the experience. Be it intentional or otherwise this created an uncertainty as to whether Actress or machine generated the musical output. This component of Actress and his AI, displayed as if it were an atop an altar, looming over the characters and musical performers, created an interesting visual meaning. One side of the stage seemingly represented tradition and human musicality while the other showed the emergence and all-encompassing nature of AI and technical advancement.

The human aspect was represented at one point by former Stockhausen pupil and piano virtuoso, Vanessa Benelli Mosell. At one salient moment Mosell took centre stage to showcase her considerable musicality through an emotive solo piano piece. Gradually the piano was accompanied and then eventually overpowered by Actress and Young Paint, resulting in a dramatic exit by the performer Mosell.  On a deeper level, it was representative of AI and electronic advancement wrestling control of human creativity and innovation. This theme was again seen prominently while the Nederlands Kamerkoor and all non-electronic performers sporadically left the stage, leaving the audience alone with Actress and his AI: a stark and dramatic conclusion to a brooding, severe spectatorship.

This undertaking typifies Actress’s restless, prospective musical range. Cunningham refuses to be moulded or pigeon-holed and stands at the forefront of his peers, showing his progressivist ambition knows no bounds. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II will have probably drove a wedge between both admirers of Stockhausen and Actress’s previous work but this is what forward- thinking, risk taking music looks and sounds like. You would be forgiven if you were overwhelmed or even dumbfounded by the experience nevertheless, who other than Actress would have the means to even attempt such an undertaking? More importantly who in his field could realise it and pay respectful homage to the great Stockhausen other than he? It remains to be seen whether this was a labour of love that will be sacrificed to the catacombs of Actress’s musical endeavours or should Actress fans and Serialism aficionados brace for further impact? What is clear is Actress is transforming, breaking new ground and, regardless of the casualties, forging ahead into territory unknown.

Words: Matthew O’Hare

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