There have been many attempts at fusing electronic and classical music over the years. There are projects like Ambiq, featuring Max Loderbauer, The Vladislav Delay Quartet or the Max von Oswald Trio as well as blunter attempts like the 1Xtra Grime or Ibiza Proms. In Aldeburgh, Suffolk, there was even a festival, Faster Than Sound, expressly interested in pairing electronic musicians with their classically trained contemporaries. Suffice to say, these projects are delivered with varying degrees of success and it’s a risky gambit to make, especially for artists who have already developed their own style entirely electronically.
In an interview with the Barbican Centre ahead of last weekend’s event, Darren Cunningham, better known as Actress, reflected on this very fact, and how his collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) is not a revolutionary new idea in that sense. The pairing first emerged in 2016 with a previous performance at London’s favourite brutalist utopia, and the two entities have been developing their collaboration gently since then. This latest performance coincides with the release of Lageos, a double 12” LP of leftfield experimentation and classically-led introspection.
Prior to the headline billing, we were treated to supporting performances from Duval Timothy, who painted luscious forest glade scenes at his piano stool, crafting soothing dream-like atmospheres around a series of offbeat field recordings. Blackest Ever Black affiliate Silvia Kastel then delivered a meandering performance of subterranean techno, meditative drone and electroacoustic oddities. Her performance was somewhat stifled by interjecting late-comers, yet still delivered an immersive and gently hypnotic support.
After a short interval, Cunningham took to the stage with the LCO. Sitting in near dark, except for a string of Japanese Kanji projected on the back wall and the odd flash of a desk lamp, Cunningham tweaked various parameters like an engineer working frantically into the night. For the most part the accomplishments of the London Contemporary Orchestra were allowed to shine through, Cunningham content to apply gentle processing to their sounds, as well as the occasional interjection of stuttered drum machines.
In short, it was hard to know where LCO stopped and Actress began, as they played in effortless synchronicity. This was heightened by the fact the LCO used the full range of their instruments’ capabilities - tapping out rhythms on double basses and running their fingers along the strings to create oddball sound effects which at first appeared to be electronically sourced. The effect called to mind an album like Jon Hassell’s Dream Theory In Malaya – easy to get lost in and with a soothing, medicinal quality.
As already mentioned there are plenty of projects of this brand out, but this one works, and works well. Cunningham is a musician of great versatility and originality, and the LCO showed similar flex in this performance to make their sounds meet in the middle rather than playing in a kind of awkward tandem as is often the way. Cunningham has stated previously that he doesn’t feel he would be able to make music without a belief in God, and this reverent quality to his music has always felt synonymous with much of classical music to me.