Actress review – techno maverick dials up the sonic subversion

Barbican, London
Darren Cunningham’s music has never been easy listening, and this gig with the London Contemporary Orchestra pushed deep into unconventional territory

As classically trained musicians scrape piano strings, bash a double bass and replicate a kickdrum rhythm with a scrunched-up plastic bag, techno maverick Darren Cunningham, AKA Actress, nods contentedly, a hooded figure in black at the heart of the sonic subversion.

Despite having announced the end of Actress in 2014, Cunningham has resurrected the guise for a collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra. It’s the fulfilment of his long-stated desire to make “classical stuff for a modern generation”, and despite him having spent the last eight years distilling the elements of dance into genre-irrespective visions of dystopia, this project, titled Momentum, pushes things even further.

Cunningham has never been easy listening; reinterpreted and heightened by the LCO, his music is yet more challenging. The suite of newly composed music and past gems begins with the space exploration-inspired Lageos and sees laptop-lurking Cunningham layering an ominous rumble with sighing synths until it sounds like one of Jupiter’s perpetual storms. Oliver Coates’s pure cello cuts through the whirlpool, only to unleash a bleak, violent howl as he swaps between two bows. Stately, fragile strings are brutually interrupted by a glitchy sample that the makes the audience jump, while 5 Audio Track 1-11 repeats a simple viola and violin melody until the instruments ache with exhaustion.

The feeling of discomfort created by Cunningham’s trademark use of static and hiss is enhanced by a triptych of screens featuring pixellated images of Barbican brutalism and photos of crater-marked planets. But what results is a series of startling moments – the unconventional instrumentation of Ascending; N.E.W. blooming with the addition of clarinet; Sam Wilson’s ever-resourceful percussion – rather than a cohesive set. Cunningham forgoes his last bleak offering, Ghettoville, in favour of Panda Bear’s Surfer’s Hymn and his own intergalactic battle song, Hubble, but there’s never enough light to counter the shade, and this journey into the unknown ends up more admirable than enjoyable.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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