Actress x Stockhausen Sin (x) II review – transcendent AI-driven opera

Royal Festival Hall, London
DJ and producer Actress strays even further from the dancefloor as he takes on Stockhausen’s famously over the top Mittwoch by sampling Westminster debates

You can see why Karlheinz Stockhausen might appeal to the DJ and producer Darren Cunningham, AKA Actress. Like Stockhausen, Actress makes mischievous soundscapes that gleefully cite arcane references, from absurdist Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama to sculptor Anish Kapoor, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Jungian psychology.

Tonight’s performance is loosely based on the opening act of Mittwoch, part of Stockhausen’s bonkers 29-hour opera cycle Licht. The complete work famously features a dancing camel and a string quartet, each instrument being played in separate airborne helicopters. This section is adapted from the opening act, Welt-Parliament, in which a group of politicians – played by a medieval-style plainsong choir – discuss the meaning of love. (Tonight’s script uses actual quotes from a recent Westminster debate.)

Actress and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conducted by Robert Ames.
Actress and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conducted by Robert Ames. Photograph: Denelle and Tom Ellis

The show is played like a semi-staged opera, acted out by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conductor Robert Ames and pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell. For much of the evening, Actress, stationed in a raised pulpit and using AI to manipulate his work, provides underscore – doomy drones, glitchy systems noise, vocal samples and the occasional nightmarish bleeps – but there are transcendent moments. Just as the choir’s speeches turn into wordless babble, Actress’s vocal samples start to sound like a malfunctioning robot. The combined effect is to brilliantly dramatise the inarticulacy of the MPs. And pianist Mosell (a former student of Stockhausen) performs some fine solos that sound like rubato-laden versions of Actress’s delicate keyboard miniatures, such as Falling Rizlas or NEW.

It is a fascinating, if short, piece of theatre, but Actress rarely imposes himself on the work. A screen behind him shows a computer-generated film featuring a chrome-plated robot version of Actress at work, which suggests he is slowly transforming himself into a Kraftwerk-style cyborg. He started out rooted in rave culture – his early tracks sounded like acid house anthems being melted, or delicate watercolour paintings of Detroit techno tracks – but he now seems to be exploring sound for its own sake, putting him in the territory of left-field sound sculptors such as Alva Noto or Murcof. He does it well, but it would be a pity if he strayed too far from the dancefloor.

• This article was amended on 23 May 2019. The complete work famously featured an airborne string quartet, not a quartet of cellos, as an earlier version stated.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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