- The first time Darren Cunningham considered his tracks working as an instrumental suite was in 2012, during the recording of his third full-length album as Actress, R.I.P.. At the time, he said he wanted to create "classical stuff for a modern generation," a vision that was realised in full on Wednesday night as part of a collaborative project commissioned by Boiler Room and Ninja Tune. At 8:30 PM, a hooded Cunningham, flanked by eight members of the London Contemporary Orchestra, took the stage.
The music for the performance, titled Momentum, was orchestrated by experimental conductor Hugh Brunt. As outlined in the pre-performance documentary, none of these musicians were ever onboard to play straight sheet music. For Momentum, they were given free rein to contort the sound of their instruments, adding signatures and personal motifs as they saw fit. It's not everyday you get to see a pianist rake the inner strings of a Steinberg with an Oyster Card, or a harpist pluck chords with a milk frother.
Scanning the set list beforehand, I identified five Actress originals from the 13 listed works. The rest were compositions arranged specifically for the night. The show began with "LAGEOS," a section inspired by a pair of aluminium-plated space research satellites that resembled golf balls (one of these featured on the event's poster). Using laptops and an Octatrack sequencer, Cunningham spread his signature haze across the wavering notes of the LCO's string section. It was a cinematic opener, a piece that wouldn't have been out of place complementing a Ridley Scott epic.
R.I.P.'s "Ascending," though, was the night's standout, as percussionist Sam Wilson made a plastic shopping bag sound like a perfectly on-point snare. This was followed by "Piano Sketches," a section that was noir and macabre in mood, the grotesque sounds a nod to the brutalist exterior of the Barbican's tower blocks above. In contrast, sections such as "Surfer's Hymn" were heavenly melodic. As with much of Actress's back catalogue, some of the night's most enjoyable moments were fleeting ones. I felt a rush of euphoria as the soupy lament of "N.E.W." phased in, but it was no more than an interlude. The players remained motionless for all of 30 seconds before it pixelated out of range.
In London's saturated clubland there appears to be a huge appetite for live electronic music shows on weeknights, and this performance was something wholly different from the norm. The triumph lay in the deconstruction and re-contextualisation of electronic sounds within a world-renowned concert space. It wasn't a two hour symphony; it was an unassuming art piece, and there's only a handful of electronic musicians who could convincingly pull off a project of this scope. Though Momentum was perhaps an odd name for a performance so drawn-out at points, it nevertheless had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Once the music was over, Cunningham leapt from his chair and walked to the front of the stage. After a quick bow and a smirk, he pivoted to applaud his collaborators and they all vanished into the shadows as quickly as they'd appeared.
Photo credit: Tom D. Morgan