A fresh take on the union between classical and dance music.
It was Boiler Room that started the conversation between the worlds of classical and underground dance music. When the broadcasting platform tapped the London Contemporary Orchestra for a project, it came up with a list of collaborators from the realm of electronic music, and Darren Cunningham, a.k.a. Actress, sat at the top. While the team initially got together for a joint concert at the Barbican Centre in 2016, it proved fruitful enough for the artists to create the original album, Lageos, which deepens their relationship.
Though Lageos includes a few old Actress tracks, this isn’t a full rework of Cunningham’s previously released music like, say, Carl Craig’s Versus project from last year. Rather, it brings fresh work from the collaborators with the producer manipulating individual stems played by the orchestra into new shapes. The result has the hallmarks of an Actress record as blips of different sounds and influences folding in on itself like a cubist rendering of classical music. But the presence of the LCO is constantly felt, providing a warmth as well as a sense of space that the producer’s flatter, more one-dimensional works can’t fully develop on his own.
Cunningham’s own work can be austere as his steely electronic records, which move like aliens while steeped in dance music nostalgia. The previous Actress record, AZD, resembled a ghost of old IDM and jungle, characterized by cassette hiss, dusty breaks and aged, prickly synths. Yet his strongest works fulfill the image attached to early IDM—that of a sentient technology that adopts human expressions. The best realization of such an imagination is his third album, R.I.P., with songs like “Uriel’s Black Harp” and “N.E.W.” acting like a machine humming ancient chamber music from memory.
Some of the strongest tracks on Lageos come when Cunningham lures the LCO into his world. The dank techno of the advance single “Audio Track 5,” from the Barbican show, hinted at what two divergent forces can do when they meet halfway. The orchestra carries on the spirit of that release through a more live-ensemble participation in “Chasing Numbers.” The whimsical track grows busy as it gets cluttered by misshapen sounds; thick string plucks run counter to the song’s momentum as they make their descent while a loose screech shakes up the otherwise harmonious piece. But the bass line anchors the kitchen-sink chaos as it plays with a slick funk not foreign to a more straightforward house record.
Club elements such as the throbbing kick drums in the “Surfer’s Hymn” cut through with personality that threatens to flatten or overshadow the orchestra, yet Cunningham plays wise enough to prevent conflict between the distinct voices. The producer picks apart the starker ends of LCO’s palette, like haunted bells and cold reverberations of mallets, to craft tracks closer to his own techno experiments. More revealing is what happens when the LCO inspires him to mine his own vocabulary. Rugged, crumpled bass may have obscured the identity of his past music, but on the title track, it vividly reflects the brutalist space of the Barbican, the venue that gave birth to the collaboration.
Like the best Actress records, oblique and jarring sounds prove to be the most evocative on Lageos, and “Galya Beat” sings the most unsettling tune out of the batch. A swarm of paranoid synths give an unnerving feeling of a bottomless free fall, while jagged keys, moaning strings and other harsh noises crash to heighten the horror even more. The experience could only come from this specific synthesis. Menacing as his songs can be with their silent mystique, Cunningham’s reserved approach doesn’t ordinarily come close to this kind of cacophony.
Working with the LCO to open new possibilities ultimately gives Lageos a fresh take on the union between classical and dance music, warping each into exciting, unique forms that neither genre can achieve on its own.