Interview met Actress (EN)

Door: Daniel Dylan Wray


Actress X Stockhausen 1900X900

Interview met Actress (alias Darren Cunningham) EN

How Actress fused opera, AI and politics for his latest project

The electronic music maverick reimagines the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Welt-Parlament via artificial intelligence for a stimulating new piece.

Next month sees the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen: Sin {x} II, a new electronic opera piece from the electro maverick and his artificial intelligence project Young Paint.

Staged at London's Southbank Centre, the piece is a reimagining of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Welt-Parlament, which was part of his staggeringly ambitious seven cycle opera Licht. In the opera, the World Parliament gather in the clouds for a debate on love. Actress – AKA Darren Cunningham – has chosen to explore the same theme through a contemporary backdrop of politics. He gathered together MPs in the House of Lords, as well as Dutch politicians in the Netherlands, and moderated a debate on the same subject, before using AI to generate music from the recordings.

These sounds will be performed by, and alongside, Stockhausen student Vanessa Benelli Mosell on piano, The Netherlands Chamber Choir and conductor Robert Ames of the London Contemporary Orchestra to create a distinctly unique and modern interpretation. Here, Cunningham talks us through this intriguing, ambitious project:

Actress Southbank Centre Ai Stockhausen

© Pete Woodhead

What drew you to this project and this specific piece?
Welt-Parlament jumped out at me as a piece that was manageable in the sense that I could generate musical ideas and data quite quickly to write a new composition. [It interested me] due to the current political climate, not just in the UK with Brexit but around the world. There are a lot of different conversations going on about identity relating to gender and cultural dynamics about race to explore. I'm very much interested in politics and I think everyone has felt the weight of Brexit at home. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-contextualise a piece for modern society and to reflect where technology is up to at this particular point.

What was your relationship to Stockhausen prior to this?
One of the first university seminars I had was a listening seminar, and they played us a bunch of composers. [Stockhausen] was one of them, and it was my first experience of atonal music and avant-garde classical. His music really resonated; his ideas really connected with me about how I could manipulate sound and represent those in a techno format. What he did for me – and why he is so important in terms of my own music making – is that he opened my ears. He showed that you can take from your immediate environment and go into different dimensions.

Were the political debates specifically set up for this piece?
Yes. The original idea was that I wanted to have debates with MPs in the UK and present some very simple questions: "how has love impacted on your day-to-day life?", "have you felt loved by the public?", "what does love mean to you?". It's interesting the responses that you get and that is the abstraction of the piece, because essentially love is being presented as a legislation, and the idea is that the AI spits out the legislation at the end of the process and you can't decipher what love is about. That's essentially the crux of the tale.

How close is your piece to the original?
I've not touched the [original] audio at all. I'm not going to sample anything. I have the score and I’ve been to visit his archives twice, and have spoken with his closest family members and employees to try and get inside his working methods. I've been trying to pick out different instructions which I can then apply to what it is I’m trying to do with this piece. His piece is very intense and complex, and so I’ve had some moments working on it where my brain has exploded and I’ve had to take a step back.

Did the politicians open up in their answers and show more of themselves as people, or remain in politician mode?
I think that is ultimately the premise of the whole piece. [When you] ask politicians about love, they can't get beyond the perspective of their duty or their service to other people. It's very difficult for them to remove themselves from that. The contrast of British and Dutch politics is also very different; in Holland I got a very holistic, calm, cool and liberal conversation and that was a stark contrast to what I got from the British side during the fever pitch of Brexit. That contrast will then feed into the three central protagonists and their viewpoints.

The piece is described as being made by voice, AI and electronics. How do they interlink?
They are three very different things. When you're talking about AI there isn't any particular structure. It's reacting to a corpus so you can't necessarily determine every single time what is going to happen. I have created a lot of piano pieces, so that goes into the AI and is generated and spat back out, and is transposed to a human playing the actual piano piece. So when people see the piano actually being played by Vanessa, [these are] pieces that have been constructed by AI.

The other side of it is that I’ll be taking elements of the recordings and making a tonal system that is based on the debates, so you'll be hearing a lot deconstructed syllables and chopped out linguistics that are German but sung by Dutch choirists. There's a lot going on in terms of dialect and pronunciations and the colour and tone of the gestures and words. People won't come and hear the debates performed back to them; they have been completely texturally obliterated and then re-contextualised for the choirists.

Do you gravitate towards working with AI because you like the unpredictability it offers?
I wouldn't say I like it. The whole thing about being an electronic musician is about control to some degree – it's like being on the verge of chaos a lot of the time. I do enjoy working with chaos and harnessing chaos; that void is a place I like to operate in because that's where fun things happen and where you discover what sound can do. I like being in that space but I also like to make sense of things.

This is the thing about Stockhausen; he's laser-like in terms of his detail. Looking at his compositions in his archive, you become aware of that immediately. There's no fluff or fudge there. It's very well thought-out concepts and ideas. That's why working with Welt-Parliament has been liberating, because I’ve been able to work with a whole load of different ideas but have his instructions as an axis to root it all too.

Has this project changed your understanding or perceptions of love?
It has only reinforced my perspective about love, which is that I don't know what the hell it is – I don't know if anybody really knows. You can describe it in a lot of ways and you can definitely feel it. It depends on context of course and this is about politics and right now I don't see a lot of love in global politics, but there are always forces and elements that are trying to love. Love is almost like a spirit in a way. It's similar to chaos in a lot of ways – you can't grasp it or hold it down. It's in flux and it moves and it disappears and reappears.

Actress X Stockhausen SIN {X} II - June 14, Muziekgebouw