When artists who aren’t working in the classical tradition collaborate with musicians from the world of symphonic music, the result can feel a little forced. It can be as if the non-classical artist is seeking validation by aligning themselves with an ostensibly more august heritage of art music. Techno, like rock and pop, is no stranger to this lack of aesthetic confidence: see Jeff Mill’s grandiose collaborations with the likes of the BBC Orchestra and Montpelier Philharmonic. But for tonight’s techno/classical collaboration, things were a little different. Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, has never really been a purveyor of kinetic dancefloor bangers; though rhythmic and repetitive, his work more often frustrates easy categorisation and is characterised by a certain emotional blankness. Similarly, the London Contemporary Orchestra come like a genuinely malleable unit willing to commit fully to unusual collaborations while still retaining the poise and discipline of an orchestra. The somewhat nebulous attributes of both parties is what made their collaboration at tonight’s Proms events such an interesting prospect.

Hugh Brunt conducts the LCO at Tate Modern © BBC | Mark Allan
Hugh Brunt conducts the LCO at Tate Modern
© BBC | Mark Allan

It was slightly disappointing, then, that the ensemble only chose to perform excerpts from Momentum, a piece devised for a 2016 performance at the Barbican. Though there were many interesting ideas in the Actress/LCO performance which closed the night, for the most part it felt meandering and directionless, the textural and harmonic ideas not being allowed a proper chance to develop. That said, one could certainly enjoy the sheer breadth of sonic detail that the group employed – an immersive whirl of sounds that might be likened to an aural bubble bath. The piece opened with some emotionally affecting harmonic progressions in the strings, played with an incredibly slow vibrato that seemed to mimic the sounds of the warbly synths. Similarly, the electronic textures that Cunningham used were quite retro, bringing to mind modernist composers such as Messiaen’s use of the Ondes Martenot. Percussionist Sam Wilson made a plastic bag do a very good impression of a brushed snare drum, and the strings meshed excellently with the ambient squall of the electronics toward the end of the piece. While Jeff Mills’ orchestral forays sound very much like electronics plus and orchestra, the textures here were far more integrated, the lines between synthesized and acoustic sounds not so easily delineated. If this slippage had been explored more extensively, who knows what strange zones we might have entered.  

Hugh Brunt conducts the LCO © BBC | Mark Allan
Hugh Brunt conducts the LCO
© BBC | Mark Allan

Much more satisfying performances were to be found elsewhere on the programme. The Minutes, the opening piece by French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, was a beautiful exposition in plaintive minimalism which saw the strings teasing metallic scrapes and richly-textured harmonics from their instruments by bowing close to their bridges. Opening with a resonant drone, the piece slowly became more harmonically complex, with gradual transpositions evoking a kind of grey, emotionally muted sense of reverie. Catherine Lamb’s piece, Prisma interius V, was in a similar vein, all slow, deliberate string movements and plangent harmonies. One could get into all kinds of pseudo-academic jargon about the way the composer and the ensemble utilised the space, but suffice to say it was a pleasantly enveloping experience to be bathed in the greyscale tones of strings to the front of the gallery, a harp, bass clarinet and wine glass trio to the right, and electronic sounds to the left. These were produced from a synthesizer that was apparently sampling the ambient sounds from outside the building. Whatever the case, it blended and blurred nicely with the sounds of the singing glasses and breathy bass clarinet.

Rodrigo Constanzo presents a solo set © BBC | Mark Allan
Rodrigo Constanzo presents a solo set
© BBC | Mark Allan

There were other interesting, but perhaps less successful pieces in the performance. In his improvisation, percussionist Rodrigo Constanzo was commendable in his ability to coax a huge array of sounds from limited materials – essentially a prepared snare drum with bells and a feedback microphone. This kind of music works best when it aims at overwhelming the senses, and unfortunately in this case it wasn’t loud enough, although the flashing lights triggered by his drums were a welcome sensory addition.

Less is more seemed to be the winning credo for tonight’s concert, with the pieces that worked best being the ones that allowed textures space to breath and ideas the time to develop. Though brief and at times frustratingly scatter-brained, the LCO and Actress’ collaboration proved a tantalising glimpse at what can happen when classical and non-classical musicians drop the baggage of their respective genres and simply react to each other.