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

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

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


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 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 the MPs. And pianist Mosell (a former student Stockhausen) performs some fine solos that sound like rubato-laden versions Actress’s delicate keyboard miniatures, such as Falling Rizlas or NEW.

It is a fascinating, if short, piece theatre, but Actress rarely imposes himself on the work. A screen behind him shows a computer-generated film featuring a chrome-plated robot version 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 Detroit techno tracks – but he now seems to be exploring sound for its own sake, putting him in the territory left-field sound sculptors such as Alva Noto or Murc. He does it well, but it would be a pity if he strayed too far from the dancefloor.