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Actress talks making music inspired by London’s brutalism

Using Blu-Tak, milk frothers and architectural blueprints of The Barbican as tools, techno figurehead Actress discusses embracing the avant-garde with the London Contemporary Orchestra

In a rehearsal studio on an Acton industrial estate, a group of musicians from the London Contemporary Orchestra are doing very strange things to their instruments. A pianist lifts the lid of her baby grand and smothers its strings with a Tesco plastic bag before scraping them with her Oyster card. On the other side of the room, a man lays down his massive double bass and thumps its body, simultaneously twanging its machine head with his house keys. A harpist turns to the LCO’s fresh-faced artistic director Hugh Brunt and politely asks if she can break a string. He sagely approves her request and she excitedly yelps, “YES!” There’s a milk frother on the side, but something tells me it’s not going to be used for making a cuppa.

At the core of the ensemble sits a mysterious hooded guest – Actress. Head down, focused intently on his laptop screen, he casually fades in atmospheric synthesised pads and triggers off glitchy rhythms from his drum machine. The violinists mimic his drones and the percussionist hits his marimbas with increasing intensity. They tear through new interpretations of Actress’s pared down experimental electronica, twisting tracks like “Hubble”, “R.I.P” and “Caves of Paradise” into slices of hypnotic avant-garde classical music.

Today is the last rehearsal before the group present their culture clash at the high temple of brutalism – The Barbican. When Boiler Room first approached Actress with the idea, the producer jumped at the opportunity to work with Brunt to rework old tracks and create new pieces inspired by the very building they would be performing in. A nod to Iannis Xenakis, a Greek composer and architect who would create buildings to fit his scores and vice versa, Actress and Brunt took architectural layouts of the Barbican and created sounds directly inspired by its shapes. Looking at some of the orchestral arrangements, swathes of white space are offset against jagged lines of music, like the imposing concrete balconies that cut into the sky above the iconic East London theatre.

Actress also drew sine waves into his Ableton sequencer, tracing the silhouette of the building. The audience will never see the music sheets or his laptop screen, but that’s besides the point – the collaboration is about mutating the DNA of dance music and subverting the fabric of live classical performance. It’s the definition of subversive psychogeographic sound art. “For much of the set we’ve looked to realise as close as possible the timbres and colours of Actress’ electronics through acoustic means; something of a physicalisation of those synthesised sounds,” says Brunt. “In many ways the collaboration has been about celebrating the ambiguity of sound colour that sits between electronic and acoustic spaces.”

A loud glassy clink fills the room and catches everyone off guard. It sounds like a massive empty milk bottle being rolled into a prison cell. They all smile at the unexpected aural disruption, uncertain if one of them was meant to do it or not. Robert, the viola player and co-artistic director, picks up where they left off, smacking his instrument with the palm of his hand as the last track of the session comes to a thudding crescendo. As the group chat about the final tweaks that need to be made before the show, Actress sits down by the piano – which now has random blobs of Blu-Tack dampening its upper strings – and discusses how this beguiling collaboration came to be.

Why did you want to re-interpret your work through classical music?

Actress: Boiler Room first approached Ninja Tune, who had worked with LCO before, and they were looking around to do something new. When they asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating with the London Contemporary Orchestra I was like, "Orchestra?! Yes!" There’s no way I could say no to that. Even though techno, house and hip-hop are influential to what I do, I'm always leaning towards pads and strings for everything. I actually come from a very brief classical background.

What was your first encounter with classical orchestration?

Actress: When I was really young I played clarinet for five years, between the ages of 8 to 13. Then I had this experience where I went to this music school, which is like an after hours music school for kids who are showing potential with their instruments. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. It was completely overwhelming. I loved playing the clarinet but it felt so serious. I was more interested in other things – football, TV, and I wanted to go home after school. I didn’t want to go to another two hours of it. So I gave it up. Now I can revisit that side of my life again but do it through the lens of my electronic music.

“At the same time my dad was working for Goodyear, so there was always this smell of burning rubber in the air. That had a real impact on my mind and has stayed there. I always refer back to it when I'm creating my work”

Even though a lot of your music is abrasive, it all seems to originate from a deeply emotional core.

Actress: I don't want to be frivolous with it, because it’s not a really a lifestyle thing for me. It was never really a lifestyle thing – it was more like, “this can really save me”. I can put all of my frustrations and emotions into it. Whenever I go into the studio my first intention is to derive some sort of emotion from the machines. But also the machines can react against you and send you a bit mad. It’s all experimentation. When I was making R.I.P I was lost in the equipment, not eating well, and smoking way too much ganja. The connections started to get a little bit weird. But I got the results I wanted, even if I was slightly damaged by it.


Has classical music played a pivotal role on any of your albums?

Actress: When I wrote R.I.P I had symphonies going round in my mind, very dark orchestral stuff. So I wanted to use that as the starting point for this, how Hugh and me could meet in the middle. To me, what I’ve done is bordering on cryptography really. I find pleasure in being very impenetrable. It’s there for you to decode music that I've written. But Hugh has this ability to pick out everything from my music. People will know that it is my influence being drawn out. But it’s not just going to be an orchestra trying to resize Actress material, it's going to be much more brutal than that.

This collaboration is also inspired by the brutalist building you’re playing in. How do you think urban architecture has played a role in your life and career?

Actress: When I was growing up it was still quite derelict. I’m from the Midlands, which was heavily industrial and dark, but it also had this very green aspect to living there. I always felt like I was in the middle of a green space, with these big open skies. At the same time my dad was working for Goodyear, so there was always this smell of burning rubber in the air. That had a real impact on my mind and has stayed there. I always refer back to it when I'm creating my work. That’s where the isolationist thing comes in. That’s why I don't really work in commercial studios, because then you’re trying to be ‘a producer’ and I've never been that person. I’ve always created my own studio to create my own sound, which is my own vision, which I couldn’t get if I went into a commercial studio. I’ve just finished building my studio, actually. It looks like a robot. I called it AZD.

How did the Barbican’s concrete shapes help form your musical ideas?

Actress: In terms of the actual architecture, what I wanted to do was basically use the interior and exterior of the Barbican and the surrounding area and pick out all the shapes. So I try and integrate the shapes into the arrangement and then take that apart, like how certain filter envelopes on the drum machine react. I’ve always wanted to experiment on that level, like Iannis Xenakis. He's a proper don. For me the environment is important and the landscapes are important, so it seems wrong not to use these really cool shapes and feature that in the music.

“When I was making R.I.P I was lost in the equipment, not eating well, and smoking way too much ganja. The connections started to get a little bit weird”

It’s a very different to approach to your club sets.

Actress: I want to break away from the idea that I always have to go into the club and play my music. I don’t club as much as I did years ago. When I was clubbing hard I wasn’t really making music. I’ve been through different times where I’ve not made music, or times where I was at university and had no money, so I had to sell equipment. Which is also the reason why I always kept my setups quite minimal, because there were periods where I just didn't have the money. There were definitely moments where I just didn’t really have anything and there were moments where I was just interested in clubbing. Then the software changed a little bit and I was able to get a laptop and make tunes, which was good. Then I started Werkdiscs (his record label), a few club nights and then I did my first live set at the ICA. So one of my first live sets was in an institution. And now I’m playing at the Barbican with an orchestra. I’m excited!

Watch the live stream of Actress x LCO on Boiler Room at 19.30 this Wednesday on Boiler Room (