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

April 29, 2019

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:

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.

Read the full interview on: RedBull