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THE BARBICAN CENTRE

Making sounds from concrete with the musician called Actress

Barbican Centre,
London, UK

Interview ALEX NEEDHAM
Photography ANDREAS LARSSON


Barbican Centre, London, UK.

The Barbican’s performing arts complex was designed by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and includes two concert halls. The largest, Barbican Hall, played host to Actress who is seen here wearing clothing by COS.
Concrete! Angles! Instagram! London’s Barbican Centre is a celebrity among buildings, beloved of architectural critics and snap-happy day trippers alike. Its brutalism is also a muse for Darren Cunningham, a.k.a. Actress, a musician known for his transcendent, occasionally scary take on electronica. Actress has even worked with the London Contemporary Orchestra to compose a score in tribute to the building. The result is a blend of acoustic and computer-generated sounds as atmospheric as the Centre’s shadowy walkways.


ALEX NEEDHAM: What does the Barbican building mean to you?

ACTRESS: It reminds me of a lot of the buildings in Wolverhampton, where I’m from. I spent so much time BMXing and skateboarding around the Civic Hall there, a very similar building. Even my local library has quite hard edges – that same brutalist style.

AN: What is it about architecture that interests you?

A: I love the way a building cuts out the skyline, or the way it’s set into the landscape. I recently saw the Barclays Center in New York, and I was, like, “Is it intentionally rusty?” It would be a very naive question for someone who’s into architecture, but that was the first thing that came into my mind: “What is that rusty material, or is it even rust?” I know a little bit about Zaha Hadid. And Norman Foster, obviously, because I spend huge amounts of time in Heathrow.

AN: But you like modernists and brutalists. Do you think concrete has a sound?

A: Does concrete have a sound? My family is from Jamaica, and my nan left my cousins a building that she’d built herself. She lived in Telford in Shropshire. She moved over here with the Windrush, so she built this house through sending letters to the builders in Jamaica. She had a complete nightmare, but the fact that she managed to get it built was amazing to me. This property is basically made out of breeze blocks and a corrugated-iron roof, and the floors are straight-up concrete. It may not be an amazing-looking modernist building, but it was someone’s dream and they still managed to create it. That, to me, has a sound. I can make music based on that endeavour. So it isn’t about whether concrete has sound so much as “What’s the story?”

Actress makes his way through the Barbican, an estate which consists of 2,014 flats and is home to approximately 4,000 residents.

AN: Would you ever want to live in the Barbican?

A: I’d definitely give it a go for a little while, for sure.

AN: Do you ever go in the Conservatory? It’s the part of the building that everybody seems to like.

A: I took my son there. He loved it. He was running around everywhere, checking out the plants and the fish coming up…

AN: How old is he?

A: He’s only two. The point of our visit was to see the Basquiat exhibition, but when we went in he had a complete meltdown, bawled the whole place down, so we had to leave. It was too much for him. And by the time we left it was dark. We were trying to get to where I’d parked and it was a nightmare getting out of the actual space. One door was locked, so you had to go down this lift – 
I ended up in rooms that I had never been in before… See, this place – it goes back to the music – this is no ordinary place.

AN: It doesn’t want you to leave.

A: Exactly.

AN: How do you feel about playing places like the Barbican and Tate Modern, compared to clubs?

A: Hard one, that, because when I was spending time in clubs a lot I wasn’t making music – just getting absolutely smashed, getting filthy. I started getting a bit more refined when we used to do our own nights at clubs like Plastic People. Those places were always more geared towards sound and less towards debauchery.

AN: Why do you call yourself Actress rather than Actor?

A: I think Actress sounds better, if that’s what you’re asking me.

AN: You weren’t making a point about gender?

The famous tooled concrete finish was hammered by hand, exposing the coarse granite aggregate underneath.
A: Fully. Like I said, Alex, I enjoyed my clubbing back then, and it wouldn’t have been a problem for me to have gone up in high heels to DJ at a show, just for the fun of it. I can’t say that I didn’t recognise at that point, “Where are all the women in this thing? It’s just men! Men and beards…” I do find that weird.

AN: Were you a geek?

A: I can geek off about things and I can be nerdy about stuff, but I also like the seedy side of things. I’ll talk to people and they’ll say to me, “My parents just bought extreme noise records, so I don’t know anything about Whitney Houston” or the things that I was brought up on. That’s weird to me. Even my parents look at me and they just go, “How did you get into this sort of music?”

AN: What do you say to them?

A: When I was a teenager, my mum and dad used to give me loads of chores and one of them was sweeping the kitchen. I’d have the radio on and I remember this one occasion that this guy called Richard D. James was doing a performance from Glastonbury. I just remember this sound coming out of the speakers, and I was wondering if my radio was broken. In that instant I was, like, “There’s something else out there. What is this?” So I went up to HMV and asked if they had his music, and they said: “It’s in that section under Aphex Twin,” so I went over and there were shelves of this dude with a stupid-ass smile.

AN: What has it been like working with an orchestra on the Barbican project?

A: My first instrument was a clarinet. I started playing when I was about seven and I was invited to join a school orchestra. It was an after-school thing, much like when I was playing football for West Brom as a kid, I would go and train after school. I remember one day being super nervous because I couldn’t read music brilliantly, and I was late as well. And really when an orchestra’s rehearsing, it’s the worst thing to be late because you’re walking through this reverberant hall and your chair’s in the wind section. You get there, you’re sat down and you still have to put your clarinet together and get your reed sorted…

The view from the Sculpture Court, looking back up at the 2nd-floor of the Barbican Centre.

AN: Spit falls out of the end…

A: I didn’t know what we were going to be playing they handed me the music and I was just, like, what is that? It was too complex for me. And that really destroyed the idea that I was ever going to be part of an orchestra. It just wasn’t for me. I was too interested in playing football with my mates and being a lad. So it was quite a harsh experience. Between that and the Barbican coming along in 2016, I’d written three albums and I was very comfortable performing live. I’d mastered large parts of what it was that I wanted to achieve in music. I didn’t want it to be something that I’d already heard before – pretty classical music over the top of…

AN: Hard beats?

A: Yeah. This album I’d done earlier, R.I.P. , was focused more towards a kind of imaginary chamber orchestra, influenced by Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem , and I was, like, “This is my interest as far as classical music goes.” For my project with the Barbican, I wrote some music specifically for an orchestra, gave it to LCO [London Contemporary Orchestra] and [co-artistic director] Hugh Brunt orchestrated it. I’m not saying that the first few workshops weren’t difficult: you’ve got nine players talking to each other intensely about certain movements and how we’re going to do this. I just sat there, trying to find my place within the whole thing. But I started to take piano lessons and more advanced theory lessons. I found myself in a space that, for once, was “not just about me”.

HANDSHAKE OF A BUILDING (Nº 4 - Barbican Centre)


The heavy brass handle on an outward-opening door leading from the main staircase into the Lakeside Terrace. It is an original fixture of the building. The Barbican's Grade 2 listed status means that these handles will always be maintained and are regularly polished to keep their finish.

AN: You’re in a band.

A: Exactly. And it was a shared experience and a proper collaboration. And then when it came to performing, we were all in it together. I had quite a lot of responsibility – the mechanics underneath the surface between us all is quite complex.

AN: Do you agree with the cliché that electronic sounds are cold and acoustic sounds are warm?

A: All I can think of is Kraftwerk, and they’re actually often very warm-sounding but get accused of being cold. I think our music can be cold at times, for sure. But this building can be quite cold. You need to give people a bit of respite from that and make it serene.

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