The Royal Academy of Arts in London recently marked a new chapter in its storied history, announcing a £50m redevelopment scheme led by architecture icon Sir David Chipperfield to coincide with its sestercentennial in 2018. Although the London institution hasn’t turned 250-years-old just yet, celebrations to mark the start of the blockbuster renovation kicked off with a private celebration at the RA yesterday where progressive music group Carnet de Voyage premiered a special sonic and visual performance.

‘If most museums are like Zurich, then the Royal Academy is like Naples,’ quipped Chipperfield ahead of the performance, reflecting warmly on the institution’s internal ‘tribes’ and the occasionally strained progress of the redevelopment (which is ‘on time, and on budget,’ for the record). It’s this tension that breeds a compelling brand of creativity – and it’s also a tension most perfectly embodied by musical duo Carnet de Voyage, who overlay classical compositions with electronic riffs .

Carnet de Voyage (‘travelling notebook’) formed in early 2014, after Rosey Chan and Mimi Xu – both classically trained musicians – met at the Venice Biennale. ‘It was an exciting prospect to join forces on pushing and exploring boundaries of live performances by creating site-specific projects which uses the “frame” (architecture) as one of the starting points,’ explains Xu of the union. Since then, the duo has performed across the globe in several top art spaces including Gagosian galleries, the Barbican, the Serpentine and Palais de Tokyo.

Their latest endeavour stems from a chance meeting with Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the RA, at the opening of Sir David Tang’s new cultural centre in London. From there, they exchanged ideas about a site-specific collaboration, using the frame of the RA to create a multimedia event to kick off The Burlington Project.

Academy Award-nominated director Mike Figgis was enlisted to create a film to incorporate into the performance, which also stars New York-based chorographer and dancer Zack Winokur, along with members from the Central School of Ballet and a trio of contemporary dancers.

‘As the film ideas began to progress on paper, we began thinking about the best way to incorporate the music, a combination of [Carnet de Voyage] ideas and pure film score,’ explain the pair. To wit, Chan and Xu opted to perform the score live, while Figgis’ haunting film was screened overhead (Figgis, too, joined in the proceedings, on a trumpet no less).  

Awash in a lurid blue light, Chan immediately lured the audience in with a rousing melody on the piano, while Xu countered with an electronic arrangement. ‘We were excited by the challenge of playing the score for the film, live, as opposed to pre-recording it,’ they add. ‘This gave us a certain amount of flexibility in terms of our timing and our reading of the film at any specific moment.’ In the film, the dancers writhe – occasionally stark naked – through the RA, its architecture unfolding in a musical and visual prelude to the institution’s rebirth.

Carnet de Voyage’s performance is a parting gift of sorts for the RA of old, which now begins construction and will reemerge anew in three years on the advent of its 250th birthday. Like Xu and Chan’s epic compositions, the RA’s forthcoming transformation will bridge the past and future with the tension of a taut, perfectly tuned piano string.