Since 2007, the biennial Manchester International Festival has grown to become one of the most anticipated festivals around, with its motto of new works “made for Manchester, shared with the world”.
The festival’s mix of newly commissioned work has produced hugely memorable events – Björk‘s Biophilia from 2011 is a particular case in point. But the festival has its critics. Ticket prices have been denounced as too expensive, while some suggest the festival is elitist. Those arguments are difficult to shirk – especially as Manchester City Council threatens to close many of the city’s libraries but remains one of the festival’s main backers.
Still, to quote Artistic Director Alex Poots, “The arts are for all of us” and this year festival organisers have gone to extra lengths to make cheaper £12 tickets available for local residents. But with most tickets ringing in at around £30, this year’s MIF had a lot to prove. musicOMH sampled some of its highlights.
The xx In Residence – Somewhere in Manchester, 10 July 2013
You arrive outside Manchester Victoria railway station and are taken underneath the station onto a cobbled path. On the brick walls, remnants of old painted advertisments remain. You then proceed underneath a tarpaulin-covered passageway into a room. Waiting there are Jamie xx Smith, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Slim looking rather shy – they are a couple of feet away from you in a space holding 60 people, with a curtained ceiling just above your head and curtained ‘walls’ equally as close. The idea is for the band to “redefine their music and their relationship with the audience”.
Initially, it feels like a jumped-up intimate gig. Yes, Angels sounds beautiful and the chemistry between Madley Croft and Slim is entrancing, but why this space and method? But you’re so focussed on the music that the space has been expanding without your noticing, revealing this huge, almost barren, space you have been shielded away from. And, as the space expands, so does The xx (pictured)’s sound.
There is a visual poetry to this, the expanding space a metaphor for The xx’s career so far: from intimate and supportive audiences to something larger and uncertain. When Swept Away comes, the area outside the performance space is at its most visible – until the curtains crash down, encasing you in the security of the original space again. This was more than a jumped-up intimate gig – this was profound and touching, especially when shared with so few people.
Massive Attack v Adam Curtis – Manchester Mayfield, 10 July 2013
The disused Manchester Mayfield railway station was built to alleviate the crowded Piccadilly station opposite. Tonight it’s hosting a documentary that suggests failed utopias – from Soviet Russia and even Helmand Province in Afghanistan, once known as ‘Little America’ – have led to a managed society rooted and governed by data.
Filmmaker Adam Curtis has a history with MIF – he worked with Punchdrunk on It Felt Like A Kiss in 2009. Now teaming up with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, they have produced what Del Naja calls “a collective hallucination”. The performance space inside Mayfield is cocoon-like – you are encased by screens.
One major feature of Curtis’ work is the soundtrack. Here, Massive Attack – accompanied by Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy – are an all-star covers band, playing music you would never expect them to touch. They play The Jesus And Mary Chain‘s Just Like Honey while Jane Fonda is shown in her exercise video (one of the key architects of body fascism, apparently), with “I’ll be your plastic toy” taking on extra meaning. There’s even The Archies’ Sugar, Honey, Honey – which they nail. But then again, they nail everything tonight.
The cocoon setting gains real purpose when the documentary touches upon Chernobyl and the sarcophagus built to contain reactor four’s radiation. There is then the link into a world governed by data, with the sky blue caption “IN A SARCOPHAGUS OF DATA” flashing up all around you. In effect, we are in the sarcophagus right now inside Mayfield.
At the end, a message flashes around: “YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.” From being told we are unable to control our own lives, it was a message we needed to hear. Unforgettable.
Goldfrapp and RNCM Orchestra – Albert Hall, 18 July 2013
Albert Hall is, apparently, Manchester’s most haunted building. Tonight it’s Manchester’s hottest. Alison Goldfrapp and the RNCM Orchestra arrive dressed in black – very brave in this heat. It also seems her more fervent supporters are here this evening, cheering her every move. There’s even shushing going on.
Tonight revolves around new album Tales Of Us, which is due in September. Sultry is the best way to describe it; one track, Simone, is about a daughter being discovered in bed with her mother’s lover, while other tracks veer on the side of Bond-like theme territory. At times it’s beautiful and, in its own way, exciting – and the polar opposite to Strict Machine and Supernature.
The only problem is it’s too sultry for this evening. Annabel, which is about a girl trapped in the mind of a boy, is sleep enducing: that mixture of warmth, gentle strings and cello proves to be almost as powerful as Night Nurse. There are also moments where the orchestra struggles to have a meaningful presence. But when allowed to come to the fore they add a lot; the encore featuring Caravan Girl is exceptional, particularly with the addition of the choir. A shame it is left until the end: it is vibrant and awakening. A perfect tonic for the hot conditions.
Mogwai Performing Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait – Albert Hall, 19 July 2013
Kick-off is delayed an hour – the boiling hot curse of Albert Hall. “I didn’t think the hottest gig we’d ever play would be in Manchester,” says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. “This is something I’ve waited for for a long time,” says one of Zidane‘s directors and Turner Prize winning artist Douglas Gordon. “Manchester, so much to answer for.”
As a footballer, Zidane was a man of few words; it was all about what he did on the pitch, from his genius to his fiery unpredictability. As Real Madrid go 1-0 down, the music simmers and increases in volume while Martin Bulloch’s drumming gets sharper and the bass intensifies. Superficially, Zidane is the epitome of calm; the music suggests otherwise.
There are times where Zidane seems totally calm, as the moments of silence from the band suggest. Yet it begins to simmer again – even when Roberto Carlos prompts a beaming Zidane smile, not often seen – before erupting into a characteristically noisy yet beautiful assault as Zidane charges into a confrontation and gets sent off. Only live could Mogwai fully – and so forcefully – demonstrate this side of Zidane’s personality. The temperature inside Albert Hall is the perfect accompaniment to what we see and hear. No curse.
In the film, Mogwai captured Zidane’s brooding mentality brilliantly; when performed live, it’s captured perfectly.
Despacio – James Murphy & David and Stephen Dewaele – New Century House, 19 July 2013
Having James Murphy & David and Stephen Dewaele – aka Soulwax – together in the same room is remarkable. Even more so when the room is part of an office tower block owned by the Co-op.
Seeing James Murphy up close is surreal. Dressed all in white and with his middle-aged paunch and greying facial hair, he looks like a kindly uncle. Considering the man has defined many young people’s lives, not least through the sadly defunct LCD Soundsystem, it’s refreshingly normal in a way. The Dewaele brothers are dressed crisply, unfazed by the rising temperatures.
The audience is a refreshing blend, from dance music aficionados to those out on a Friday night wanting to cut loose: in many ways, this is the perfect example of what Poots set out to achieve. From the beautifully crafted speaker stacks to finely crafted mixes – one in particular drops into Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime – this intoxicates the senses.
The nature of MIF means it will always have critics, with questions over elitism and cost likely to rumble on: commissioning new pieces of work is always going to be expensive. It’s a question of cultural capital; some will say MIF brings Manchester together, while others will say the opposite. The key is to get the balance.
Poots will continue to juggle this as he plans for 2015, but Despacio proves how the festival can bring Mancunians together. This year certainly lives up to 2009 – perhaps the festival’s benchmark – with events likely to linger in attendees’ memories for years to come. For that, the expense and hype were more than justified.