BY SPANK THE MONKEY
Like the song says, Manchester is wonderful: and since 2007, we’ve been able to add a fourth item to the list of reasons why. The Manchester International Festival rolls up every two years, presents a whole array of world premieres across the entire artistic spectrum, and then leaves London to spend the next 24 months picking up the leftovers. Currently in its third season (until July 17th), it doesn’t take over the whole city the way that, say, the Edinburgh Festival does: but you get the impression that Alex Poots and his staff would take quality over quantity any day.
Mostly Film will be devoting a pair of articles to MIF 2011: this one will be concentrating on the music-based performance events, or at least the three that The Belated Birthday Girl and I managed to catch during a weekend visit to my old home town.
When I bring The Belated Birthday Girl along to Manchester, it always pleases me to see how much she enjoys the architecture. And if there’s a recurring theme to the events at this year’s Festival, it’s that they’re using that architecture in interesting ways. For example, take the collaboration between Alina Ibragimova and The Quay Brothers, which is taking place at Chetham’s School and Library. Ibragimova was at MIF two years ago, playing the violin in a space designed by Zaha Hadid specifically to fit the music: this time, it’s the turn of surrealist animators and designers the Quays to provide the backdrop.
To be fair, they don’t have to do much work initially, because the fabulous old building they’ve using already looks like a Quay set. The performance takes place in the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and is split between a number of different rooms. The downside of this is the inevitable breaking of the spell whenever the audience is moved from one room to another. This is particularly the case if you’re stuck like us behind a tiresome old woman, who insists on complaining to the astonishingly patient ushers that this promenade performance she booked for involves some standing up and walking.
But it does give the Quays the freedom to customise the environment for each piece. Berio’s Sequenza VIII plays like a rock gig, with the audience standing in a small packed anteroom while Ibragimova shreds her violin like she’s Yngwie Malmsteen: snapped bowstrings flap alarmingly in the air, accompanied by a disturbing series of offstage bangs. It’s a brave opening, the most atonal piece in the programme but a staggering display of technique. For Bach’s Ciaccona from Partita No. 2, we’re more traditionally seated, and (as noted by The BBG) the interesting use of lighting almost turns the performer’s shadow into an animation in its own right.
For the final piece (after an interlude involving Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, carefully teased with the use of a small envelope), Ibramigova performs Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin alongside a short film specially made by the Quays themselves – which, to be honest, was the main reason why we were there in the first place. I wouldn’t say I was a totally committed fan of their work, but I’ve always found that their best moments come in the fusion of music and image (let’s throw in The Comb here as an example). Here, they’ve made a film which takes a few basic themes – the composer struggling to get notes onto paper, light breaking through a half-open window, a tram speeding through the streets on a foggy night – and juggles them into a dreamlike collage that teeters fascinatingly on the edge of meaning. The effect will be ruined if you read the one-paragraph summary in the programme beforehand, so don’t do that.
Ibragimova has a double technical challenge here: not only to perform a piece that Yehudi Menuhin described as “the most important composition for violin alone since Bach,” but also to synchronise it on a phrase-by-phrase basis with the pictures on screen, without the use of a click track or any other cheating. She pulls it off stunningly – when the Quays’ images all fuse into a glorious final shot that precisely matches the closing bars of the piece, it takes your breath away.
So, we’ve had a concert that’s somewhere between a promenade performance, a movie screening and an art installation. Later on, we’ll be attending another concert which will be supported by a battery of scientific instruments and a collection of iPad apps. So it comes as something of a shock to find that for Doctor Dee, we’re expected to sit in seats, in front of a proscenium arch, like common Victorians or something.
Unfortunately, Doctor Dee has become one of those events whose backstory overshadows what we actually see on stage. It started so promisingly: Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett had already torn the roof off the sucker when they presented Monkey: Journey To The West at the inaugural MIF four years ago. Their choice of collaborator for their follow-up project was comics writer and mystic Alan Moore: and when it was revealed that their subject was the true story of Elizabeth I’s court magician, it all began to sound very interesting indeed.
It didn’t last long. Moore, as many of his Hollywood collaborators can testify, doesn’t like being messed around with. When Albarn and Hewlett reneged on an agreement to provide content for Moore’s Dodgem Logic magazine, he angrily flounced out of the project taking a half-completed libretto with him. (It’s published in the current issue of Strange Attractor, for those of you who are curious as to what could have been.) In a less heavily publicised split, Albarn subsequently fell out with long-term collaborator Hewlett as well. Doctor Dee may have started out as a Gorillaz/Moore dream team project, but what we ended up with is an opera with no credited librettist (barring a cryptic thankyou to playwright April de Angelis in the programme), and a design strategy that’s all over the damn shop.
To be fair, Rufus Norris’ production has its moments – the best may well be at the very beginning, a simple but delightful coup de theatre which caused spontaneous applause on the night I saw it. And in a neat prologue, we get a parade of carefully chosen English stereotypes (suffragette, King’s Road punk, John Cleese) across the top of Paul Atkinson’s multi-level set. But once the show has actually got started, it quickly becomes apparent that a threadbare plot is being stretched to breaking point. Some ingenious scene transitions arise out of the central design motif of Dee’s papers and books, but there’s very little of interest that happens in those scenes, and they never cohere into any sort of whole.
Musically, things aren’t much better. We have the BBC Philharmonic in the pit, and a nine-piece band on stage, with Albarn himself playing guitar and acting as an approximate narrator, but there’s no real tension or interplay between the two groups of players. Having Albarn perform much of the singing is a mistake: it ensures that unlike Monkey, the tunes never really extend out of his personal comfort zone. (And for all the Eastern weirdness of Monkey’s score, it still had several tunes you came out humming, which certainly isn’t the case here.) The result is a whole pile of elements that simply refuse to gel, and the absence of a script has to be a large part of the problem. Sure, Alan Moore would have cranked up the mysticism to insane levels, but he’d have made sure there was a narrative too.
And so to Björk: Biophilia, which has probably been making the biggest splash at this year’s Festival, despite all the pre-game hype for Doctor Dee. Mind you, this series of concerts hasn’t been backward in coming forward either: it’s being touted as part of an enormous educational-cum-artistic project drawing parallels between the natural world, the creation of music, and the application of technology. At this world premiere performance of the songs, we get taped intros from David Attenborough gnomically suggesting, for example, that the mutation of a virus is similar to the way generative music works. And we’re promised a whole series of apps which will expand on the science alluded to in the songs. All this book-learnin’ was starting to make me feel a bit twitchy before the concert started: but luckily, there’s music as well.
Björk’s performing at Campfield Market Hall, in the round, to 1100 people at a time. It’s a humid sweatbox on a hot Sunday afternoon, but the sound turns out to be extraordinarily good for a room this size not normally associated with music, particularly when you factor in the peculiarities of the arrangements in this show. The two piece band (Matt Robertson on electronics and Manu Delago on percussion) are frequently way down in the mix, reduced almost to subsonics. The main audio element here is the human voice: either Björk’s, or those of the twenty-four women who make up the choir which is the prime visual focus on stage. At least, it would be the prime visual focus if it wasn’t for the woman in the post-Gaga Crystal Tipps frightwig at the centre, making astonishing noises with her mouth and jogging excitedly on the spot during the dancier numbers.
The programme is largely made up of songs from the forthcoming Biophilia album, plus a smattering of old favourites rearranged for the choir – their recreation of the huge orchestral sweep into the chorus of Isobel is a particular highlight. There are a couple of numbers of raw Björk which feature her vocalising over drones, which I don’t particularly care for: she’s much more interesting when her voice is battling against traditional song structures, and the two end up warping each other. The lead single from the album, Crystalline, is a case in point: it may sound impressive enough in downloaded form, but nothing can prepare you for the gutpunch of that final minute when it’s heard in a live environment.
As promised, the educational component includes some projected nature films and specially constructed instruments – though on the latter score, there’s very little that can top the early use of a discharging six-foot Tesla coil for a rhythm track. But for all the technology on display, it’s the choir’s night, as Björk focuses on the sound of the human voice to a degree we haven’t seen since Medulla. Reports suggest that her choice of non-Biophilia songs may vary from gig to gig: at the one we attended, the final encore was Declare Independence, a song I’ve never really cared for. Now I’ve heard it being yelled by 25 jumping Icelandic women, I can suddenly see the point. The overall result is a huge outpouring of affection from the crowd: cries of “we love you” and “genius” can be heard in between the songs, with one wag yelling out “very pleasant” as balance. I love this crazy town.
Music and performance are, of course, only a small subset of what the Manchester International Festival does. However, the last thing you want to do is give responsibility for gallery reviews to someone like me, who can’t hear the name of Mike Nelson without mentally responding “and his robot pals”. So expect our regular correspondent Ann Jones to tell you about the best of the MIF exhibitions in a few days time.
Alina Ibragimova & The Quay Brothers continue at Chetham’s School and Library until July 17th, and then Wilton’s Music Hall in London July 26th-28th. Doctor Dee has now finished its Festival run, but its London premiere is scheduled for the end of English National Opera’s 2011-12 season. Bjork’s Biophilia runs until July 16th, and then tours worldwide.
Spank The Monkey’s Manchester run finished in 1984, but he still does the occasional encore.