PREVIEW: Manchester International Festival

PREVIEW: Manchester International Festival

When: 4th – 21st July 2019
Where: Various venues in Manchester (and Salford)

The biennial Manchester International Festival, which focuses, in theory at least, on original new work across the full spectrum of the arts and which claims to be the only festival to do that, will this year take place from 4th to 21st July at various venues in Manchester and Salford.

The festival in its early days was a vehicle for some groundbreaking work from Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, Ennio Morricone, and Björk, who debuted ‘Biophilia there in 2011.

More recently I haven’t been entirely convinced by the gravitas of some of the musical artists for what now claims to be a World Class event, although two years ago I was able to witness one of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen, by saxophonist Colin Stetson, who had wired up his body with mics so it became an additional musical instrument.

The same year saw a phenomenal and emotional performance by Arcade Fire at the Castlefield Bowl, part of the Sounds of the City festival which runs concurrently with the MIF. They had asked to play the venue, breaking into a world tour that would bring them later to Manchester anyway, as a tribute to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing less than two months earlier.

So what does 2019 hold? It’s looking good. Kicking off proceedings is the renowned artist and peace activist Yoko Ono, “who will invite the people of Manchester to gather in Cathedral Gardens and send a message of peace to the world.” The assembly will feature a people’s orchestra of bells from around the world, and a choir of diverse voices, “which will ring and sing out for peace together.”

Another early artist is Janelle Monáe, also on the opening night of the festival, at the Castlefield Bowl and no doubt performing from her latest album Dirty Computer, acknowledged to be “an empowering expression of sexual freedom and black female identity.”

Mercury Prize-winning Grime artist Skepta has a live set, DYSTOPIA987, described as “an immersive clubbing experience” but no-one knows where yet. The location is deliberately being kept secret for now. There will be guest appearances from hand-picked performers and DJs, and much new technology. Skepta “hopes to conjure up his vision for the future of raving as part of the commission.”

Two years ago BBC jock Mary Anne Hobbs curated an excellent series of electronic performances (also Stetson’s) including Holly Herndon, Haxan Cloak and Sun O))) who undoubtedly played the loudest set ever to assail my ears. The MIF ‘elf n’ safety people were practically begging patrons to take ear protectors at the entrance. Hobbs is back again this year with another curated collection, this time on one evening, that looks to the future of electronic music; Queens of the Electronic Underground, which this time features Holly Herndon (again), Jlin, Aïsha Devi ft. MFO (a Berlin-based visual artist), Klara Lewis and Katie Gately as well as DJ sets from Hobbs herself.

The venue for most shows last time out was Gorilla; this time it is directly across the road at The O2 Ritz.

Laurie Anderson will be marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landings with a virtual reality work that “hopes to fly us all there”.

‘To The Moon’, which she is currently developing with artist Hsin-Chien Huang, features both a VR experience and an immersive installation. It is a special preview of the type of work that Laurie will be bringing to The Factory, Manchester’s new city centre cultural venue which will be the permanent home for MIF, once opened in two years time.

There will be a chance to witness a major new artwork in its earliest stages. The Halle’s music director Sir Mark Elder and acclaimed Dutch composer Johan Simons are working together on a brand new piece for The Factory.

The new work will be inspired by two great artists – composer Dmitri Shostakovich and writer Vasily Grossman – and their experiences living on a knife edge in the Soviet Union. Elder and Simons will discuss this new work before a performance of Shostakovich’s acclaimed Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’, which was first performed in the composer’s home city during the second world war.

There will be a special musical performance created by renowned composer, Philip Glass, in collaboration with performer-director, Phelim McDermott, as part of MIF19.

Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott have worked together on opera productions in London, New York and beyond, and ‘Tao of Glass’ is their most personal collaboration yet. Part-concert and part-performance, the show will feature ten brand new pieces of music by Glass, inspired by ten meditations of life, death and Taoist wisdom.  The music will be presented by McDermott with an ensemble of musicians and puppeteers. McDermott is the founder and artistic director of Improbable, an innovative theatre company known for its pioneering performance spectacles.

Unfortunately, Nico can’t be with us but festival regular Maxine Peake (who’s done everything from narrating the Peterloo Massacre in Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to her award-winning performance in the dystopian ‘The Skriker’ at past MIFs makes her return, conjuring up the visionary artist in a theatrical show that threatens to lay bare The Velvet Underground’s chanteuse’s “dark side”.

In complete contrast, the queen of Sufi music, Abida Parveen, collaborates with South Asian classical dance legend Nahid Siddiqui’s kathak – one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance -for one night only.

For me personally a highlight must be the presence of David Lynch who will take over HOME (another cultural centre) for the bulk of this year’s festival, giving festival-goers a chance to explore the mind of one of contemporary culture’s most radical figures. Best known for directing Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, his work will take over the gallery, theatre and cinema with a selection of art, film, music and conversations.

My Head Is Disconnected will be the first major exhibition of Lynch’s paintings, drawings and sculpture; his classic movies and rare short films will be screened in the cinema; and a series of live shows from Lynch-inspired musicians, presented by Chrysta Bell, will take over the theatre across 16 days.

These New Puritans will perform a specially devised set of re-imagined pieces from David Lynch films, including music by Angelo Badalamenti and David Bowie, in dialogue with tracks from their own back catalogue. They’ll be joined for this triple-header by Manchester psych-rockers Whyte Horses, performing a set inspired by the mythical Roadhouse in Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

High on my list of ‘must-sees’ – although I believe it sold out in about five minutes  – is a performance by Anna Calvi which will be a rare solo show, also part of the Lynch collection. I have no idea what she will play but with Calvi it is likely to be completely different from her Hunter show, which she is still performing at festivals across the UK and Europe this summer.

The Festival Square, outside the Town Hall, will present a series of free musical performances across the duration of the event.

The full programme is still evolving but is pretty well complete now.

Festival website and bookings:

Sounds of the City festival concurrently running (The Wombats, Elbow, The National, Kylie Minogue, The Kooks, Hacienda Classical).


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