From the live debut of the Icelandic singer Björk’s technology-tinged new album to an event that will not only celebrate the life but also speculate on the death of the performing artist Marina Abramovic, the line-up for this summer’s Manchester International Festival (Mif), which was announced last week, presents a striking range of work.
The biennial event, which takes place over 18 days in the UK’s former industrial heartland, aims to deliver “original, new work and special events”. With 23 new commissions, highlights will also include the Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s new opera and a concert performed in complete darkness by the blind Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam.
For the second time, one of the festival’s commissions – the children’s experience Music Boxes – has been developed in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Festival and will be brought to the UAE after the event.
Björk’s live appearance will precede the worldwide release of Biophilia, the artist’s first album since 2007, and the multimedia project has already been described as “her most ambitious and exciting work to date”. As well as promising to accompany every song with custom-made apps (as in the kind you might get on a smartphone), the show will also feature “a range of specially conceived and crafted instruments” including a nine-metre pendulum that “harnesses the earth’s gravitational pull to create musical patterns”.
“She’s an artist we’ve been chasing for a while,” says Simon Mellor, the general director of Mif. “The content of the album is about how the rhythms of nature influence music and science.”
Also celebrating the scientific will be Doctor Dee, a new opera by the stage director Rufus Norris and Albarn, whose acclaimed production Monkey: Journey to the West, had its premiere at Mif in 2007.
“Monkey was based around acrobatics and Chinese circus; this looks at the life of Dr John Dee – a kind of lost figure in British history,” says Mellor. “Prospero from The Tempest was based on him; he was an Elizabethan alchemist and scientist who also owned the biggest library of books in Britain. It will be about illusion and magic.”
Mellor also says that, unlike Monkey, Doctor Dee will feature Albarn singing. Audiences are unlikely to see the Blur frontman playing Greensleeves on a harpsichord, however – the music has been written in a contemporary style.
Perhaps the festival’s most morbid production will be The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic – a new piece by the “grandmother of performance art”. Bringing together more highly acclaimed artists than any other Mif commission, the American avant-garde director Robert Wilson will helm the production, with narration from the actor Willem Dafoe and music from the Mercury prize-winning singer Antony Hegarty.
“Abramovic is probably the most influential figure in the world of performance art,” says Mellor. “She’s very interested, rather morbidly, in her own death. When she talked to Robert Wilson about whether he would be willing to stage her funeral, he said he would only do it if he could also celebrate her life.”
Elsewhere, a “forest” of more than 60 giant shipping containers will make up Music Boxes. Mif organisers have asked 10 internationally-renowned artists to create interactive sound experiences for children as young as six months. Co-commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival, the huge “melodic adventure” will be shipped to the emirate after the Manchester event, and is expected to open in the UAE next March.
“At the moment, the artists who are making music for it are from the UK, Italy, Belgium and a few other places, but there aren’t any Middle Eastern musicians,” says Mellor. “Hopefully that will change in time for the opening in Abu Dhabi; we want it to keep developing as it moves.”
One of the many commissions that made their debuts at the 2009 Mif was the pavilion designed by the architect Zaha Hadid. Resembling a flowing white ribbon, it was designed as the ideal space to experience the music of JS Bach. Also co-commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival, it has been brought to the capital and installed at the Emirates Palace hotel as part of the current Abu Dhabi Festival.
“We want both high art and low art at the festival – Snoop Dogg to Marina Abramovic – but the thing that’s really important for us is just that it’s good art,” says Mellor.
Mif will run from June 30 to July 17. Details on the Mif website.
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