Edinburgh International Festival 2011 – An Interview with Festival Director Jonathan Mills

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pushing Borders and Redefining Itself: Simon Thompson meets Jonathan Mills, Director of Edinburgh International Festival. (SRT)

Jonathan Mills. Picture © Mark Hamilton

Edinburgh is surely the most exciting place in the world to be every August. The city thumps with energy with its myriad of festivals and, 64 years after it was founded, the International Festival still sits at the summit of the city’s cultural achievement. It may not be the biggest (the Fringe took that accolade a long time ago) or the busiest, but the last few years have seen an interesting shift in its perception. About a decade ago the International Festival was seen as staid, polite, Eurocentric and inward looking, while its cheeky “little” cousin, the Fringe, brought a diverse myriad of performers from all over the world to bring incredible colour to Edinburgh’s streets. Recently, however, the situation seems to have reversed: nowadays the Fringe seems to be offering a lot of the same, with an ever-increasing focus on comedy, while the International Festival has been pushing borders and redefining itself under the leadership of its Australian-born director, Jonathan Mills. When he met me last month, however, he was cautious of any comparisons between the two festivals.

“It’s unfair to compare a curated festival like ours with a wonderfully exuberant free-for-all like the Fringe, which isn’t in charge of its own destiny. However, it is fair to say that there has been a change. I’ve been mature and sensible in the choices I’ve made for the International Festival, but a lot of it is new territory. All the Edinburgh festivals should be constantly pushing the boundaries in their own way.”

Mills has certainly been doing that. Under his directorship it has been the International Festival that has featured acts as diverse as a New Zealand Shaman and an American Gospel version of Oedipus. When he spoke to me last year he told me that his objective for the Edinburgh International Festival was “to shift the centre of gravity away from an automatic assumption that they will be exclusively or predominantly European”. If that’s the case then he has been remarkably successful. Last year’s theme focused on the New World, this year’s goes further from Europe by focusing on Asia. I asked him how he felt this year’s Asian theme had built on his aim.

“It’s something I’ve been doing by degrees: in my first year it was a very European festival. I’ve attempted to lead us into areas where I think there’s a conversation worth holding. Some of those conversations have been very close to home, such as the programme that was inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment in 2009. Some of them have been much further away from home, although consistently with a very clear connection to Europe: last year’s programme, with the idea of the New World, had certain things to do with that, such as colonialism and exploration. It’s the same this year: it’s a festival that explores a very different kind of idea of Europe, and a different kind of set of relationships that Europe can establish for itself.

“I’m trying to look at European culture and its impact beyond Europe and the desire to find Europe in other places. It’s significant that when the Edinburgh Festival was setting out its stall with these lofty ambitions of embracing the world, an equally valid but very different concept emerged in London: the Festival of Britain, which was much more inward looking. The Edinburgh Festival has always been outward looking: I’ve tried to recalibrate those ambitions for a changing world. This year I have done what I’ve done because of the great importance that people in Europe will be feeling for the Asian region: it’s significant that it’s not a Chinese festival or an Indian festival, but it’s a festival that celebrates certain ideas that can be found across the region. The very inspiring challenge was knowing when to stop! I’m no less concerned with Europe, but I’ve found a different way of being very European and very international at once.”

Mills’ concern is not a move away from Europe for its own sake: what interests him is establishing the interconnectedness between European culture and its more geographically distant cousins. “We’re already living amongst this interconnectedness: the sofa that you sat on in a 19th century drawing room in Scotland is likely to be covered with some kind of textile that was designed or manufactured in India; the drawing room of an 18 th century Edinburgh New Town house will have a very direct relationship to China or Japan with the design of its painted wallpaper or the decorative motifs of the furniture designers. The point of this festival is to suggest that if we take the time to explore cultures that seem very alien to us we will find that the connections to our own history are much more powerful and intertwined with our own traditions and ideas. It’s also an attempt to suggest that the Festival should connect with the world we live in and I’m conscious that the way we presented ourselves in 1947 and 2011 should reflect a series of different traditions and expectations.”

That interconnectedness has been particularly interesting when constructing this year’s music programme. “Debussy was thunderstruck when he visited the Paris Great Exposition in 1889 and first heard the Gamelan Orchestra of Java. That shaped the colour of the modern orchestral palate! Thirty years later it was the poetry of medieval China that inspired a figure like Mahler to write Das Lied von der Erde, one of his greatest compositions which also tapped into the deep connection between the sense of farewell in the music and the feeling of loss in the classical poetry on which that work is founded. Everywhere you look around the programme it’s not just Asian artists speaking for themselves but it’s European artists declaring their influence on Asia as well.”

That connectedness has also been seen in the way that Mills has constructed the physical boundaries of the music programme over the last few years. One of his distinctive additions was an annual series based in Greyfriars Kirk. I asked him why that wasn’t featuring this year, and his answer returned to the theme of connectedness.

“The Greyfriars Church series was developed in response to a pretty obvious omission: namely the focus on early repertoire and original performance practice and to look at traditions beyond the concert hall. But we’re dealing with Asia this year – we’re not dealing with Christendom – so it seemed to be inappropriate to try to bring a gamelan into a church, let alone a group of desert nomads! So we shifted those parts of the programme to other venues. Much of what you will hear in the Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall – the works of Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, John Cage – is connected to the musical ideas of India or Idonesia, but I don’t think things should stay the same: we need to think of the proper line for this journey to resonate. It’s fair to say that we’ve been pushing the music programme in very different ways, both backwards and forwards in time. However, I haven’t (and I won’t) create a special series for contemporary music: I would much rather see that integrated, and I say that passionately as a composer. I don’t want to live in a ghetto because I think what I do is as relevant as the work of my musical predecessors. So Jonathan Harvey’s work, connecting as it does to Buddhist Mysticism and spirituality, is every bit a part of a programme that contains Debussy or Messiaen. I’m setting challenges, but that’s what a festival should be doing. We always have been and always should be distinguished by ranging across all art forms. Our burning ambition is always to explore the broadest, most interesting ways that human creativity can express itself, and that has been something at the heart of the Edinburgh Festival since its inception at the end of the Second World War. One should always challenge oneself in the context of this festival to think about what that mixture of arts forms means and where it can lead us. After all, you’ve got Mahler’s Song of the Earth in the dance programme, alongside very distinguished Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian dance ensembles.”

So what is Mills himself most excited about in this summer’s programme? “You’ll understand if I keep my personal preferences to myself, but there are some things that are obviously attractive to people – like The Peony Pavilion – and there are some things that are maybe not so obvious but they will be equally enjoyable; so I’m asking audiences to trust me that this will be a festival that will yield great riches and great pleasures the more you engage with it.

“Two projects that, for me, are standouts because of the exquisite nature of the performers are the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble from Bangalore (you so rarely see dance of this calibre from any culture!) and Ea Sola because of the deep humanity of her work and because she is very conscious of how fragile is our cultural memory and how easily it can be ruptured courtesy of a war. Like everyone else I’m looking forward to the premieres, like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and The Thousand and One Nights because I can’t tell you anything about those yet! It’s very important to present classical traditions but it’s also important to present artists that are challenging those traditions by creating new works, new ideas, new contexts. We’ve been quite deliberate in the approach we have taken over the last five years: my predecessor [Brian McMaster] had created a family of collaborators so many of the same people came back every year or so; my approach is to think about a different journey every year and I don’t quite know where it will lead me, and so my collaborators will be very different every year. That’s an excitement in and of itself.”

Like every other arts organisation, the Edinburgh International Festival has faced challenges in facing the current financial climate, but Mills is upbeat about the Festival’s ability to weather the storm: “In a very difficult trading environment sales are holding up well. I don’t necessarily know why that is: it could be that we are now robust enough to withstand some of those challenges. The Economic Impact Report released recently could not have come at a better time in detailing the specific contributions that Edinburgh’s Festivals make to the local economy. However, the Comprehensive Spending Review doesn’t conclude until September so it’s still too early to tell what the immediate future will hold. I’m hoping that due to the advanced role we have been asked to play in both the Olympic Games and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, and in the light of the economic value we represent, we should be well treated. There is certainly a greater understanding and appreciation of the festival, but there is no doubt we are living in challenging times and some tough decisions will have to be made. We haven’t found securing sponsorship more difficult, but I know everyone else does!”

Suggestions of a more advanced role in future events like the London Olympics or the Glasgow Commonwealth Games raise the tantalising prospect of where Mills may take the Festival’s future. Is his move away from Eurocentricism leading towards a culmination, or is he going to try something completely different? “Both, but I’m not going to tell you in what order or when!”

Watch this space: based on past form, the results are sure to be worth the wait.

Simon Thompson