Jonathan Mills on Edinburgh International Festival 2011 – Q & A

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JOYCE McMILLAN talks to JONATHAN MILLS, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, for the Scotsman Festival Preview, March 2011
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WHEN JONATHAN MILLS was first appointed director of the Edinburgh International Festival, back in 2006, he had only a few months to put together the programme for his first Festival, in 2007; it was, he says, “a bit of a scramble”.

Over that winter, though – as the young Australian composer and director flew back and forth, once a month, between Australia and Edinburgh, preparing for his move to Scotland – he found that these journeys gave him precious thinking-time to consider the 21st century implications of the ambition announced back in 1947 by the then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the idea that this would be “a festival to embrace the world”. He began to imagine a series of Festivals, beginning in 2008, that would take audiences on an unfolding journey through a world in the grip of change. So in 2008, the Festival looked at the changing face of Europe, and its shifting borders. In 2009, the year of Homecoming, it looked at Scotland itself, and the idea of Enlightenment, and at its relationship to the world. Then in 2010, the festival began to look out across the world’s oceans, reflecting the great movements of people towards new worlds that have shaped our history.

And now, in 2011, the journey reaches Asia, in a programme packed with work created by artists and companies from China and Japan, Taiwan and Korea, Vietnam and India. The programme includes both Asian work that has been powerfully influenced by the west – there are many versions of Shakespearean stories in the programme – and a rich reflection on the vast body of European work which has been inspired by Asian images and ideas, from Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies Und Die Peri, chosen for this year’s opening concert, to Philip Glass’s film-and-music work The Qatsi Trilogy, which will be played over three nights at the Playhouse, with Glass himself on keyboards. In conversation with Scotsman columnist and theatre critic Joyce McMillan, Jonathan Mills discusses the thinking behind this year’s Festival, which he has named “To The Far West”. They talked just before the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

Q. Jonathan, in the programming of this Festival, and the title you’ve given it, you seem to be suggesting a radical change of perspective in the world; as if Europe had ceased to be at the centre of things, and been replaced by the booming economies of China and other Asian countries, where Europe is seen as the “far west”. Is that what you intended?

A. Well, there is a sense that we’ve been moving the centre of gravity further away from Europe each year. I think it was time for the Festival to do that. And in focussing this Festival on Asian arts and culture, and calling it “To The Far West”, I want to express a sense of a world that is changing, with our place in it up for grabs; and to work with performers who will challenge, inspire, tease out that changing sense of where and who we are.

In fact, though, I don’t think it’s a world that will soon see the total displacement of western culture or hegemony by some alternative power. For me, those simplistic cliches don’t tell a half or even a quarter of the story. I think we are more likely to be entering a world where there won’t be any obvious hegemony. And one of the key roles for an international Festival is to demonstrate the absolute complexity and reciprocity of the exchange that goes on, and has been going on for centuries. I am really hoping to build a bridge, and to suggest that beyond the experience of cultural difference, there is something more fundamental – a shared humanity, if you like.

Q. So can you give some examples of how that idea has worked out in the programme?

A. Well, the Mariinsky Opera’s wonderful production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a brilliant example – an opera by Richard Strauss that explores a profoundly non-European sense of the spirit world, and its relationship with the living. Another great example is Scottish Ballet’s new staging of Kenneth MacMillan’s interpretation of Mahler’s Song Of The Earth, which was itself inspired by Chinese poems of the T’ang period. And on the other hand, The Peony Pavilion, from the National Ballet of China, and the Shanghai Peking Opera’s Revenge Of Prince Zi Dan, both involve very large mainstream Chinese companies, with western-type corps de ballet and orchestras, but still using Chinese instruments, and expressing a very Chinese style.

Then there’s the new play The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, based on the award-winning Japanese novel, which is absolutely a story about urbanisation in Asia, perhaps the greatest historic movement of people the planet has ever seen. Of course, people propose work for a Festival like this all the time, but for me, there has to be a creative relationship. If the artists involved don’t want to come on a journey with me, then basically they’re not going to get into the programme.

Q. Given the obvious pressures on arts funding in Britain at the moment, some people are bound to suspect that in going towards the booming countries of East Asia, the Festival is just following the money. Is there an element of that involved?

A. No, not at all. I think I need to say quite clearly that this cycle of work was invented in 2006, long before the financial crash. It’s very easy not to fall for that trick of selling your programming for financial support, because it’s so obvious when governments or other bodies are trying to manipulate what you see, and what you choose.

Q. And as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, are you still in a position to resist those pressures?

A. Yes, absolutely. Edinburgh remains an immensely prestigious event. People just want to be seen here; and the reputation we have is worth more than wealth, in terms of our ability to programme as we want. Which is not to say, of course, that we couldn’t fulfil more of our potential, if we had more resources.

Q. So have you found, in programming this year’s Festival, that Asian attitudes to the west are now changing very rapidly?

A. Yes, but not in ways that are easy to summarise. I think there is a very complex response to the west across Asia now, sometimes very critical, of course, particularly after the financial crash. There’s a tendency to reduce the west to stereotypes – to see Europe as the art gallery, the United States as the university, Australia as some kind of quarry for raw materials. And I think there are still great differences between western and Asian cultural traditions. The sense of boundaries between art-forms is entirely different – there is no traditional distinction between theatre and opera, for instance. And they are definitely not so hung up on ideas of originality, authenticity or provenance as we are. In Asian cultures, there’s a belief that there’s nothing wrong with imitation; so that artists will literally spend decades imitating the masters, until they reach the point where they have the skill to go on in their own right. The attitude to the individual is quite different, and that shapes the attitude to art.

Q. In programming this Festival, you’ve decided to revisit some works that might, in recent years, have been seen as questionable examples of 19th century western “orientalism” – the kind of work which has been accused of patronising Asian culture, or treating it as merely exotic.

A. Yes, I have been looking again at some of that work. But I don’t think Edward Said, the great late 20th century thinker about orientalism, would have objected to what I’m doing – on the contrary, I think he would have disliked the dishonesty of pretending that that phase in western culture never happened.
In any case, a great artist is always working in the inspiration of the moment, which takes the work far beyond stereotypes. Das Paradies Und Die Peri, for example, dates from the height of European orientalism, in the 19th century. But it isn’t kitsch; it’s still Schumann. You can judge these phenomena negatively, or you can judge them as art. The pieces I’ve chosen for this Festival are there because I believe that in the detail of their making – the world of sound or movement or poetry the artist has entered – they are taking things in a different direction, and transcending the cultural attitudes of their time.

Q. Given the intensity of the interaction between Asian and western cultures reflected in this programme, do you think we are in danger, now, of moving into a world where there are no strong cultural differences any more, and every urban culture on earth is essentially the same as all the others?

A. Well, I am an optimist about that. In reality, I think the world is much less predictable than we imagine, and that the move towards apparent similarity will have its limits. I mean, a few weeks ago we thought we knew everything that needed to be known about the aspirations of citizens in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; yet now we realise that we knew almost nothing.

So I think a great deal of humility is needed in dealing with the period through which we’re living. Among other things, the urban world you’re describing is one that has removed itself from the underlying realities of climate, and resource, and history, in a way environmentalists understand; and I actually feel that the future might be much more chaotic and logarithmic, and much less linear, than we think. That’s the thought behind Philip Glass’s Qatsi Trilogy, for example, and that’s why that work is in this Festival.

Q. Do you mean that you feel those cultural similarities are more superficial than profound?

A. I just have the feeling that urban civilisation has become very disconnected from the sensory reality of life, and that it wouldn’t take many tsunamis to sweep a great deal of it away. We should never forget that.

Q. And do you think that being Australian makes you particularly sensitive to that dimension of 21st century civilisation?

A. Yes, I think so. You can’t live in Australia, with that great outback just beyond the cities, and not have a sense that our systems are very, very vulnerable. Australia is one of the last places on earth where you can go to a point where you just will not hear any man-made sound at all, for days on end; as a composer, I’m sure that’s an experience that profoundly shaped me. But being Australian also makes me place a special value on the ideal of Edinburgh as “a Festival to embrace the world”. It means that someone like me can come from the other side of the planet, and yet find a sense of connection and belonging in this city; and that’s a wonderful inheritance from the Festival’s founders, which I passionately want to maintain and develop, in ways that reflect our time.

ENDS ENDS

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