25 July 2011

MCR International Festival

While the Manchester International Festival (MIF) was on, I kept going to events and thinking, "I should write a post about that. People will be interested in that."

And then I didn't. Because I've been finally getting stuck into my thesis, because I had big other stressful things going on, because I have big other wonderful things going on, and occasionally, I like to sleep, or at least, to dream.

Now that the Manchester International Festival is well and truly over (ended on 17 July), I'm quite happy that I haven't written a single word about any of the events I attended. That accidental occurrence entitles me, I think, to writing a "round-up." Herd your cattle, cowgirl.

Derf. I've just written down a list of the MIF things that I went to and have *lots* of opinions about. It is long. Warning: this may take a few posts...

Opening Night
Björk | Biophilia

First off, yes, I know everyone else has already written about this. Nevertheless.

I bought myself a ticket well in advance, thinking I would go alone. To my surprise, my dear friend Stuart rang me the day before the show. He'd gotten some free tickets through his radio show, which were coincidentally for the same evening! So, I went to see Björk play with Stuart and the lovely girls from his show, and since it's always nice to have company at concerts, I was feeling pretty lucky.

As it happened, it was *very* good to be at the show with company. Because that show was bizarre. Brilliant and fun and interesting. But weird. First off, Björk was wearing an enormous orange wig. So big, she needed a big chinstrap under it. There's a great image of it on this page, and you can see a clip of the show here. Björk's singing was beautiful, and she was backed by the Icelandic choir Graduale Nobili, who were absolutely fantastic.

Biophilia is meant to be all about music and science, so it was fittingly housed in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. I've been there before, it's a lot like Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, but housed in the world's oldest surviving railway station. *swoon* Unfortunately, this also meant there were no seats and people crowding at the stage sort of obstructed the view of the stage.

This was no ordinary Björk show, as I'm sure her fans will already have read. This show also had a larger educational aspiration. Björk didn't just perform at MIF, she had an artist's residency there, and she organised a bunch of workshops for children to learn about science.

She had special custom instruments created for the show, each designed to express and show some scientific force. A big tesla coil that flared to the bass was meant to say something about electricity. A gamelon made of four pendulums used gravity to make music. An organ was meant to teach the power of air as a force. Even the beats for her songs were generated using pi, so they're not rhythmic at all. Trust Björk to still make that sound good.

But the thing is... Björk is an artist. A spectacularly eccentric one. She is the kind of person who would marry Matthew Barney. She is, simply, *not* an educator. She's not an explainer. She is that most wonderful thing: a poet. And as one of my heroes Dirac once said, "I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."

I don't completely agree with Dirac on that, but in this case, yes, yes, for heaven's sake, yes. I doubt anyone came out of Björk's Biophilia show feeling like they learned something about DNA or plate tectonics. We had to read the programme just to figure out what the custom instruments represented.

But absolutely everyone came out thinking it was delightful, and the music is wild, surprising, uncatchy and dramatic. Definitely check out the album. 


Dr. Dee
Damon Albarn | An English Opera

I had absolutely zero intention of going to this show. I never really got into Blur, and the only Albarn project I've ever liked was Gorillaz. But Stuart had a spare ticket going, so off we went! It was at the Palace Theatre, which is gorgeous. I'd never seen it before, but it's like an an old opera theatre, all ornate and red velvet everywhere. Lovely.

The opera was... well, operatic. It was sung in English, but I still didn't understand most of the words. The music was nice to listen to, the way opera often is, when you can't understand the words. What I liked best about Dr. Dee, though, was the visual experience. A set that moved up and down, Elizabeth I being lowered over the stage and then just kept mid-air, looming over all the action, occult-looking drawings projected onto her dress, folded paper used as set designs. It was beautiful. There are some dramatic and excellent photographs here.

And of course, because I can't let anything pass without doing at least a little research, I ended up quite intrigued by Dr. Dee, as well. The opera is a classic rise and fall story. John Dee was an advisor to Elizabeth I, a polymath, a scientist, a renowned mathematician. Wikipedia says, "in his lifetime Dee amassed the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe." But like many geniuses, he couldn't stop until he'd figured out the code the explained the world... and a man named Edward Kelley, a sort of Rasputin figure, who claimed to have supernatural powers, and convinced Dee to focus all his energies on the occult. Dee lost favour in Elizabeth's court. Accused of being a conjurer, of being Faust, of making a deal with the devil, his library was stolen, and he died in poverty, selling off his posessions to care for himself and his daughter.

Fascinating, right?

To be continued...

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