There is a new, sort of surprise guest in town at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, invited to join the usual prestigious company by incoming director Fergus Linehan. That guest is called popular music, and she already appears to have her feet quite comfortably under the table of this arts institution before a chord has been struck.
For nearly 70 years, the EIF has been a standard-bearer for world-beating classical music but when Linehan took over the reins, he intimated that he wanted to expand the Festival’s music remit. Prior to taking up his EIF position, he was the director of Vivid Live, the Sydney Opera House’s annual celebration of contemporary music, and some of the ideas, impetus and even artists from that festival have infused his inaugural music strand.
It’s not the first time the EIF has invited musicians from outside the classical community to participate. Patti Smith paid poetic homage to Alan Ginsberg in collaboration with Philip Glass in 2013, and cabaret performer and Fringe favourite Camille O’Sullivan sang in an RSC production of The Rape of Lucrece the year before.
But Linehan’s intentions are more audacious. One doesn’t wish to invite disrepute but he is flirting dangerously with that grubby beast called rock’n’roll thanks to an impressive line-up headed by the respected indie folk singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens and FFS, the glorious, generation-spanning pop alliance of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Both these acts would more usually be found at the kind of summer festivals which take place in fields or under canvas. But being the cat among the pigeons clearly has its attractions to any adventurous musician.
“It’s a good thing to possibly give the festival more of a universal appeal,” says Franz frontman Alex Kapranos, who sees the presence of popular music on the bill as a natural evolutionary step. “It’s something that you see throughout history - different artistic forms that were once considered to be low art have proven through the passage of time that they do have substance and merit to them.”
Sparks have been making strange, heady and utterly idiosyncratic records for over 40 years, so it’s clear that they have ambitions for pop music as an art form. Erudite keyboard maestro Ron Mael, he of the pencil moustache and hard stare, is a fan of Schoenberg and Shostakovich as much as Shakira and The Shirelles.
“I like to listen to music that I have no possibility of making myself and also things that are slightly alien,” he says. “I like that pop music can be considered a high art form but also that it’s considered kind of trashy and not a part of the artistic world.”
Mael and Kapranos may be tickled to crash the posh party but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the EIF will lead fresh converts to their door. Both the FFS and Sufjan Stevens shows are already sold out, presumably to existing fans of the artists. Whether these concerts will feel to attendees like they are part of a bigger festival experience or just an opportunity to check out an artist they love in a swish theatre venue remains to be seen.
However, tickets are still available for the Hub Sessions, a flagship season of late and late-ish night shows – alternative chamber concerts, if you will – in the intimate environs of EIF headquarters, where most of the non-classical performers have found a home. The programme encompasses jazz, folk, electronica and what might be fuzzily termed contemporary music. The artists involved are all intriguing, individual stylists but the shared venue provides consistency of identity, while the number of cross-genre or multi-media collaborations on offer confers a unifying theme.
King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love show, combining live music with a screening of Virginia Heath’s film of the same name, is already a proven hit around the country but is only one of a number of soundtrack performances, including a quartet rendition of Sufjan Stevens’ score to rodeo documentary Round-Up and experimental composer Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, performing music for manga films and video games.
Jazz artists Jason Moran and the Robert Glasper Trio both infuse their music with soul and R&B influences, two respected rock musicians collaborate on a new work for strings (see highlights box), while composer, entertainer and self-styled “tortured megalomaniacal musical genius” Chilly Gonzales is a musical renaissance man if ever there was one.
Born Jason Charles Beck in Toronto, he is classically trained, apprenticed in jazz, seasoned in rock, rap, pop and electro - and is the Guinness World Record holder for the longest solo concert, playing piano for over 27 hours without a safety net of sheet music.
Beck/Gonzales has already appeared at the Fringe with his Piano Talk Show. His EIF show, Chambers, is a new collaboration with the Kaiser Quartett, which draws inspiration from Bach to Daft Punk – polar musical opposites you might think, but both big fans of arpeggios, as it happens.
“In the old days if you were a composer you would write in genre,” he says. “You would say ‘I’m writing a jig, I’m writing a minuet, I’m writing a symphony’ and there were rules, like a symphony was four movements long. When I’m in a style, I’m extremely respectful of the house rules. But I think to be a purist is also a certain recipe for failure. So the in-between is you have to give people something they didn’t know they wanted or couldn’t imagine.” He may have unwittingly summed up Linehan’s programming philosophy right there.
Anna Calvi is another astute choice. Her music is melodramatic and exotic but her route to the EIF is plain – last year, she performed in a Giorgio Moroder tribute show as part of Linehan’s Vivid Live programme, where she worked for the first time with her EIF partners the Heritage Orchestra.
Like Gonzales, Calvi has some classical training but swapped violin for guitar at university. Performing her intense, theatrical music with orchestra has been liberating for this quietly spoken songwriter. “Sometimes it can be quite hard to translate pop music into a more orchestral format but with my music, I think it really feels very natural,” she says. “There’s a lot of mystery surrounding an orchestra and how it makes this quite incredible sound. It has such a great capacity for tension and release which is my big thing in music.”
The Hub Sessions is a modest start in terms of scale, but pregnant with potential. Linehan has already stressed that he does not wish to compete with the Manchester International Festival and its statement piece commissions. But why not in future book Bjork to perform a multi-media concept show or commission a new opera by Damon Albarn?
As a curated and funded festival, the EIF is in a position to programme popular music in an ambitious and coherent way that the open access Fringe cannot. Former Fringe music strands such as T on the Fringe have never felt particularly integrated into Edinburgh’s festival culture, whereas pop’s first incursion into a previously classical dominated realm feels like the start of an exciting, harmonious relationship.