EIF 2018: Fergus Linehan on an exciting music line-up

EIF artistic director Fergus Linehan talks us through this year's tantalising music line-up, which includes St Vincent, Anna Meredith, Mogwai and John Grant

Article by Jamie Dunn | 14 Mar 2018

We’re talking to Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan the day before he unveils to the world the programme for this year’s edition of the arts festival. Despite being his fourth time presenting a hot-off-the-presses EIF programme, he’s sweating it. “It’s absolutely terrifying every time,” says the Irishman. But he suggests that’s exactly as it should be: “I think a festival should scare the living daylights out of its director. And if you start to feel you aren't, maybe it’s time to do something else.”

Flipping through the programme of the festival’s 71st edition, there are plenty of eye-catching happenings. Illusionist Geoff Sobelle brings HOME, a play that transforms into a house party, to King’s Theatre; radical theatre-maker Katie Mitchell has adapted Marguerite Duras’ provocative novella La MaladIe de la Mort for the Lyceum; there’s revivals of classics like Waiting for Godot and The Beggar's Opera, and in dance Sharon Eyal is set to deliver a dark, techno driven piece of choreography with OCD Love. It’s the musical talent at this year’s festival that really catches our eye, though, starting with this year’s opening Five Telegrams (3 Aug, Festival Square), an audiovisual collaboration between Anna Meredith and groundbreaking video designers 59 Productions.

Anna Meredith and 59 Productions opener

Anna Meredith live at Electric Fields 2017 | image: Ian Schofield

“We wanted to do something for the Year of Young People in Scotland,” says Linehan of opening event. “The initial idea was that it would involve a performance element, as well as the digital element from 59 Productions and a design element.” Marking the centenary of the end of the Great War, the piece takes as its chief inspiration the telegrams sent by young soldiers in 1918.

59 seem to have become talismanic for Linehan, having provided spectacular works for each of his editions in charge of EIF. This 2018 opening, however, adds a new addition to the formula: a mint fresh, specially-composed score to accompany the visuals. “When we did Deep Time [EIF’s 2016 opener] with Mogwai, we used existing tracks,” explains Linehan, “but what’s so exciting about this piece is that it’s based around a newly commissioned orchestral piece of music by someone from Edinburgh.”

That someone is SAY-award winner Anna Meredith. “Anna has that sort of genre blurring style where she works across electronic and symphonic music that we thought would work perfectly.” Working closely with 59 Productions' Richard Slaney, they came up with this idea from the Imperial War Museum of taking a number of telegrams that had been sent near the end of the war. “We loved the whole idea of communication and how that at that time everything had to be a limited number of characters and how we’re kind of back there now with Twitter. We were also interested in the notion of sort of redacted material and how communication is kind of controlled.”

Live music at Leith Theatre with Light on the Shore

Meredith is also involved with another tantalising sounding EIF event, Light on the Shore, which looks to promise a vibrant celebration of Scottish popular music. The genesis of this music series was to find some way of utilising the newly refurbished Leith Theatre, and Linehan’s plan seems to be to cram it with every significant Scottish pop act from the last four decades.

“We’d been talking to the [National Museum of Scotland] about Rip It Up, their exhibition about Scottish pop, and we were just doing a lot of thinking and talking about Scottish music," explains Linehan. "The more you try and grasp it the more it diversifies and becomes very difficult to talk about, so we thought that it would be more interesting to start to create a kind of structure that could continue to evolve all the way up until the festival itself."

Some mouth-watering elements are already in place. Linehan reams off some of the acts already confirmed: “we’ve Mogwai, King Creosote, Karine Polwart doing this kind of Scottish songbook piece where she does these songs from Chvrches and Annie Lennox and The Blue Nile and things. There's also Django Django, and again we’re just teasing that, there’s going to be a full reveal later.”

Another element in place is a series of orchestral renditions of groundbreaking Scottish albums, with Berlin-based ensemble s t a r g a z e already penciled in to perform Boards of Canada's seminal EP Hi Scores. Greg Lawson's Celtic Connections’ extravaganza Bothy Culture will also come to The Leith Theatre with a vast orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia will belt out Meredith’s award-winning debut album Varmints.

The third element of Light on the Shore is described by Linehan as “just really interesting people doing curatorial evenings.” These include Celtic Connections, who’ll be doing a night with Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord along with Julie Fowlis; Lau, who’re planning one of their big Lau-Land events; and Neu! Reekie! are going to do a night that involves a bunch of people like the Vaselines and The Pastels. Hidden Door, who are responsible for resurrecting The Leith Theatre, are also involved. “It’s kind of in a constant state of expansion,” says Linehan of the Light on the Shore programme. “We're not trying to comprehensively talk about Scottish music, but it's more like we want to capture the interconnectedness of it, and the diversity of it.” Light on the Shore tickets go on sale 2 May, when more details will be confirmed.

St Vincent and John Grant head to the Playhouse

There’s plenty of international musical talent sprinkled among the local heroes, and top of the bill is the mighty St Vincent. “That’s just us being undisciplined,” Linehan says when we mention the post-modern rockstar. “We actually thought we were just going to do all that kind of popular music stuff down in the Leith Theatre; we thought it would be much better there. But then St Vincent did that album MASSEDUCTION, which is just so amazing. We just thought, ‘Oh, God. We have to have her…’

“She’s just wonderful,” adds the EIF director, “not just in terms of music, but in the way she positions herself and how she plays around with the medium; she’s just one of the most facinating people around at the moment.” She's bringing her sure-to-be-spectacular show to the Edinburgh Playhouse on 26 August.

The other headline music act is singer-songwriter John Grant, who’s coming to the Playhouse on 20 August as part of his UK tour. As well as being one of the wittiest songwriters around, Linehan calls the Michigan-born, now Reykjavík-based artist “kind of shocking, you know...

"He’s got this lovely, laconic singer-songwriter vibe at one end, and then the lyrics are just, you know... he doesn’t hold back. So you get a sort of an unlikely package with John Grant, but it’s just brilliantly intelligent songwriting that feels very now.”

As we get to the end of our chat, listing off the sparkling music talent EIF have planned seems to calm Linehan’s nerve. “If anything, the one thing about Edinburgh is you’ve got this sort of incredible situation where you know, come what may, you’ve got this huge number of people who are going to arrive into the city,” he says. “In some other festivals I’ve done you’ve had to create the sense of festival, but you don’t have to do that here.” Even without Edinburgh's throng of people in August, there would be no worries about creating a festive atmosphere when you have the likes of St Vincent, Anna Meredith, Mogwai and John Grant on your line-up.

Edinburgh International Festival 2018 runs 3-27 Aug, read the full programme on the EIF website. Tickets go on sale to EIF members on 17 Mar, general sale begins 24 Mar