The choice last year of Jonathan Mills, a young composer from Australia, to be the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival was predicted by nobody. One of the UK’s most prominent music critics said he was so shocked by the appointment that he had to lie down. Mills dryly tells the story against himself, but assures me there was no one more surprised than he when he received the call.
“I was happy doing my music and all my other things in Australia,” he says. “And I will happily go back to them when this is over. I don’t see myself as a full-time, career festival director. I see myself as a composer. I may not be any good at it, but that’s my problem and not anyone else’s.”
Loquacious and pugnacious in roughly equal measure, Mills may not be a household name on the European festival circuit, but chances are we will hear plenty more of him in the months ahead. In comparison to Brian McMaster, the man he succeeded, his profile is low; his musical compositions include a couple of small operas that have been performed in London, and the biggest event he has managed has been the Melbourne Festival.
Edinburgh, he does not need to be told, is something else again. Founded in 1947 on a wave of idealism that championed the pacifying and civilising effects of culture, it has all those years of tradition behind it. McMaster, who spent 15 years at its helm, helped develop its uncompromising reputation for promoting difficult and occasionally obscure “high” culture forms.
I ask if Mills is concerned by McMaster’s reputation, but he responds that the whole high-low culture debate is a tired one.
“I can hardly think of a genre of artistic endeavour where there is not both genius and crap,” he says. “It is not for me to be prescriptive. Artists describe their own work, not festival directors. There has been so much artistic work in the 21st century that has been pushing at boundaries, particularly with something like dance – not ballet – which has both a performance and an installation element to it.”
Does that mean he is interested in cross-cultural collaborations?
“I will get to it. I don’t think I can do it in my first year.” But by the end of his tenure, he says, “most of what I do won’t have been done before”.
But McMaster also left something of a financial mess behind him – a £1m deficit (on a budget of £8m) going into last year’s festival, which was paid off in December by the Dunard Fund and the Scottish Arts Council – as well as a chorus of critics who claimed he had lost touch with audiences through his refusal to accommodate more obviously crowd-pleasing acts.
Mills, who has spent the past few months putting his first festival together for this summer (the line-up is announced in March) treads carefully through the thicket of controversy. He confesses he is not enamoured with the financial situation, but neither is he unduly fazed, and he is generous when he talks about his predecessor.
“One thing that I want to celebrate about Brian is that he curated his festivals with enormous integrity. He never undermined his own standards, and I am not about to undermine them either. But when you raise the bar that high, it comes with a price tag.”
But Mills is not the type to sit silently with a begging bowl. “You can either see [the money given to the festival] as a grant or as an investment. There are places like Singapore and Dubai that are hungry to demonstrate their connection with and support for creativity, and they are doing very well because they are investing in a cultural infrastructure.” Edinburgh – and Scotland generally – should do the same, he says. “If Scotland starts to think like that, it can really take off, because of its remarkable ability to throw up an endless supply of genius. Think of Edinburgh in the 18th century, and the biotechnological sector today – it is still up there. And the festival can help argue that case coherently and cogently.”
Mills says that the most important quality he can bring to the festival is the knowledge of what it is to be an artist. “I understand profoundly what it is like to face a blank page – the doubts that artists have, the neuroses. I am not star-struck by artists. I think of it as a job.”
One of the job’s biggest challenges in the 21st century, he says, is to shake off the conceit of Romanticism. “We are still obsessed in the west by the Beethovian, Caspar David Friedrich idea of the lonely heroic artist. I think that’s nonsense. Not that it isn’t true for [them], but it was about a particular moment and a particular Romantic ideal.
“But think of a bloke like Bach, who was busy juggling 35 music students, four choruses and 17 children. Imagine the mayhem in the Bach household. It doesn’t seem quite so Romantic. Art is not just about the cult of personality.”
So the festival under his guidance would have humbler aspirations, I ask?
He gives me an example: “In classical music, there is this huge reliance on big ensembles playing loud music, but that’s not the history of music. There are all those intimate moments that can be staggeringly poignant. I can never forget going to a Bob Dylan concert, and seeing this shambolic figure sitting on a stool, and starting to make magic. He doesn’t always do it, but on the night I heard him, he bloody well did.
“Maybe a festival is a place where not only large-scale, extraordinary things happen, but also where a proliferation of intimate moments can occur. And that can be just as profound.”
Does he feel challenged by the energy and buoyancy of the Fringe?
“The real challenge for all the Edinburgh festivals, but particularly the International [festival], is to continue to struggle with the implications of their own success. Who would have thought in 1947 that the festival would give birth to so many legitimate and illegitimate children? We all exist in a symbiotic relationship, that has never been articulated but has emerged in an organic way. The issue of how we relate to each other has exercised my mind considerably. I don’t have the answer.”
Mills’s first experience of organising a festival came at the tender age of 23, when he and a “bunch of mates” put on a musical extravaganza in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney. “We had 85 events in 10 days. It was hilarious. No one told us otherwise. But we found the money for it. Everyone got paid.”
He shrugs off charges of inexperience. “I know it’s a bit cute, and I don’t wish to be torn apart for it, but I say to people that I have already done an Edinburgh festival, but it was in Melbourne.” But he also concedes the special status the Edinburgh enjoys. “Because it was the first, and because the circumstances of its creation were so compelling, it has a mythic status.
“This wasn’t a contrived venture by a bunch of development economists saying ‘what we need is a bit of creative industry here’. It was to do with a society which felt this deep, deep need to recuperate itself.”
Mills also wants to include a visual arts programme in the festival, bringing in a guest curator every year to commission project-based works, but the show, he remarks diplomatically, will not be “impolite or territorially invasive” towards the city’s existing galleries and museums.
He also says he wants to continue composing. “I am not going to be here as long as Brian. I want to do five years, but if it gets too ridiculous, if it is too complex a political ride and I can’t do any of my own work, I won’t want to do five years. But I just hope that I don’t get accepted just as I am leaving.
“A city like Edinburgh is wonderfully gracious and intellectually engaging, but its pace is slow. That’s a good thing, in that it’s not pretentious or fickle or glib. If people take you to their hearts, you know it is not fake. But it doesn’t resonate with the pace of life today. I don’t have time to do 15 years in Edinburgh before I am taken seriously. For Edinburgh’s sake, it needs to understand the pace of the world.”
The 2007 programme for the Edinburgh International Festival will be launched on March 28. See www.eif.co.uk