Magazine article The New Yorker

Summerstage

Magazine article The New Yorker

Summerstage

Article excerpt

In Europe, summer is festival season. In the current pop landscape, where live music is the only reliable source of profit, the touring circuit offers bands a chance to traverse the continent while playing a range of places, from fields to small clubs. The variety was on display at two recent events: the Roskilde Festival, in Denmark, a long-running outdoor music gathering set in the same field every year; and the Manchester International Festival, a newer event, which presents music, theatre, and every iteration of art in venues throughout the city.

Both festivals suggested that audiences could be asking more from musicians. If we now have hit records that are as sonically aggressive and daring as Kanye West's "Yeezus," perhaps we don't need to see the lion's share of our shows in traditional proscenium theatres, which date back to the Greeks. Musicians sometimes balk at the theatrical side of their job, as if pure music existed. But every recital is a spectacle.

Roskilde, a town twenty minutes from Copenhagen, is fused with its annual event. Inspired by folk festivals and Woodstock, Roskilde began in 1971, and now stretches for nine days each year. The site is a grassy circle about two miles in diameter, dotted with trees, on the southern edge of town. Most of the audience stays in a city of tents and improvised housing, and the more utopian of the campers form impromptu bands and workshops. (I did not attend the "Porridge Hack" event, much as I enjoy oatmeal.)

Roskilde hosts a distinctly catholic range of acts; this year, it included both Rihanna and Metallica, along with numerous smaller bands. In a country like Denmark, with few mega-halls, a festival like Roskilde makes sense for popular groups--it's a break from hockey-arena acoustics, while still giving them the ability to play to sixty thousand people, as they can on the Orange Stage, the biggest of Roskilde's eight performance spaces.

On a hot evening, Rihanna emerged in an outfit that started as a pin-striped baseball uniform and ended up somewhere else--the cap had sprouted two long flaps that formed a sort of desert-warrior headpiece. She called the enormous crowd "crazy," and seemed genuinely happy to be appearing, but she has a regal bearing, and there's not a lot of synchronized dancing or hyperactive showmanship. When the musical quotations piled up--Ginuwine's "Pony" and The Who's "Baba O'Riley"--you had the feeling you were watching the biggest, weirdest wedding band in Denmark.

Perhaps the most exciting performance took place on the smaller Pavilion stage, where the Japanese guitar legend Keiji Haino led a band called Nazoranai, with Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O'Malley, who is better known from his profound drone duo, Sunn O))). The three played an hour of interlocking noises that sounded like three weather systems colliding. Haino played echoing, strained high notes, and occasionally sang a set of wordless vocals that resembled birdsong; Ambarchi played the drums in even, rolling blasts that didn't keep time so much as distract you from the idea that time was passing; and O'Malley performed consistent figures on the bass guitar, which just made the other two sound wilder.

The Manchester International Festival doesn't rise to the pop heights of Metallica. Started by Alex Poots, now the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory, in 2007, the biennial event commissions work from a variety of artists and performers, few of whom can fill giant arenas. Previous years saw pieces by Bjork, Rufus Wainwright, Damon Albarn, and Robert Wilson. …

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