For anyone who grew up listening to music from Manchester in the 1980s, the word “Factory” will instantly conjure up memories of Tony Wilson’s renowned record label – whose roster of artists included Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Steve Martland. It’s entirely fitting that Manchester’s newest cultural venue has the same name in partial homage: Factory International, which next month plays its part in the 2023 Manchester International Festival, being held in the new venue and across the city.

A beam of light is shot up to the sky in First Breath at Factory International, January 2023
© Tomasz Kozak

Factory Records’ output was stylistically diverse, and from its outset around a decade and a half ago, MIF has embraced a comparable plurality: the 2007 inaugural festival juxtaposed Damon Albarn, Stewart Lee, Adam Curtis, Kanye West and Frédéric Chopin. Since then, MIF has returned every two years to explore a similarly disparate cavalcade of artistic luminaries.

Jane Beese joined Factory International as its Director of Music in 2020. Contemporary music has always been an important part of MIF, and for the last two decades this is precisely what Beese has been actively curating. For 15 years she oversaw contemporary music at the Southbank Centre in London, subsequently becoming Head of Music at the Roundhouse in 2015. Beese grew up in Cheshire, so her move to Manchester is a return closer to her roots.

Beese describes her curatorial approach as multi-faceted, involving a combination of personal and communal interests. “There are always artists and ideas that you’re interested in and pursuing anyway. But an element of these projects is that they’re considered as part of a wider curatorial process with colleagues. And then there’s always a lens of making sure you’re reflecting the city as well. This is much more pertinent to me now outside London. It’s a constant challenge to be a regional organisation, a national organisation and an international organisation at the same time. How do all those things intersect with each other?”

Beese’s determination to consider both the nature and needs of audiences has been integral to maintaining the breadth and diversity of the organisation’s programming. “The breadth has a cohesion to it. We ask ourselves: what audiences are we serving, and what are we missing?”

Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952–2023)
© Luigi & Iango

One of the MIF concerts that’s likely to attract even more interest from audiences than it already would have is KAGAMI, a “mixed-reality” event (in which the audience is free to move around) created in collaboration with the Tin Drum studio and composer Ryuichi Sakamato, who died in March this year. Especially poignant will be the way that Sakamoto himself is viewed virtually, performing in the work via optically transparent devices worn by members of the audience. Beese believes his conception of the work was fuelled by an awareness of his own frailty.

“I think he was very conscious of his mortality. We always knew that this was a mixed reality, virtual piece, so he never expected to be part of it as a physical presence. It was really him scripting his own send-off, which is actually kind of beautiful.” This is reinforced by a short contemplative text Sakamoto wrote about KAGAMI, which includes the lines, “There is, in reality, a virtual me. / This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries.”

© Pierre Debusschere

MIF are also working with Afrodeutsche – nom de guerre of Manchester-based electronica artist Henrietta Smith-Rolla – in a new large-scale commission in collaboration with Manchester Camerata, after a short piece of hers was featured in the Camerata’s “Unquiet” concert series last year. Her retro electronica is rooted in low-key, repetitive beats and loops, redolent of the IDM scene of the early 90s (as heard on her debut album Break Before Make, released four years ago). Together with the Camerata, it promises to be a fascinating combination, but apart from its duration – roughly 50 minutes – details about the work are still under wraps. This is in part because, as Beese points out, “she’s still putting the finishing touches to it now. I have full faith she will come up with something extraordinary. It will be amazing.”

Another of Manchester’s musical institutions, the Royal Northern College of Music, has brought together the RNCM Festival Orchestra to perform alongside Anna Meredith. Preceded by a performance by RNCM students, the orchestra will then be joined by Meredith and her band to present a new arrangement of her 2019 album FIBS, created by Ben Corrigan and Robert Ames.

John Luther Adams
© Donald Lee

In an acknowledgement of the challenging times we’re living in, a concert titled “Sonic Geography” features the BBC Philharmonic performing new works by John Luther Adams, Alissa Firsova and Ailís Ní Ríain, exploring and responding to climate change, environmental awareness and natural landscapes. Beese sees this focus on something that affects us all as an essential part of addressing the topic of community, at both a local and global level. “You could say that at the moment we’re living in such divided times. The whole topic of community is hugely important today.”

Beese sees this kind of event as a way to feed into education about these issues, yet she also acknowledges, in the wake of the preceding years of pandemic, as well as its ongoing fallout, the necessity of allowing audiences to find their own way into the music. “I feel like we’re all skating on some sort of emotional thin ice, and you’re not quite sure where the thin bits are. I think there’s an element of ‘let’s be kind to ourselves’.”

Slung Low’s production of Flood by playwright James Phillips
© Malcolm Johnson

Another MIF event that places community front and centre is Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood, produced by theatre group Slung Low with the Manchester Collective, featuring writer Lemn Sissay in the role of God and hundreds of children from Leeds and Manchester. In a festival otherwise devoted to modern music and art, the inclusion of Britten’s 65-year old work is an interesting exception. Yet the work not only has the capacity to speak to contemporary audiences, in its own subtle way it continues the conversation regarding environmental concerns. “It can translate over decades in different ways, it has so many different layers to it,” says Beese. “The rising flood water and everything, that also links in with the pandemic and humanity facing great disasters.”

This is another manifestation of Beese’s concern about audience needs. “Something we discussed in the last festival, which was my first at MIF, is the question of what the community needs, what the audience needs. Openness and generosity, and giving something back to people who’ve been through an awful lot, and been locked down and isolated. So there’s an element of not being thematic but judging the time and making sure we can be as accessible as possible. We need to be really clever – we are a space that’s there for everybody.”

Rendering of the completed Factory International venue

That’s literally true with regard to the new Factory International building. Its vast interior is highly flexible and can be adapted to suit a variety of events, with multiple configurations. Beese is understandably delighted about its range of possibilities. “It’s exciting for its uniqueness, but also its complexity and flexibility. It’s not like most venues where you’ve got space A, space B; it’s ‘well, hang on, if we’re going take the back wall out of the hall and use half of the warehouse, can we use the other half of the warehouse for something else?’ It’s quite joyous, and I think the philosophy behind that is being a playground for artists to imagine, a place to create.”

Those same words clearly also apply to her outlook for the festival itself. Ultimately, Beese is optimistic that the wide diversity of the MIF programme will prove enticing to listeners, particularly those who have withdrawn from live events since the pandemic: “Creating curious audiences, that’s the goal.”

Manchester International Festival
runs from 29th June to 16th July 2023.
This article was sponsored by Factory International.