Dave McKean, introduced tonight as “the man who wears many hats”, is a constant collaborator, working with everyone from Grant Morrison to Heston Blumethal, and is best known for his longstanding partnership with Neil Gaiman. He has produced accomplished pieces across a number of art forms, from his graphic novels, to his painting, to his films such as Mirrormask and Luna, and his involvement in a project usually signals that it’s worth paying attention to. Perhaps, then, the excellence of this latest collaborative venture shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
An Ape’s Progress is a musical narrative commissioned by both the Manchester Jazz and Literature festivals. The work was instigated by a sequence of poems by Matthew Sweeney that reimagines Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress with a retired Chinese circus monkey as its protagonist. These were passed to McKean, who produced a mesmerising film filled with his distinctive artwork and cinematography, and also song lyrics and musical ideas. These were in turn passed to Iain Bellamy, who developed and orchestrated an arresting score, and all these elements were performed alongside each other by the collaborators and the Pepper Street Orchestra.
The spoken word/sung element of the show curates a history of the great figures, and architecture of Manchester. As the monkey makes its way around the city, he converses with a man who claims to be John Dee, pines for the love of Emeline Pankhurst despite his inability to visit her in 1903, and views a Lowry, which instigates a monologue from the painter. This excellent narrative device allows the work to probe the character and the ethics of the city with wit and a light touch. A particularly dry sequence has the monkey describe is inability to buy any present suitable for his love from the shops of the city, which concludes with him noting that “the fault is [his] own” that he is unable to engage with the commercialism of modern society.
The film was notably precise, cut sympathetically to the tempo of the score. Each of the eight sections of the piece were introduced by a beautiful illustration and a title card, and the moving images that followed were varied and interesting. The shopping sequence described above was accompanied by a kaleidoscopic pattern comprised of present day footage, with multiples of the monkey wandering through, red as if being seen through a heat detector. There was a mix of archive footage, computer graphics, and even footage of McKean as Dee, collaged in McKean’s signature style.
The score was an exemplary demonstration of how to create an expansive score, which moves effortlessly between moods and genres, out of a small ensemble. It helps greatly, of course, that every member of this ensemble is world class. Bellamy is an emotive saxophone soloist and an engaged conductor. Emilia Mårtensson sings with delicacy and clarity, and carries the show effortlessly. Kit Downes’ piano provides the texture of the score, and he plays with a lightness that supports rather than overwhelms the ensemble. Stian Carstensen is a breathtaking accordionist and accomplished whistler. Matthew Sharp plays cello with ease and grace, but particularly shines as the introducer of the performance, and with his astonishing singing voice. McKean, too, sings with resonance, and blends some synthesised touches into the score throughout.
However, the star of the show was perched on a stool at the front of the stage – the monkey itself. This performance was a highlight of the festival, and I dearly hope it receives some version of recorded preservation in the near future.