Man of ideas

By Chris Rodley

His appointment as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival surprised some, but Jonathan Mills has proved the naysayers wrong, earning an extension to his term and showing himself to be the perfect cultural attaché.

Photo of Jonathan Mills

Jonathan Mills learnt one of his most important life lessons in the unlikely setting of a class for first-year students on how to use Fisher Library.

“The class was taken by this rather wonderful middle-aged lady who told us she had seen thousands of students, studying everything from engineering to eschatology,” he recalls. “She said her responsibility was to teach us to regard the library as a companion on our journey through life, so no piece of knowledge would be strange or unusual to us.”

The librarian’s encouragement not to fear new ideas – but also to be appropriately critical of them – continues to guide Mills (BMus ’84) today. Indeed, it is part of his job description as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, for which he curates some of the world’s most exuberant forms of artistic expression, from the ancient Persian theatre called Ta’zieh to western ballet influenced by Chinese opera.

Written off as a minnow

His appointment in 2006 to one of Europe’s top arts posts surprised many onlookers (and caused arts commentator Norman Lebrecht to write off the antipodean as a “minnow”). Up to that point, Mills had held two major appointments in Australia, as artistic adviser to the Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival and as director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Proving his critics wrong, he produced a string of much-admired festivals and, with his contract renewed, will stay at the helm of the Edinburgh juggernaut until 2014.

His philosophy as a curator, he says, has been to hold a public conversation with his audience, reflecting their hopes and concerns; his job is not to be a project manager who decides “which Beethoven symphonies to schedule on what night”. This year, the event will respond to the excitement surrounding the London Olympics, which takes place just before the festival kicks off on 9 August.

Yet despite his high-profile achievements, Mills still regards festival directing as a “fascinating adjunct” to his true vocation.

“I see myself as a composer who has, from time to time, run festivals,” he says.

Japanese music mixed with The Eagles

His passion for composing was kindled during his Bachelor of Music studies at the University by memorable faculty staff such as composer Peter Sculthorpe and Associate Professor Winsome Evans, whose lessons wove together traditional Japanese music with The Eagles.

Peers were a strong influence, too – not just his fellow composition students but friends studying Australian literature. Mills recalls long, revelatory discussions at Manning Bar which introduced him to Australian poets ranging from Charles Harpur to Dorothy Porter. As a result, he went on to collaborate with Porter on his chamber opera The Eternity Man.

Mills also has other operas to his credit, including Sandakan Threnody, about the World War Two death march of Australian and British POWs. He continues to compose today – in January, he spent time on the NSW South Coast developing a new work – and he intends to return to the art form in earnest once his term at Edinburgh ends.

Another role in which Mills has distinguished himself is as a catalyst for public debate, particularly in the arts, a skill mentioned in the citation for his Order of Australia last year. One issue he is particularly passionate about is the need for Australians to embrace the cultural expression of other countries: multiculturalism means more than just being able to eat at “a bigger range of restaurants”, he says.

Tackling this need might just help us create a cosmopolitan society based on respect and understanding, he believes. “If you study Indian classical music, for example, you understand the incredible sophistication of that music,” Mills explains. “Because you have an understanding of their culture, you are not going to be disrespectful to an Indian you meet.”