Mira Calix at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Oct 29 2014

Kinetic Sound: Interview with Mira Calix

by Michael Young

Chantal Passamonte, aka Mira Calix, is an award-winning British-based artist who makes “weird stuff,” as described in her own words. Previously active as a DJ, Calix is now a musician, composer (both of electronic and conventional pieces) and sound artist, who creates immersive installations as well as site-specific and performative works, and has a string of albums to her name.

She is signed to Warp Records, a near-legendary label in the United Kingdom, which has released five of her albums. Her music has been commissioned by several prestigious arts institutions, including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Film Institute, for whom she created a new score for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent film Champagne (1928). She has also scored and composed for the San Francisco-based string ensemble Kronos Quartet, as well as performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras at concert halls around the globe.

Calix has also collaborated with artists, sculptors and alternative musicians, and her practice crosses with ease between different artistic genres. In 2012, as part of the British Cultural Olympiad, she created Nothing Is Set In Stone, a musical sculpture which was installed in a park in the suburbs of London.

In January 2015, as part of the Sydney Festival, Calix will bring her unique mix of art to Carriageworks, where she will create a new work, Inside There Falls, in the venue’s cavernous space. She promises it will be a mélange of sound, installation, performance and sheer spectacle and a truly transformative experience.

On a recent site visit to Carriageworks, ArtAsiaPacific caught up with Calix to find out how she positions herself in today’s art world.

You left South Africa, where you were born, to go to London in the early 1990s. You were in your early 20s then. Did you have any musical aspirations at the time?

I think I always had musical aspirations. I was crazy about music, but I never studied it in South Africa. I was a kid who did a lot of stuff other than music, so I never learned an instrument. I was incredibly jealous of anyone who could play an instrument, but I discovered I could make music through a computer. I used to ask myself, “How could I make music having never studied it before?” Then I found a way to do it through electronics. Ironically, now I can notate, score and write classical notation. I just taught myself to do it.  

Tell us about those early days in England. 

I was into computers and electronic music then. My first computer was an Apple Mac. I published a fanzine at the time and was always calling the press person at Warp Records for information to use in the fanzine. Then one day I called and she had left, so I applied for her job, along with 400 others [who had done the same]. But I got the job. I loved the music Warp was putting out, and I just wanted to be involved. I was also doing DJ gigs at the time and putting on events with friends.

How long was it before you started attracting serious attention as a musician?

I was making electronic music while I was at Warp. Then I [had the opportunity to play] something that I had made to Steve [Beckett], one of Warp’s founders. It didn’t occur to me that they might release it. I was very nervous. I came up with a nom-de-plume, Mira Calix, and my debut album One On One was released in 2000.

MIRA CALIXInside There Falls, 2014, early installation concept rendering of a multi-sensory performative installation comprising paper, sound and movement, to be shown at Carriageworks art space during the 2015 Sydney Festival. Courtesy the artist. 

Now you can write musical notation, and you have moved away from pure electronic sound, introducing classical instruments and orchestras into your work. How did this happen?

That really happened because of the Kronos Quartet. They heard my first album, which had no instruments on it and just had natural and electronic sounds. But they heard something in my electronic work that appealed to them, and they took a chance and gave me an opportunity to write for an instrumental ensemble, even though I had no experience. So I was writing by ear and somebody else was transcribing it into a score. 

Your piece for Carriageworks will be a kinetic installation with sound, music and dance. Is this a new departure for you? 

In 2012 I made my first sculptural piece, Nothing Is Set In Stone, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad. It is a monolithic stone cairn embedded with 26 speakers, which was placed in the English countryside. Its musical component consists of a nine-voice choir, as well as natural and electronic sounds that react to the visitors’ movements. I see the work as an entity; I wanted to look at and experience a song and the only way to do this was to be [able to stand] by it physically and move around it. I wanted to look at a song as a physical entity.

The piece at Carriageworks will have many more speakers and be very amplified, and it will include dancers within the installation and a score that, at times, might seem melodic. Physically, Carriageworks is such a big beautiful space with no columns. [With the new installation] what I am looking for is a story that is told through sound and has a physical aspect to it. In many ways it is exactly like opera. There are some electronic sound included, but I have also used wind and string instrumentss, because they make sense to me in expressing the narrative [that the work embodies]. I recorded every instrument separately, so that I could really control where they will project to within the exhibition space. Right now I am looking at patterns and points in the space, looking at how text and music moves within it. Where you are in the space should give you a different experience of this narrative. 

How do you categorize yourself: artist, composer or musician?

Quite often someone will ask, “What do you do?”—especially when I am sitting on a plane. I tell them that I am an artist. Then they ask if I paint, and I just say that I make “weird stuff.” But, essentially, I am a sound artist.