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A Quietus Interview

Mira Calix Interviewed: Stones Are Where The Heart Is
Jude Rogers , July 10th, 2012 09:11

Jude Rogers speaks to Mira Calix about her rockin' new sound piece, Nothing Is Set In Stone, prejudices facing sound artists and that hoary old label, "women in electronic music"

On a green hill on the borders of London, in the eastern square of the Central Line, sits an extraordinary thing. I say thing for a reason – it's hard to describe what it is. It's a huge egg. It's an obelisk made of thousands of round stones. It's a terrifying pagan beast, like something you imagine chancing upon in a public information film, or a primitive BBC horror story from the 1970s.

Then, as you approach it, you realise that it is singing. And – here comes the proper eerie moment – it is singing to you.

Nothing Is Set In Stone, part of the Secrets: Hidden London series which is also part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, is a musical sculpture by Chantal Passamonte, aka Mira Calix, the Warp-signed DJ turned musician turned composer and sound artist. Those last two job titles usually cement prejudices in people – ah, the kind of lady who must be deeply serious, I bet. Pretentious. Otherworldly. But the woman who falls into a Suffolk cafe, meeting me just before the sculpture is set into the landscape, is nothing of the sort. She is refreshingly easy company, her hair thrown up in a ponytail, having just run in from the rain, where she's been "bloody smoking a fag".

She says things like "art isn't just for arseholes". That she doesn't want her work to be stuck within a world of Wire magazine readers. That she wants her music to be out there in places just like Fairlop Waters, a suburban park in Zone 4, to be chanced upon by the people who live near there, between 7am and 9.30pm every day, and not just by the people who will travel there to see it.

Passamonte is someone who has been working with voices and electronics in mesmerising ways in recent years too, not least in her 2009/2010 sound installation, Chorus, which played in Durham Cathedral and London's Wapping Project. Its looping, mathematical voices and rhythms, emanating from white-lit swinging ceiling speakers, made for one of the greatest things I've seen and heard in years – the kind of all-embracing piece the Tate Modern Turbine Hall is crying out for. Nothing Set In Stone is even more ambitious: a piece based around the elements of fire, water, earth and air, sung by a choir of nine singers and a mesh of electronic noises and found sounds, which reacts to the people who move around it.

On its launch afternoon, even with the art crowd swilling around it uncomfortably, it is abstract and strange and utterly gorgeous. A young Bangladeshi family wander past the complementary drinks and sandwiches a while later, and their little girl runs up to see it, putting her arms around the stones. You see why Mira Calix wants her music to be part of everyone's lives.

How was Nothing Is Set in Stone put together – practically and technically? In a way that would make sense to the electronic music Luddite if you can...

Mira Calix: Well, I did actually choose every stone and laid it out to scale. [rolls eyes] I actually did that. I went to a place that supplies stuff for Westfield Shopping Centres and crazy paving! Then there's a core steel frame, a material called Richlite, that forms its skeleton, and there's a computer in there – ye old faithful computer – and a Meyer [Sound Laboratories] system, with 22 speakers hidden behind the rocks. They're completely invisible, which is the point. And there's sensors as well. It took a big team to plan the engineering, the logistics, the load-in, everything.

Did you find the site or did the site find you?

MC: The Mayor Of London gave me a list – well, obviously the office did, not Boris himself! Although I like the quote he gave for it. [Johnson contributed this quote: "With this musical sculpture, Mira Calix has managed to wrest not blood, but music from a stone, putting the music into rock and creating a new cultural attraction."] It's funny! But the idea behind this Secrets: Hidden London project is getting people to places don't normally go, so I had a curated list of parks and nature reserves. I went to this set of reservoirs near Walthamstow – an amazing place, but I could barely find the site, even with Google Maps, and I wanted somewhere that people could get to easily. Some were too wet, too boggy, so I had this vision of my stone sinking [laughs]. But then I got out of the tube at Fairlop. There's no high street in front of you, just a road and grass, so to people who never go there, it will seem an eternity away from London, even though it's so close. And within a minute, I was in front of this park and this lake, and in the distance, this tiny hill. I knew straightaway, absolutely. There!

Did you like the fact that the site was so far away from Central London's art world – in spirit, more than anything?

MC: Definitely. And I loved the fact that the locals hadn't had any public art there. I really like doing what I think is termed as public art. I like trying to change somebody's day. I like people coming across something with no expectations. They don't care who made it, they haven't gone and bought a ticket, so it's not about being reverential – people can just wander by. Some might stay, some might leave, but those who look for a second or half an hour...that idea of bringing something into their afternoon that they didn't plan for, and hopefully capturing them, making them feel something, I find that really motivating. I guess because these people don't have a choice. Their reactions are very instinctive. They can either love it or hate it!

There's no confines of a concert hall, or any proper etiquette involved either.

MC: Exactly – all those things are removed. And here you get joggers or dog-walkers just going about their day. [leans in] I'm hoping the dogs don't pee too much. Although I have thought about that with the design – I had to think about height of egg just in case a Great Dane came up and tried to mark their territory [laughs]. And the sensors had to be approved because of creatures like newts and bats here – it is a nature reserve after all – and we had to design it to make sure no animal nests in it. But I bet by the time it leaves it'll be full of little insects.

Well, you do have form with insects...[In 2006, Calix's track 'Nunu', commissioned by Warp and the London Sinfonietta, was performed live round the country with a tank of insects including cockroaches, crickets and beetles.]

MC: Yeah, it's time to get a new orchestra together!

You began your career very much as a Warp musician and DJ. What's made your work change in this way?

MC: 'Chorus' inspired me quite a lot. Its second home was in Durham Cathedral, which was the first time they've ever allowed anything in. One of the most magical moments I've ever had as a musician, which really stuck with me, because it really affected me, happened when I was doing sound tests there just before it launched. An elderly gentleman, just walking through, had been sitting there for a while. Then he started walking towards us with this woman who must have been in her late 90s, pretty frail. He came up and asked if we made this – we said yes. And then he started to cry...[grabs serviette] I'm talking about it, going to start crying too! He was with his mother, and she said it was the most amazing thing she'd seen in her whole life. [smiles] We were all crying! It was a very strange moment...they didn't say much, but she started well up, and then we were all gone.

And what was incredible to me was that the whole piece was completely abstract, but it made them feel something. They didn't say, this is too weird. This very old woman didn't think about the technology, the abstraction of these voices flying around. That wasn't a barrier to her at all. And they didn't go, ooh, pragmatically, this is 'experimental', so it cemented this in me: that people like fantasy. We know this. But people also like fairytales. And they like abstractions. Art isn't just for arseholes. People can handle it.

But there's the idea out there that contemporary art is accepted by the general public, while contemporary music isn't. David Stubbs' book Fear Of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen is something I've been meaning to read for a while...

MC: I haven't read it either! But it's weird how that's true, isn't it? And it shouldn't be true. I hate the idea that people need to be spoonfed everything, like when American production companies remake films because people can't deal with subtitles. What I want to do is remove the barrier that says "I don't get this". I'm not being very succinct, but I guess what I'm saying is that people can handle proper weird shit.

Your last few works have used a lot of voices – what's drawn you towards them?

MC: I think it's the same thing. Human voices are something to hold on to, even if they're doing something strange... We tend to feel empathy and comfort when there's something we recognise. And this piece is 50/50, 50% of natural elements – fire, air, water, earth – and 50% from the fifth element, the human element. There's not a lot of processing with the sounds either, I haven't really messed with the voices. But I like the fact that I recorded them in South Africa, and that they're singing out of a hill in Barkingside in Olympic year. That's the cradle of humanity!

So why stones?

MC: To me, the sculpture and the music is all about how nature changes. I live near the sea here [in Suffolk], where you can see nature changing more than anything, especially with coastal erosion. But I still pick up stones like little souvenirs. It's absolutely appalling that I do it – we all do it, and that's why it's a problem – but if it's been a particularly wonderful day, you want to come home with these mementoes, these little moments in time. And isn't that strange? They're all over the place in my house, and I realised a few years ago, looking at them, that time has completely slowed down for them. Yes, they're still eroding, but that process is impossible for me to see, as it's on a microscopic level – I can't see the change, but it's happening.

But for the ones I've left behind, time has sped up. They're being bashed by the waves, rubbed together by the water. So it's a piece about how things change, even when it's not being perceptible... how one tiny action, me putting a stone in my handbag, determines how time speeds up or slow down. [laughs] That make me sound self-important, I don't mean that! But it's about how change is always there, how we're implicated, and how we often don't see it... which is exactly what happens when you walk around my egg.

Does living in Suffolk help you work?

MC: Definitely. It feels quite remote – it's not geographically remote, but very underpopulated. For which I'm very grateful. [laughs] There's lots of open space. And it's almost impossible not to feel connected to nature. Most of time I'm working at my computer looking at nature through the window. My neighbour is a sheep farmer, so all I hear is sheep. Sheep and birds. It really works for me, it's important to me. There are no cars and sirens... I need to be the person making the noise!

Do you listen to a lot of contemporary electronic music for inspiration?

MC: It's funny, but I've never really listened to a lot of electronic music, ever. Which probably sounds odd, but I've always liked guitar bands. In my early days making music, I was obsessed with My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, Arab Strap, a lot of Scottish stuff, Radiohead [with whom she toured]. And I love a lot of hip-hop and R&B. At the moment, I'm in the grip of a six-month Die Antwoord phase which I haven't got over. I need to let it go! Completely through this sculpture, they've been in the background – music that is the antithesis of everything I'm doing. But I think it's pretty normal to listen to different stuff to the stuff you work on. But I do also listen to composers like Ligeti and Kaya Saairho too – she's amazing, known a lot in America and Europe but not over here.

What would you call yourself these days? A musician? A composer?

MC: I used to say, when people asked, "I write music". But working with more classical people, they'd say, well, you write music, so you're a composer. I resisted it for a while. But anyone who writes music is a composer, any pop star, even. Sometimes now, I say I'm an artist, because I feel that needs to be reclaimed like people like me. Because when you say artist, people still assume you're making lots of paintings. But I am an artist, I just use different tools for the job. It's easier than saying sometimes I use instruments, sometimes a patch or a plug-in, sometimes a few twigs.

But you don't see a lot of sound art in mainstream galleries...

MC: No you don't, and that annoys me. Wander round any mainstream gallery or museum, and you'd be very lucky to find a sound piece. People still think that abstract music can't work on a very mainstream level, but abstract art does. I mean, look at this [points to abstract print above our cafe table]. This is everywhere – in your hotel room, in your Travelodge, people are so used to it. But they haven't been exposed to as much [sings burbly melody] "blahblahblah". One of best things for abstract music has been car advertising, weirdly enough, although I hate to say it. Audi has done a lot for "err err err"! But that music's always linked to hi-tech products, not everyday things. Toilet Duck, for instance, have shied away from Stockhausen so far. Sadly!

A lot of female electronic musicians have been written about, or reappraised over recent years – people like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire most noticeably. And there are contemporary artists like Andrea Parker and the French musician Colleen who have also approached music in similar ways to you. Do you feel that "women in electronic music" get put into a category too often – or is that category helpful? Or do you think it makes you, together, get fetishised or misunderstood?

MC: [pauses and thinks] It's funny, we're still a minority of women working in this area, although I'm not sure why. Let's face it, we're already in a niche... so we make up a niche within a niche. And all the people you mention I admire both personally and musically, so I do feel an affinity... although more in musicality than in gender.

But on the other hand, when I think of women using technology, Beyonce is probably using more complicated technology than I am. You know, she's in the studio and she's not stupid! In that way, technology is so prevalent, so we're not that rare. There are girls making stuff on GarageBand, or on their iPhone these days too, which is fantastic. But when you talk about Daphne and Delia, and the interest in them in recent years... What's interested me is how long Daphne was sort of written out of the history of the Radiophonic Workshop. Which was this thing that she started up.

Go back beyond that, and there were female composers in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries – where are they? So if a feel an affinity... it's in the idea that I'm angered that a lot of female composers have effectively vanished from history. I mean, in the BBC Proms archive online, only 3% or 4% of the composers who've been performed are women. That's the thing that's bad. That's the thing that needs to change.

Who has broken through in music for you?

MC: Someone like Grace Jones – now there's someone who really brought abstraction to the masses. Jesus, at the Queens' Jubilee. The ultimate establishment! It amazes me how amazing that is. But there was this period in the late 70s and early 80s when that happened a lot – people like her and Kate Bush and Annie Lennox coming through, very outspoken, very individual characters. This was a time when Laurie Anderson getting 'O Superman' into the charts too. There are contemporary versions of them now like PJ Harvey, who is brilliant, and really playing it their way. People like that make me go, yeah! People I'd love to be like.

What advice would you give musicians – female or male – who want to follow your path?

MC: If you really want to make stuff, don't worry about having the right stuff. A super computer, all the gear, the software – you can get lost in that. Only when you get bored with the equipment, that's when you start making music. You really don't need much, you know? [laughs] People have been making music two sticks beginning of time, and having restrictions can be really good. I mean, I used environmental sounds when I started doing more compositions not to make a big ethical conceptual statement, but because I didn't have any money. Trees are free! I can make a kick-drum, percussion, from natural stuff! So don't feel like you need something more. Nick Drake didn't use much, and look what he did. Don't think having all shiniest toys makes you better. If you really want to do it, whatever it is, do it.

Nothing Is Set In Stone is at Fairlop Waters, Barkingside (nearest tube station: Fairlop) until 9 September 2012. For more information, go here