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INTERVIEW: Mira Calix Talks Sound, Vision And Splice
Patrick Clarke , May 15th, 2017 15:50

Ahead of her much-anticipated audiovisual show at this year's Splice Festival, acclaimed artist Mira Calix tells tQ about her plans for the performance, her fascination with the Far East, Josef Albers and synaesthesia

From 26 to 28 May, Splice Festival's second edition boasts the award-winning artist, composer and performer Mira Calix amongst its most anticipated shows across a weekend of musical and visual performances, educational talks and more. Coldcut, 1024 Architecture, DJ Food and more are also on the bill.

Calix will present a special audiovisual set on Saturday evening, a foray into DJing (and VJing) that's become increasingly rare, though no less enjoyable, for the artist as she's ventured further into the worlds of acclaimed installation works.

Calix's set is inspired by the works of abstract artist and influential teacher Josef Albers, in particular his famous Experiments In Colour, and will be an outlet for a long term fascination with the subject lent new life by her experiences working in China for her acclaimed Moving Museum 35 project, and by the new opportunities of the digital world.

Below she takes us through her fascination with colour, the lasting effects of her time in the far East, what we can expect from her much-anticipated set, and whether she'd ever make another studio album.

What can we expect from your headline set at Splice?

I don't totally know yet! I can play very weird experimental sets or if something more up tempo, so it will be something that people can dance to, even if they have to dance slightly oddly.

Is that the way things usually work with this kind of performance for you?

There's one rule for me with DJing, which is to always have your first three or four tracks ready. It's good to just know where you want to start, then you see what the room's doing. I'm not the kind of person to prepare a 60 minute set, there's nothing worse than arriving to a rave with a load of ambient classics.

You've not DJ'd that frequently in recent years, how does it feel coming back?

It's nice! I like that freedom, to pick other people's records and share them, I'm one of those people that if someone asks what it is I'm going to tell them. I'm not there holding on to what obscure things, I'll throw them in because I think they're brilliant, but I genuinely enjoy it.

Your Splice set is inspired by Josef Albers, can you tell us more?

It's really about how we see colours as soon as we change the concept of the colours around it. It's incredibly simple shapes but it says a lot about how you perceive colour differently. I do think of music in colour, and all the colours in this piece are gentle, they're different shades of pistachio that I've chosen to use. I work with a simple, desaturated colour scheme.

Have you always seen sound in colour?

It's the way I've always seen music. It relates to synaesthesia, it's just seeing different instruments or entire pieces of music as a colour. It's a spectrum, it's very mild [for me], but there's some people who have it incredibly strong. The thing that's interesting is that everyone who has it in varying degrees thinks it's totally normal until they discover. For some people letters of the alphabet or weekdays have colours.

Specifically in my own work that's even more present, I can use it if I'm writing something and I know that I want it to be a certain shade of burnt orange, I can see it and I compose within that colour field. The strings are always in a sort of burnt orange to yellow spectrum, it might be a guitar, or a piece of wood that sounds stringy, it might not be 'strings'.

Why was the Splice festival performance the moment to really embrace the relationship between music and colour in your work?

I've just opened my [online] portal, the space where I'm releasing music now. I've always made a drawing for any piece of music I'm composing, I tend to draw a piece of music before I write it, but I'd not shared that preparatory work publicly until this year. It's just been back in focus for me if that makes sense. The great thing about the digital system is that I could start releasing these long tracks without having to aggregate and make an album of things that actually fit. But they need a cover image, and obviously the cover image could have been anything, it could be a piece of text or a picture of a tree, but because they already had these images sitting in a folder I thought 'well I can use this'.

Albers as a person is quite an interesting figure given his teaching work at the Black Mountain College. Does he interest you as a human, as well as an artist?

I think he's a really interesting artist, and also a teacher, a great communicator and sharer of these ideas. He didn't hide away, I like that about him, I love his approach and also just his aesthetic, I love how his work looks. He was working through abstraction, too. For the abstract artist the goal was to reduce and reduce but still communicate, and music does that by virtue. If you don't have lyrics, you may think it's the saddest song in the world but I might find it uplifiting, there's that ambiguity. The way we interpret music is so personal, but influenced by cultural norms as well. We have the cultural norm that informs us about music, then a personal nuance, and that abstraction is amazing.

It's been a decade since your last straight-up studio album, would you return?

I never say never. For me it's so much about the format, I've spent the last few years really building environments and creating installation work and I've been excited about diffusion and spacialisation, making music and sound work in space. That wasn't going to work in stereo on an album because [my pieces] weren't composed for that, they were composed for 3D environments. I wasn't very excited in myself, though that's not to say I wasn't listening to albums and loving them, I still like stepping into a whole universe of whoever, for forty minutes. I don't use shuffle.

Your last major piece was the Moving Museum 35 project in China. Has your time over there continued to influence your work?

It had a massive influence, I totally fell in love with China. I'd always wanted to go there and work there. It was a very different project for me because it was really hands on and it became a collaborative work with 300 people. That made it quite incredible, and it's had a big legacy, there's two new works opening in Shanghai that were inspired by that piece. I'm still really dealing with that piece all the time.

I couldn't recommend China enough, it's probably the most exciting place to be at this point in time, people are really energised and they have an amazing work ethic. It's a real energy of doing things, and trying things. What we did was incredibly bold, it was a commuter bus, not some special art bus, and also that's a big one when it comes to colour, it was all inspired by colour field paintings. It's something that had always been there, but I brought it much more front and centre publicly.

Having wanted to work in China for so long, did you find it to be what you'd expected?

I didn't know what to expect, because we don't see a lot of China that's unfiltered. I was in Nanjing, which isn't like Shanghai or Beijing. Despite it being the size of London, for the first week I didn't meet anyone who wasn't Chinese, I really stood out. I couldn't find much information about Nanjing before I went, despite the fact this isn't a little town, it's a massive city. But so many things did surprise me, my fears about food were misguided, and it's so awful to generalise, but the one thing I wasn't expecting was the sense of humour, Chinese people just laugh all the time. They weren't laughing at me, I checked! But it was constant laughter, and I think that's the one thing I wasn't expecting, everything's done with so much humour. There are problems, but it's all dealt with with humour. It's chaotic, but people laugh at everything

Also, because China's language is tonal, to our ear it can often sound angry, but I was there for two months and what became clear was just the musicality of the language. It really grew on me even though I can say maybe just seven sentences and I spent two months there which is ridiculously poor. But it's such a hard language to learn because the way it's constructed to a European speaker is completely nuts. So those are the two things, both sound related, interestingly.

What's next for you after Splice?

I'm working on this video piece, which is filmed, and I've just finished a video piece to be shown in Berlin in July, which is about our living isolated with technology. There's also a group video installation the week of Splice, with guests. It's mostly visual installation work, and the other nice thing is I wrote the score for Julius Ceaser which is moving to the Barbican in November. It's great because it happens every day and I'm not there, which is fantastic! I get these show reports every day saying 'somebody in the audience coughed'. It's a bit like an installation. It'll be nice to bring it to the Barbican, it's a venue I love working in.

Splice Festival takes place from 26-28 across a number of East London venues. For more information and tickets, click here