Mira Calix releases third ‘studio’ album ‘Eyes Set Against The Sun’ on January 15th 2007 on Warp
If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. Mira Calix is hunched down amongst the trees, fiddling with gear, smoking like a chimney. It’s a bright spring day and she’s been there all afternoon, fiddling, smoking, recording, twitching (in the ornithological sense). She’s working on a track for her new album, Eyes Set Against The Sun. The track will eventually be called ‘Protean’. The melody came to her first, and it suggested a ‘pastoral’ feeling. As it often does with this boundary-blurring, backwards-forwards songwriter, this feeling in turn conjured an image in her mind’s eye – ‘a landscape,’ she says, ‘but not one that I knew. A place that I’d never been.’ But she knew this landscape was aflutter with birds. So she took herself and some of her electronic kit off into the forest near her house in Suffolk. Some hours later she returned to her little home studio. ‘I let most of the file run,’ she says. But as well as a beautiful cacophony of birdsong, ‘there’s lots of rustling where I’m walking through the woods,’ she laughs. She kept these in ‘Protean’, which ended up a 157-second bucolic symphony. You can hear the birds; and if you can’t hear the trees you can certainly feel them. You can also, if you listen carefully, hear the rustling of leg on leaf. ‘Most people would chop that stuff out but I actually really like it. It adds to that live-ness. Which I really try and pull into my work, which is why I play all the notes rather than programme it.’ Calix is keen on such ‘errors’. So much so that ‘I add more’. That way, ‘it sounds more real. I like dirt. It’s not just sonic dryness.’ Similarly, the silences between and within songs matter. And the pauses in titles matter: she says, with the album pronunciation, it’s Eyes Set [three beats/three spaces] Against The Sun. It all adds up to create a living, particular whole.
This is what Warp recording artist Mira Calix- aka Suffolk-dwelling South African expat Chantal Passamonte – does. She makes electronic music that breathes like an orchestra breathes. Folk music fashioned from broken beats and field recordings. Technologically-advanced soundscapes with the knobbly, wobbly bits kept in. You might call it avant-garde, but it’s meant to make you smile, not frown; it’s heart-warm, not ice-cool. Laptronica built using knackered bits of wood. Music that’s fun for children – not just the ones who appear singing on it – and grown-ups too. ‘I hate to use that word¦ organic,’ she sighs reluctantly, in fact only using it because I made her. ‘But I’m heavily influenced by my surroundings,’ she says of the semi-wilderness in which she lives. ‘Wooden instruments breathe – even if it’s an old Korg! If you record some trees or knock two branches together, there’s something in that. Oxygen or something. That might appear completely contrary to the technology I use. But that makes it more important to me bring that in.’
Eyes Set Against The Sun is Mira Calix’s third ‘studio’ album after OneOnOne (2000) and Skimskitta (2003). The three years between albums is largely due to the profusion of commissions and engagements Calix has been undertaking for a range of European arts bodies and institutions – from Geneva’s Natural History Musuem (Nunu, a 30-minute piece made using the sounds of insects), to London’s Barbican (a site-specific piece to mark the opening of their Gallery), to music for a dance piece by Spain’s Compania National de Danz. Then there are her ongoing international DJing commitments. In fact, there’s too much detail to go into here. See Appendix A for a verbatim rundown of what Calix calls ‘All my arty blah blah’ (grammar and punctuation, composer’s own). And see also the mini-album 3 Commissions (2004) for an elegant round-up of some of these works. It’s all a long way from the previous life of this South African who came to Britain, pursuing her love of music, as a record shop manager and full-time DJ-cum-party-enthusiast. But there were other outside agents at work, too, in the genesis of Eyes Set Against The Sun. It began life in the wake – and in the midst – of Calix’s work with sound designer/composer David Shepard and pianist Sarah Nicolls. Calix had met the pair while recording and touring Nunu with the London Sinfonietta (Shephard is a principal player, Nicolls a soloist). Together the three undertook a commission from the Ravello Festival, and the concomitant offer of rehearsal facilities by Aldeburgh Productions, parent organisation of the 60-years-young Suffolk-based Aldeburgh Festival, co-founded by Benjamin Britten. Working under the name Alexander’s Annexe and making much use of Aldeburgh’s Steinway, the trio assembled Push Door To Exit, an album built round the playing and manipulation of one piano. That album was released on Warp in early November, and was accompanied by a handful of special live shows.
Through her residency at Aldeburgh, Calix secured use of a violin player and of a local children’s choir, The Woodbridge School Junior Choir. Their voices – treated, warped, echoed – appear on ‘Because To Why’, the opening track on Eyes Set Against The Sun. Calix loved the ‘innocence and optimism’ of the children’s voices, and favoured their ‘enthusiasm’ over any vocal ‘perfection’. She layered these on top of the edited highlights of two three-hour DATs she’d made of snow melting. ‘That was great fun,’ she says – cheerfully aware that, in less gifted hands,- the sound of snow melting would be but a snarky metaphor away from the sight of paint drying. ‘Obviously I didn’t seen much snow growing up,’ she continues. ‘There’s something romantic to me about it – it becomes water and washes away. I love that it makes everything still and silent outside.’
The second track is ‘The Stockholm Syndrome’, buzzing with beats and the closest echo – but still not that close – to Calix’s past immersion in the UK dance scene. ‘The album doesn’t necessarily need a banging interlude. But maybe it’s just my slightly prickly self. It’s a sort of slap in the face. It’s the opposite of the norm – albums build to a crescendo, but here we start that way and then things unravel themselves.’ On the other hand ‘Eeilo’, a spectral piano lament nudged by strings-led soundscapes, is more of a ravelling: ‘I just started to work with a piano, building it up from melody lines. I work on a colouring-in principle. That probably describes my methods quite well.’
A central track (in every sense) is near 11-minutes-long ‘The Way You Are When': the sound of an orchestra jostling for ear-space with electric crackles. Or is it liquid spatters? Insect chattering? A clanging scrapyard? It could be any of them, Calix will say, and is happy for the sonic blurring of the edges. Then, after some thought, she says that it ‘goes back to wood. I brought back a bamboo xylophone from Indonesia and ’cause I didn’t wax it started to fall apart. So I recorded it as it fell apart. All the instruments in this song are wooden. Pieces of wood make their own sounds, crumbling and tearing as they fall apart.’ Later, it occurs to Calix that ‘The Way You Are When’ – with its ghostly cloud of voices lurking in the mix – means more than that. See Appendix B (emoticons, artist’s own).
What else? What else in this most whirling, hypnotic, creaking, unsettling, uplifting, lo-fi-hi-fi of records?
‘One Line Behind’ features the school choir and Calix’s voice, at its best – or worst – at 4am in the studio, ashtray overflowing, tea cups littering the floor, equipment warm from overuse. ‘It was very much about this idea of building barriers. Doing the hermit, hiding-away thing. I do it more than just physically, I do it as a human being. I don’t really let things out very much. But I do with music. It’s the place where I’ll be totally honest and express myself.’
There’s a hidden track. The chopped-up sound of the children singing the album title. It ends, tremendously, in a football-style chant. ‘Tillsammans’, a dappled, delicate tune featuring glockenspiel (or whatever instrument it was) and weather, was equally inspired by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s brilliant film of the same name (Together in English); by The Summer Book, the cult novel of an idealised summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland by Moomins author Tove Jansson; and by a gig that Calix did in a mineshaft in Sweden. ‘There was a 33-second delay. It was weird. And they gave me a little summerhouse to stay in. And I liked the yellow in the Swedish flag.’
Ah, yellow. Mira Calix has a thing about colours. She sees her albums in terms of colours: the first one was red, the second one blue. Eyes Set Against The Sun is yellow. It’s not synaesthesia (‘a sensation experienced in a part of the body other than the part stimulated’). ‘I don’t hear a note and see blue but it just seems to be the way I function musically – pretty visually. It’s on a pretty base level. I seem to get his feeling fairly early on. This time it was different tones – sunset yellow, sunflower yellow.’ So ‘The Stockholm Syndrome’ is a fiery yellow. ‘The Way You Are When’ is ‘almost an ambery yellow, going toward orange’. The album’s name is hot, glowing yellow- which fits with some of the thinking behind it. ‘It seems upturned to me,’ says Calix of the title she chose for third album. ‘I guess I feel optimistic,’ she adds. She’s referring to herself, to her own music, and to the music she’s doing for others. She points out (with a mild squirm of embarrassment) how she’s now moving in some circles with the mantle of ‘contemporary classical composer’. Coming next: an opera for Aldeburgh Festival, with a libretto by author Blake Morrison that draws together Hansel & Gretel and (oh yes) the Elephant & Castle shopping centre in London.
Yep, it’s a lot to get your head round, this mad swirl of ideas and collaborations and commissions and countries. But in Eyes Set Against The Sun, Mira Calix brilliantly, wonderfully draws many of her ambitions together. ‘The idea that it’s a coming out album – there is some truth in that,’ concedes this dazzling yet hitherto elusive artist. The Yellow Thing makes sense too, even if you only listen with half as much care as she put it into its making.
Eyes Set Against The Sun: it’s out-there. But it’s in-here too.
Craig McLean, October 2006
Appendix A: All My Arty Blah Blah
i worked on an installation piece with italian artist felice limosani based on glass. it launched at the sketch gallery this year and will go on to tour around europe.. so still a work in progress i guess. Also i did some music for a dance piece for the Compania National de Danz of spain who performed in madrid in may last year. i wrote all the music for a circus piece performed at the bloomsbury theatre which then toured.. it was called lactic acid by the generating company – a bit like cirque de soleil – dance/circus people hanging from ropes etc.. pretty amazing watching people dance to my nutty rhythms. There was also a play at the national.. called free.. but the playrights name escapes me at the mo.. also worked on the music for a documentary series for the sundance channel on contmp american artist. done damien loeb so far, waiting to complete cecily brown and others. its a 4 parter. of course there is the elephant opera with blake/tim/tansy for aldeburgh festival and a choir piece for 2008 based on allegri’s misere.. these big commissions get pulled in so far in advance there also has been a lot of touring with the sinfonietta of the nunu piece which i keep re-writing so every performance is different and feels like a living thing. Two really top mira calix live gigs i did last year both in paris – one in the planetarium at the cite de science with bernard parmigiani (one of the old masters) really amazing gig. and the other with the smith quartet and horacio vaggione at the original GRM studio using their diffusion system
Appendix B: ‘The Way You Are When’
really its about things not being either black or white. that people are complex and that even if you experience one extreme emotion like happiness, its never just that. there are always shades of other feelings going on (maybe thats that that yellow thing going on ;-) ), the other extreme is sadness, and i feel like i always carry some of everything with me, even when a feeling seems clear so much else is part of it. i think everyone is like that. we’re not so 2 dimensional. but when you write music it really brings it home to you.i can go into the studio feeling one way, but when i realise i feel so many more things, not just ‘happy’ or whatever..