Name: Mira Calix
Current Release: absent origin on Warp Records
Recommendations: Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe / Everything Kaija Saariaho, start with Sept Papillons
If you enjoyed this interview with Mira Calix visit her website to find out more about her music, clothes, events and more www.miracalix.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started making music sometime in the late 90’s I was just experimenting with bits of borrowed electronic equipment, a drum machine, sampler etc, eventually, I got a computer. Wowee, looking back, it had less computing power than my phone. I was always crazy about music, I had studied ballet from an early age, and quite seriously, going after school every day, so my parents felt there was no time for my much pined for piano lessons. I think I loved music because it was transformative, it took you places, it told stories and it made you want to move… I still like it, and make it… for all the same reasons. Early influences were Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Chopin, Bach and my dad’s Jazz collection. Mostly instrumental music as a kid and progressing into indie as a teen.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I was very much drawn to and admired artists like Sade, Grace Jones, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, PJ Harvey. Mavericks working on their own terms; that has a big impact when you’re a teenager. Seeing imaginative, strong female artists doing things their own way. It may go some way to explaining why I did less emulating. I think also because I was using electronics, and for the most part, my favourite albums had a very different sound, for example; My Bloody Valentines’ Loveless - maybe my most constant ‘favourite’ I spent time trying to recreate or capture the emotions and sensations of much-loved records, rather than trying to emulate them instrumentally or sonically. I loved the dense heat of Loveless, the humidity of it, and I absolutely spent time pursuing that. On my first album - I hung a microphone out my studio window and captured the air just to bring oxygen to what was otherwise a purely digital universe. How much you can really hear my influences on my early work, is for others to call, they’re there, but somewhat abstract I think.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Identity is the term of the decade, and I think on this new album - absent origin, it plays a huge part. The title is a reference to collage, how elements of the medium lose their origin in the new context of a collage, be it audio or visual. I chose this title even before I had written the record because it not only refers to collage but to questions of identity and the role identity and nationality play in personal freedoms and the wider context of geopolitics. The strikethrough on the word absent is deliberate, all my titles are lower case… Who gets to live or travel where and through what country is all down to how others identify you and not how you identify yourself, the sheer luck of the colour of your passport can determine your opportunities. I wish it didn’t.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
like most artists, I think they have been technical. When I first started receiving commissions to write music for classical orchestras and ensembles I was doing it by ear, that was challenging as someone else was doing the transcription to score, but looking at the score the musicians were playing, the music I had written was completely alien. Over the last decade, I have learnt to read and write in that language, the language of notation, the music is and has always been mine, but learning a new language has been freeing and inspiring and has profoundly changed the way I compose and interact with those gifted people who play what I write.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first piece of ‘equipment’ was really the sampler. The sampler allowed me to capture the world around me and process and alter it into musical instrumentation. Like most artists, I had very little money when I was starting out and so I used ‘field recordings’ twigs and bark and leaves from the park to make my beats. It was a creative solution to a lack of resources, but the use of field recordings has stayed with me as I’ve expanded my ‘instrumentation’ to include acoustic as well as electronic instruments. Even in the beginning I so wanted to work with real cellos, cellists, but it was beyond my means, so being able to write for full orchestras, like I recently did for the Royal Northern Sinfonia, was always the dream from the start. Beyond the sampler - which of course, nowadays is really my software and not my huge Ensoniq, has always been at the heart of my production. I’m not much of a synth head, more an audiophile. I’ve always considered the tools as a means to an end.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I guess that would be in relation to a previous question, and the technology would be notation software, Sibelius and Dorico, they did allow me to profoundly change the way I make music. I started to think of music vertically rather than just horizontally and that made all the difference.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’m not much of a jammer, I like a collaboration of ideas and skills and knowledge. I collaborate a lot, quite often with creatives from other fields, be it science or visual art, dance, architecture, poetry etc. I think a successful collaboration comes when those involved put the artwork above their personal ego, but not above their ambitions. Allowing space for one another to do what they do best. You also have to listen to one another, make space. For me, the key is for the work to be greater than the sum of its parts, and that it can’t exist without one of them. That’s when we’ve got it right. With the right people or persons, collaborations can be an inspiring and great learning experience. With the wrong people, they can be hell. Fortunately for me, it’s only gone wrong a couple of times.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am as much as possible without routine, I’m not a fan, and no doubt it’s part of what has led me to be an artist, some weeks I work days and sleep nights, others the reverse. I tend to travel a lot and perhaps you develop a micro routine in a new city or country, rehearsal schedules etc. But beyond a morning coffee and cigarette and irregular meals.. my days are fairly free-form. Creating, making work is the dominant mode of operating. Saying that I can also go days of drifting and not seemingly doing anything… seamless I am not. The most routine thing I do is trying to remember to put the bins out on Wednesdays.