Multi-disciplinary artist MIRA CALIx returns with UTOPIA: an exploration of the male gaze, freedom and movement.
Words & interview by Caroline George Hayes
Mira Calix creates tangible sonic landscapes composed of collages of often ambiguous and unrelated sounds that move around the physical space they inhabit. This ‘sculptural sound’, as she describes it, is offered to participants through intensely immersive installations. Calix incorporates elements like dance and light that both respond to the music and allow the sounds to respond back, creating an environment reflecting the call-and-response relationships in music. Initially involved with the ‘smart’ ambient techno scene from the late nineties, Calix has grown from her early work releasing studio albums and DJing to composing orchestral pieces and massive-scale installations. After ten years, she’s returned to stereo recording for her new EP Utopia, released with her longtime label Warp Records.
When did you start creating music?
I actually started in my twenties. I didn’t study music, but I studied ballet very seriously and I come from an insanely musical family, so I was totally enamored with it. I landed up studying photography and visual media, then music came a bit later. I was totally self-taught in electronic production, which I did first with my records on Warp. Eventually I taught myself classical instrumentation and notation followed, I now read and write music and score for orchestra in their language but never studied it. I think I landed on making music because I never went through the daily grind of learning an instrument. I was able to work in different disciplines, which probably explains why I work so mixed-media.
Your music is put into an identification with Warp Records, particularly with the development of the ambient techno scene along with artists like Aphex Twin. Do you think your work is aligned with that genre today?
No, not really. I don’t even think it did then. When my first record was released in 2000, I was definitely the odd one out, and I think that’s been fair to say throughout my career. Within that group, even though we were playing gigs together, I was working more in the world of experimental electronic. Looking back, I felt that I was always either the most melodic person on the bill or the most unmelodic. I don’t think I found my people until I moved into installations, which maybe fit a bit more. Still, I’ve never quite fully fit in anywhere, probably because I don’t really adhere to a genre. Always an outsider— slightly.
Does that otherness come out when working in two separate fields, music production and artistic production?
I think it’s just that my interests are quite wide. There are people like Alva Nato and Florian Hecker who are like me in that they create a lot of physical sound installation work while also releasing music. If you went to an installation and bought their record, they’re very similar to each other, so I don’t think format causes much difference. I work site-specifically and thematically, and I’m happy to change up instrumentation if it can communicate what I’m trying to get across. It’s a more fluid process that causes distinction.
If someone were to listen to “rightclick” from Utopia and then the score I wrote for “The Tower Remembers” at the Tower of London, they might go “is this the same artist?” I understand why, but for me it seems completely natural even if the instrumentation is quite different. Choral work and electronic pieces may appear on the surface to be very distinct, but they both have strong thematics and come from a conceptual basis. I used each because they were right for what I was trying to do.
The elements you incorporate in addition to sound for your projects, like “The Tower” seems to further differentiate your work as it describes a different way of how someone’s supposed to respond to your music.
The thing I’m interested in with installation work is that once you’re in it, you’ve stepped into the music, and you participate in my work. I don’t think of people as audience. It sounds pretentious, but it’s true. You become a participant in the work and experience it by moving through time and space. For example, I have a piece apart of the “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” at the Somerset House that’s video and sound work. You step into it as a quadrophonic experience, the only way to experience it. You’re immersed in the sound. The thing about records is that people receive it in a way that is perhaps more audience. I felt that even from my first album I was trying to create a headspace for someone to participate in. Today, the preoccupations are the same, but the delivery system is so different. One is very physical, the other you can just download.
Your sounds seem to dance as well, in your installation and sound immersion pieces there’s a lot of movement going on from the work itself.
Yeah, I love it. Dance is a different language, a non-verbal one like music can be. With it, all the body can make another language. In “The Tower”, the dancers weren’t really dancing, they were movement artists. They had speakers under their scarves, so how they moved affected the sound. I coined the phrase ‘human diffusion’ for them— how they moved with the visitors, people participating, was so vital to how they experienced the work. I loved it— sometimes I snuck in and joined. For another project, “Inside there Falls”, there are speakers that allow for movement of sound within the space. With installation work, nobody knows who the artist is, so you can just be inside the work with the others. And I really like that part of the experience. There’s no one to look at, and with any other kind of performance, especially when you DJ, people tend to face forward. That’s that audience, that’s the call and response. With installation, the call-and-response is invisible.
Coming to terms with having that massive public interaction with some of your work, with Utopia it’s much more private— how do you want people to respond to the record?
I think just to dance. The world is so fucked up, I find physically moving helps me if things are not great. I set up this premise of the early hours or the dying embers of a house party. I mean it’s great to go to clubs and dance all night, but those transitional moments are the nicest thing in the world if you are with friends. There’s also something lovely about putting on a record and dancing around your kitchen, or in my case, the fields where I live. There’s something freeing in that, especially at a moment like this in the world. Someone actually just wrote to me that thing— “there may be trouble ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight, let’s face the music and dance”. That has a bit more ethos but is really just the same as “we’re fucked, let’s dance”. I think there’s always something to that, even if you’re just dancing in your head it’s quite good simply to move sometimes. I think that’s what I made music for, music for me and my friends to dance to, ultimately. Sort of a great utopian party, where we have some hope and ideals, but aren’t completely fantastical. Our feet are still based in reality.
You’ve said Utopia addresses those issues of the muse and the male gaze as well as utopian ideals. These all seem to draw upon more social political issues— do you think your work is becoming more political?
Definitely in the last two years there’s been a lot more overtly political work. It’s mostly focused on Brexit, and in a way utopia as well. I think it’s always been intrinsic to me, and there’s very little distinction between me and my work. I don’t clock off, so if it’s something important to me, it appears in the work. We’re at a moment of huge transition and upheaval in the world, and this record is making reference to that in a softer shout. I’ve also made installations, like an orchestra piece in 2017 called the “Department of How to Fuck Ourselves” which is referencing the Department of Leaving the EU. There’s no messing with that— it’s quite clear what it is. “The Tower” is a bit subtler, about unity, division and loss, as well as making connections between the first World War and our political climate. It’s very hard to ignore what’s going on in the world, so it has influenced a lot of pieces. But that doesn’t mean that I solely do politics.
Your music is a collage of electronic sounds, but also includes more natural and orchestral elements in your recent recordings. Utopia seems to go back to heavier electronics and voice sampling…
That’s fair to say. Since 2007 I have been releasing through Calix Portal and Vinyl Factory and installation work, where I rarely had any purely electronic tracks. In that gap, everything has had classical instrumentation and some electronic. Utopia returns to something in the earlier albums.
I was using electronics on the interim for other mediums, but not so much for release. I’ve been interested in what we call ‘diffusion’ or surround-sound speaker systems and haven’t been working with stereo. If you’re not doing stereo, you’re not doing records.
My work was much more focused on another area and, in truth, it still is. I haven’t given up classical instrumentation now and returned to electronics, there were various reasons for the record sounding the way it does. The spark to start working on this type of project was working on this short film with Adam Thirlwell, and then I just did these tracks. It was the first time it felt right in that gap, really, to just make some work for dance music.
The graphic art you’ve made surrounding Utopia seems to have influenced the album as well.
Backwards, actually. I always collage music I write, so the visuals come after. The photographs I had taken weren’t intentionally for the record cover, but they just seemed perfect for it. There’s always a bleed between what I’m just doing in my life, on Instagram or whatever, and what I’m working on.
I’ve done all the artwork and some of the video work. The artwork was perfect because in it there’s this idea of dance and movement and sculpture. I think of music as sculpture, so even in something that’s going to be non-sculptural, because it’s a stereo record or you’re downloading it or streaming it, there’s something in the imagery that hopefully makes you think of the body and movement and sound as sculpture. The art just seemed right.
So, I’m using other mediums even for this record even just in making the little things that go around with it, that people now call ‘assets’, but to me they’re apart of the artwork.
I think with stereo music being so limiting, visual art is a means of illustration in the same way that film is for music.
Exactly. The ultimate version of that, which someone just reminded me of, was the Beyoncé video album Lemonade. That was sort of the idea, to have many little forms, and all of them sort of contribute and are a part of the work.
That was different, whereas before I might have seen a record as a record with the artwork. It’s a framing thing, like all these little things I’m posting along with the record, it all is a part of the artwork. It’s much more “Gesamtkunstwerk”, to use that phrase. The record isn’t just an object, it’s an object within this field of things, which includes this cover and moving parts. I’ve used the things that I’ve been using in my installation work so that provisional elements of this EP are mine. I’ve taken the full spectrum of the EP, so it has much more in common with my installations than it appears.
What’s your process in terms of choosing which sound bites to incorporate in your records?
In the end it’s just things that sound good. I mean it’s as simple as that, there are no rules. If it’s just a lighter click, or a pop. I use a lot of organic materials because I live in the countryside. Leaves, twigs, those kinds of things make up the sound. One of the albums is pretty much just made up of pebbles. I’m using them as percussive instruments, resampling my environment.
I do think that when you use one sound it asks for another sound. As you’re writing or producing, it tells you what it needs. You hear something and might want to juxtapose it or compliment it, or you’re looking for another pitch or tone. When you’re working with sound, or field recordings, there’s inherent pitch and texture and timbre to consider.
Do you feel more control with how a conventional music instrument may turn out versus electronically?
I have control in both, but I would say I have more with electronics. With electronics, I am writing and producing it. When I’m working with, for example, a cellist, I write and deliver the score, and we may rehearse it, but the cellist is contributing something to the work. Even if you’ve notated every aspect of the work, musicians bring something else to it. What they bring can be magical, and that’s the huge difference between working with someone who’s a brilliant musician, someone who engages and gives themselves to the piece. They can become the difference between the same piece sounding great one night and not so great the next.
How have technology changes in the past ten years affected the way you produce music?
It’s changed dramatically. We know this— obviously there’s more computer processing power and software changes. I haven’t much changed the software I use, but they’ve had millions of updates.
When I made this record I gave myself very strict rules, I used very few instruments and did incredibly lo-fi recordings. I was using domestic appliances and recorded half the vocals on my phone. My studio has all these lovely tools, but I deliberately made the record very collage-y.
It was probably below-par, but I sort of went backwards. With electronics now, your options are truly infinite in ways where classical instruments are limited, such as having the limit of a register. With electronics there are none of those, so I gave myself some on this record. That’s why it feels like an EP in that the tracks have a lot in common with each other in terms of sound. They don’t show the full spectrum of what I could do with my computer, I’ve narrowed it down purposefully.
Do you normally establish limits in your work? Does that influence your creative process?
Yeah, it does. Often the limits are just budget, like with all artists. So yeah, I’ve gotten used to working within limits. I could have done anything since I was just writing tracks, but I instinctively gave myself parameters. I chose to put them in for conceptual reasons— again, it was about wanting to make that particular mood, to tell a particular narrative. I never really think of it in that way, but yeah, I totally gave myself very, very clear parameters, oblique strategies.
After I wrote “rightclick”, the first track, I employed the same rules to write the others, simply because I wanted to see where I could go with those rules.
Do you prefer collaboration or more hyper-controlled settings to music production?
I like them both equally. I’m quite a control freak, so even in collaboration I have a huge amount of control. I still welcome that space for collaboration, because it often brings something unexpected and you share in the pursuit of making a great work. When it works, it’s because we put the thing well above our own egos, because we do what’s right for the piece. Putting the art above yourselves in a collaboration is the only way to make it good, otherwise it becomes a “you did this, and I did that” dynamic that doesn’t work.
They are quite different, and I went from just producing everything myself to these past ten years being highly collaborative. I have preferred collaborative in some ways because there’s a back and forth. And other times there’s no way around it— I’ve made very large-scale works where I’ve literally had to employ thirty, forty people to install them. When you try to fill more and more space, you ultimately have to work with others. I suppose collaboration is then part preference, part necessity.
Are there any projects you’re currently working on? With Warp, without Warp…
Yes… with or without, both. One thing I can talk about at the moment is an installation for Bozar in Brussels. It’s a highly collaborative work, the idea is that it’s co-authored with seven other visual artists. It will be quite a political work and very performance-based. I don’t even think I’m doing anything with sound, I’m actually making a ballet for it. I have another sound installation opening in a beautiful old church in Norwich in the summer. It’ll be a quite simple sound piece that’s looking at communities.
I also have an ongoing project with the sense of community and social media, called “by being in two places at once”. It’s an exploration of physical and non-physical landscape and how social media is involved in that. Utopiaalso alludes to that, and uses those themes within its artwork and sound, like some of the samplings I’ve made from conversations with people I’ve met through that way. That’s the project that’s been going on for about three years and continues in multiple forms. “by being in two places” is a really massive project with lots of tentacles, with video work, photographs, and texts, and Utopia really sits in with that. I’ve started it as a project with no end, it that just keeps evolving.