Mira Calix interview by Dan Rule


Interview with Mira Calix
By Dan Rule

Drawn from an expansive aesthetic palette of organic and electronic textures, melodics and rhythmic phrases, Chantal Passamonte creates a brand of awkwardly pretty and densely challenging laptronica, strewn with abstracted field recordings and fractured beats. But whilst seemingly complex and synthesised, the Suffolk-residing, South African expatriate’ understanding of music is a great deal simpler. It rests in capturing and evoking snippets of time, artefact and landscape; it rests in “having a go’.

Mira Calix

A central figure of the international sound art clique over the last decade, working under her Mira Calix nom-de-plume, Passamonte has built an inimitable catalogue of commissioned installation work and recorded material, issuing three official long-players for Warp Records – 2000′ OneOnOne, 2003′ Skimskitta and this year’ stunning Eyes Set Against the Sun – and exhibiting in international art spaces as divergent as London’ Barbican and Geneva’ Natural History Museum.

Chantal Passamonte is in something of a spritely frame of mind today. Chatting over the phone from her countryside home in Suffolk, England, the woman better known as Mira Calix is in the mood for a laugh. She giggles; she goads; she poses pleasantly inane questions about international datelines.

“Wow, so you’re almost a whole day ahead there?” she whispers, seemingly bewildered. “Isn’ it weird that we can be talking to each other on completely different days. My friend once left for Australia the night before his birthday and arrived the day after it, which was really unfair because basically his birthday had disappeared in the ether,” she giggles. “It’s so sad isn’ it?”

Passamonte’ ramblings are anything but frivolous. Indeed, the somewhat vague subject of her banter – that of the rhythm of time and its relation to place – is a telling one in the context of her work. “Living in the countryside, instead of seeing things daily, you start looking at them seasonally,” she posits. “And it’s very strange – what with the environmental issues that we have – I have daffodils outside and it’s winter. I don’ know what’s going on.”

“But you know,” she continues, correcting her course. “I went outside today and the first thing I thought was, “Oh my god, they’re up! The daffodils!’ So you really notice these things in a different sort of system than you would in a town or in a city.”

“I kind of look at making individual pieces of music as very much like a diary, you know. They’re sort of like a recording of a moment in time, which kind of sounds clichéd, but really is what they are, intentionally or unintentionally. So if I’m working on something and I go outside and record, it really is that seasonal thing; it starts floating around and becomes part of that track.”

It’s certainly a dynamic prevalent in Passamonte’ fractured, beauteously amorphous output as Mira Calix. Since signing a contract with Warp and releasing her debut single Llanga in 1996, she has balanced often austere and highly abstracted electronic, melodic and percussive fields with faintly warped and twisted recordings from the field.

Having made a living as a DJ and promoter in London – then later as a publicist for Warp Records – she released her distortedly ambient debut EP Pin Skeeling in 1998, before dropping her maiden full-length OneOnOne and recording a Peel Session in 2000. The same year, she decided to up stumps in London and move to the pastoral east English county of Suffolk. Embracing her surroundings, Passamonte began to further exploit the use of field recordings as a sound source, and by the time she released her second long-player Skimskitta in 2003, recordings of the Suffolk woods and countryside – however manipulated and abstracted – were taking an expanding place in her compositions.

As she explains, her Suffolk surrounds have proven an essential creative trigger. “I grew up in South Africa, and so I’m going to make a tenuous link that maybe it’s a bit like being in Australia, in the sense that where I live now is kind of how you imagine English countryside to be,” she says. “If you live in an ex-colony you’ll probably be familiar with this idealised version of what English countryside is, and that’s pretty much where I live,” she giggles. “It’s really lovely, kind of like an Enid Blyton book or something. I don’ mean that the people are like that, but the actual landscape is just very green and lovely.”

“Obviously I grew up with a lot of space, which you kind of do, again, in our kind of countries. Everything’ kind of very spread out and you can really see the sky, and living in London – I really like London – but you don’ really see the sky much, which kind of sounds like an inane thing to say. But I think when you’ve had something like that, you really notice when you don’. You know, and London is a very green city – there are a lot of parks and a lot of trees and it’s not sort of a concrete jungle – but you just don’ have that view or that horizon. I think I’ve kind of realised that I actually really like that.”

“There’ something in me that must sort of need that slight view of the savannah, you know,” she laughs. “And it’s a different kind of thing, English savannah, but it’s still the savannah, and it makes me feel quite comfortable, personally and creatively.”

The international contemporary art community’ obsession with urban spaces – and the oft-inferred notion of nature as art’s antithesis – couldn’ be further from Mira Calix’ affected, yet increasingly organic sound worlds. Indeed, Passamonte invites comparisons to visual and sculptural “field artists’ such as Richard Long and Chris Drury, who compose challenging conceptual works out of found materials in natural surroundings. “Oh yes, I love that kind of work,” she exclaims. “And Andy Goldsworthy, he sort of makes art in a field. He does things that are very localised, like moving stones from one part of a field to another, but then changes the aesthetics of it.”

“I use a lot of things that people probably think of as totally inorganic,” she continues. “I mean, people think that technology isn’ organic at all, but I disagree. But obviously, you know, it’s a philosophical/technical argument, I guess, that I don’ want to get into… But it’s funny, because with computers you are actually dealing with zeros and ones – and you have amazing pieces of software that create a perfect ring reverb or a perfect plucked string, which actually I find incredibly exciting on one level – but then, I think you can really hear and you really know when something is real.”

“You know, stepping on a twig – I mean, I screw around with things so they don’ sound like they would have originally, and even by the fact that you record it means that it doesn’ sound the same – but that’s okay. The source is real and organic and it generated that particular sound, which is why I don’ do everything on the computer; computers can’ generate a feeling like that.”

Indeed, Passamonte’ work even incorporates what most would consider as silence.

“I like to do this thing where I keep the microphone running, so you sort of have this presence of the room or the space where you can sort of hear the air. It might make people laugh – it’s one of those sort of idiosyncrasies of mine – but to me it makes some kind of difference, so I’m really into that.”

A prominent strand of her creative vision can be traced back to her background in non-musical art. Growing up in Durban, South Africa, Passamonte’ early creative interests revolved around visual art and photography, which she went on to study at art school. Tellingly, she became obsessed by the technical elements of photography as much as its conceptual and artistic facets. “I loved reading all the manuals,” she says with a laugh. “Really getting to know the camera.”

Passamonte draws a strong lineage between the sensibilities she developed during these years and her music-making today. “I honestly think of my songs more as photographs,” she says matter-of-factly. “Obviously, it’s using a different sense – photography is working on visual observation, and music is of the auditory – but to me there were so many parallels.”

“Photography is really a case of learning to use your tool and understanding your tool, and understanding that – depending on your knowledge of that tool – the picture you take can vary so much. All that kind of stuff really helped me learn to deal with computer interfaces for music; realising that you don’ have to fight against it, that you can enjoy what technology can do for you. It can be an extension of you, like a brush for a painter or something.”

This synthesis between artist and apparatus rings truer than ever on new album Eyes Set Against the Sun. Where her previous records echoed with ornate yet emotionally detached electronic textures and shattered beats, her latest effort sees her go bush. Resonating through her uncomfortable, computer-enabled visions is a flood of forest sounds, found sounds and organic flotsam and jetsam, not to mention the Woodbridge School Junior Choir and Britten-Pears Orchestra.

The record’ centrepiece ‘Protean’ casts a series of layered melodic phrasings and obscured orchestrations against a gently bristling undertone of singing birds, wafting breeze the crackling of feet on a forest floor. Austere opener ‘Because to Why,’ on the other hand, merges a spectral string arrangement, with running water and the spooky, dreamlike vocals of the children’ choir.

It’s a gorgeous, eerily awkward vision, and one that Passamonte considers her strongest and most personal to date.

“Yeah, I think it’s definitely the purest expression so far,” she says. “I think that hopefully you should feel like that whenever you finish a record. It’s weird, I finished this record what must be seven months ago, so there’ quite a bit of time between finishing it and then it coming out, so then you start to work on other things, and this becomes something of the past. Like, I haven’ listened to it since I’ve finished it. I might have done it once to check the test pressing or something. But at the time, when it was completed, it sort of has to feel like that, for yourself as an artist – it doesn’ matter what anyone else says – otherwise you feel like you’ve failed.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Eyes Set Against the Sun is its sequence as a work. Although it begins in a relatively structured and conventionally song-like manner, the further the record plays, the more the tracks fall to pieces, “unravelling” – as Passamonte puts it – from wholes to halves to barely congruous fragments. “There is something in that, of just sort of letting something unfold,” she offers. “I mean, I really like that idea of it just sort of starting very clearly and sort of altering along the way.”

“I think, for me, particularly the second track is definitely one of the most straight-up things I’ve ever done, and it almost follows the verse-chorus-verse thing, you know. It’s really conventional. But I learnt this great trick,” she giggles. ”With R’n’B records, they put all the pop hits at the front, then right at the end they put all the ballads. It’s a really strange thing, but they all do it. And I guess that’s what I did, which really makes it quite different. Music that’s more indie or academic usually goes the other way around, you know, where it’s like things are weird at the start and then it all comes together to create this sort of euphoric conclusion at the end. The single is at the end somewhere and you finish listening and you’re satisfied. I kind of went in the opposite direction.”

“So I don’ know, maybe I’ve been listening to too much R’n’B,” she says breaking into laughter. “It’s my Beyonce or Destiny’ Child record; there’ like eight ballads at the end and you’re thinking, “I can’ take much more of this!’” she laughs again. “You can be the first person to ever write that in an article: ‘Mira Calix, greatly influenced by R’n’B’.”

Outside of her recordings, Passamonte has also garnered a glowing reputation for her commissioned, and often collaborative, sound design and installation work. Since her early musical career she has exhibited and collaborated across the UK and Europe, including shows with the Geneva Natural History Museum, London’ Barbican, Madrid’ Compania National de Danza, the Generating Circus Company and London’ National Theatre. She also toured her commissioned Nunu work live to Paris, Rome, Brugge and Tallinn.

According to Passamonte, working in the realm of commissioned art presents a whole set of new challenges. “It’s really different, because I think that when it’s on this record it’s so personal – it’s so sort of self-absorbed on so many levels – and you don’ have to consider anything else but what you’re feeling. I go into the studio, I feel something, I make a piece of music, you know. I think it’s crap or I think it’s good and then it goes on from that point.”

“But then with commissioned work you’re thinking, “Oh, the room is like this and I need to think about how it’s going to work in the space, and I need to think about how I’m supposed to make the audience feel’, and they’re not necessarily an audience in a conventional sense. Then I need to think of the story that the director is trying to convey, or the emotion of an actor or a dancer or whatever, and still take something from that and make it personal, because if I don’ feel it, then I haven’ got a hope in hell.”

“Music should make you feel something, so I’ve got to make it really personal at the same time as considering all those other things. And I find that really exciting. It’s such a weird way of working for someone like me, who’ sort of basically never thought in that way before. There’ a lot of problem solving and you kind of have to do all the problem solving and then disregard everything you’ve thought about, and just go into the studio and feel.”

But whether in the recorded or the commissioned realm, Passamonte thrives on such challenges.

“I kind of hate it when people use the word “challenging’ in a negative way. Like, “Oh, it’s so challenging!’. Being challenged – by your circumstances, by environment, by yourself – it’s kind of sometimes quite scary, and that’s the brilliant thing about it. I think if I hadn’ started DJing originally, I probably wouldn’ have ended up making music,” she pauses. “It taught me to have a go, sort of thing, which is the only thing that really separates you from creating something. That sort of “I’ll have a go at that’s mentality.”

Eyes Set Against the Sun is out through Warp/Inertia.


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