Mira Calix: The nicest person in experimental music

Mira Calyx – prolific producer of glitchy art-hop, composer of conceptual works from insect noises to opera scores, and member of Warp’s first alt.classical act Alexander’s Annexe – has a new LP due out in January 2007. Entitled ‘Eyes Set Against The Sun’ and released on Warp, this follow up to her previous solo album ‘Skimskitta’ is another variation on the theme first developed: using natural and organic sounds and processing them heavily to form glitchy beats and odd soundscapes. ‘Skimskitta’ was based on the sound of rock and stone, whereas ‘Eyes Set Against The Sun’ is based on wood – in particular the trees and forest around her home, and the snow which falls there. ITM sat down and skipped stones across the lake with Mira, aka Chantal Passamonte.

As a person, Mira Calix seems refreshingly candid and unaffected, and still full of enthusiasm for the enjoyment of making and recording music, and being a part of an ever-developing musical community. She is excited about the new album, and yet realistic about what it is she’s hoping to achieve. “I guess there’s nothing spectacularly different from ‘Skimskitta’, the new album is taking that idea a bit further. The only thing that’s markedly different is that I’ve brought instruments in to this album, where ‘Skimskitta’ was all my recordings and computers. This time I have worked with a children’s choir, which is different, plus other guests. [There’s also] a slight change in sound; I’m attracted to lots of natural sounds in my music, and Skim was about stones, this one is very much about wood.”

Does this make Mira Calix some kind of new Hawkwind folky type for the 21st century? Is she a closet musical ecologist? What is significant about the natural world as it relates to the music? Mira replies contemplatively, “It Is very strange, because I have found myself sampling natural sounds from the start. In the very beginning I went outside because I didn’t have a lot of equipment, but I wanted sounds. I was desperate to make music, and outside I could spend a day recording free amazing sounds and screw with them to make a piece of music. It’s as simple as that – not a conceptual reason. Later I bought loads more equipment, but I still really like the process of recording those outdoor sounds. Doing music where you use a computer to make it, you are locked in a room, and I’m not really that kind of person – I like to be outside a lot.”

Now we’re picturing Mira as the David Attenborough of electronica – down on her hands and knees for hours, observing and recording. But we’re not so far from the truth! She enthuses about long cold days out foraging for sounds, when giving us a run down of tracks on the album. “There’s a tree near where I live that has this amazing creak all of its own, and every little twig you hear sounds different if you bash it or step on it or rub against it, and because they are different types of wood they all make different types of sounds. There’s one track on the album where I just walked around the woods and recorded it. I condensed and chopped it up, but it is the sound of woodland with musical notes and things with it. I made a piece out of snow melting but it ends up sounding like water running because it obviously turns into water when it melts. Because it was all melting at different speeds and times, though, it sounds bizarre – maybe, to people, it could sound like I just turned the shower on! I enjoyed it, but in the end I got too cold and had to leave my recorder outside and keep popping back. I have no idea why I find it fun, but I do.”

Alongside the solo album due in January, Mira Calix has just scored a coup with Warp Records, and released – along with 2 classical artists – Warp’s first “contemporary classical” album Alexander’s Annexe ‘Push to Door’. It’s an experimental sound ensemble, and the first recorded release is an interactive piece where – uncannily akin to Ryuchi Sakamoto’s ‘Insen’ project in conceptual terms – piano and computer combine forces to form a contemplative and “classically” experimental ambient piece. It’s a sound space quite different from her Mira Calix persona, and strikingly different for even Warp’s wide musical scope. How did the album come about? Through a series of live art performances which seemed to gather cult status, giving the distinct impression that people will actually pay, and even enthuse, about chin stroker experimental, given the right artist and idea.

“I did a project with the London Sinfonetta – it was an insect piece which somehow gained cult status. Through that project I did touring and ended up working with one of the principals of the Sinfonetta, David Sheppard, who is an arranger, classically trained, and works with electronics like Reich and Stockhausen. We hit it off, and then on one of the dates we had a pianist, Sarah, who he had known for some time, and we hit it off as well. We formed the ensemble, and it has been performance based until we released this record. Warp came to see our piece and really loved it. They had already released a London Sinfonetta collaborative album, but this is their first contemporary classical release. I just think of it as music but it is definitely different for them.”

It was a project which started quite differently – at least in name – until one J Saul Kane beat them to the punch. Alexander’s Annexe was supposed to be called Alexander’s Dark Band – apparently a name for a phenomenon to do with rain, refraction and rainbows – until Mr Kane got in first! Mira can laugh now… “We were initially called Alexander’s Dark Band. I carried that name around for 10 years, after seeing a documentary about rainbows. When you have a rainbow there’s a reflection of that rainbow. Alexander’s Dark Band is a band between the 2 rainbows. It is a brilliant name waiting to be used. Literally at the same time J Saul released his album under the same name. I deferred because they released a record. It’s very strange that he got it and good luck to him.”

With her 2 new albums out locally through Inertia, of course it’s logical to wonder whether we’ll see Mira out here next year to tour. Unfortunately, two opera companies, Alexander’s Annexe and her other unreleased project with Seefeel are in the way. She says, ruefully. “Am I coming to Australia soon? It’s so funny, I am working on a commission project for an opera company and, strangely, there is talk of coming to Sydney in beginning 2008, and we shall see. But I have never been to Australia, I’d like to come out with the company and stay to do some gigs of my own. In the next 8 months I have two big commissions for opera companies, both performances are next summer so things are slightly hectic until then.”

Finally, just to cap off my formed opinion that Mira Calyx is one of the nicest and most light-hearted people in experimental music, she wanted to finish by playing the “Smash Hits” interview game, which I’ll relay word for word.

Favourite colour: Red is my all time favourite

Favourite food: Pasta or chocolate – dark green and black’s cherry or ginger

Favourite season: Summer

Favourite activity: Walking

If you could go to any country tomorrow: China, I’ve been fascinated by all things Chinese since my dad was there for a while and brought many souvenirs back when I was a child

Mira Calyx’s brand new album ‘Eyes Set Against The Sun’ is out soon on Warp. Alexander’s Annexe’s ‘Push to Door’ is out now through Warp. Both releases are distributed locally by Inertia.