The music of the ephemera: A look into the audio ecology of Mira Calix
Listening through her catalogue of CDs, I am struck by the way Durban-born, Suffolk-based, Chantal Passamonte AKA Mira Calix's work is so South African, even though she left our shores long before first putting mouse to pad and starting her musical career.
Her work doesn't resonate with the cold, grey England where it was produced, but rather with the expression of thick Durban heat, the sounds of insects worshipping the sun and the powerful collision of city and nature.
It was, however, in England where this music was made, where Passamonte moved after leaving Durban. Her formative English years were spent in the burgeoning ambient-techno scene of the 1990s. These events, such as the now legendary 'Telepathic Fish' parties, chiselled out a niche for her to experiment and explore her musical interests and eventual musical creations.
Hers is a story that today's younger electro musicians recite in awe: after working for the Warp label in a research capacity, she was invited to release an album and let the label work for her. A succession of critically acclaimed EPs and albums followed.
Her latest and most noteworthy work is Nunu. This piece is a brave step into a sound field devoid of the beats and melodies that make up most of contemporary electronica today. Nunu hatched out of a commission from Geneva's Museum d'Histoire Naturelle. Passamonte was asked to compose a piece of music using the museum's vast collection of insect recordings.
This was taken further when, for the 2003 Ether festival's 'Warp Works & 20th Century Masters', the piece was interpreted and remade with members of the London Sinfonietta and then performed by her with the entire Sinfonietta and Sound Intermedia. The result was a crackling whisper of violin and cello crawling over the eldritch sounds of a chamber-sized orchestra, all bowing, plucking and blowing in response to the snap-crackle-pop of the insects. This was augmented by the live results of Passamonte's laptop number crunching. The overall experience was intense, invigorating and otherworldly.
There is a delicacy in this piece that is part fear and part whimsy. A constant expectancy fills the work. It is always becoming, growing and arriving. It feels like an unfolding nighttime drama played out by the winged inhabitants of a swampy forest. This can make for a threatening and thrilling experience.
To complement the live show, insects were placed in glass boxes onstage with small microphones and cameras to catch them going about their business. The live footage of the insects was projected onto 3-metre high screens above the hopefully not-too-squeamish musicians. Halfway through the piece some of the insects actually started munching away at each other. Talk about reality TV! All of this in London's historic and oh-so-civilised Royal Festival Hall.
Nunustands out from Calix's previous work in its openness, conceptual clarity and lack of overriding electronic colouring. Nunu's larvae can be traced back to Passamonte's earlier set of albums. These, less brittle and more 'musical' in a conventional melodic sense, work as fictional and sensory memories of home in that they contain an immersive quality that reminds one of a typically hot east coast day.
The beats, bent out of sampled materials, throb as if they were a bodily reaction to this heat. In fact, Passamonte's use of materials is very interesting. In sampling the aural qualities of wood and stone, she ties her music to the earth. This adds a strong organic quality to the soundscape and helps create a sonic signature that stands apart from the harsher, more digital-sounding artists working alongside her on Warp.
More conventionally, piano is used in sparse motifs that invoke both childhood and the hot, open expanses of the country of her birth. Voice is also employed, sometimes lost in a distance of reverb, and at other times so close and intimate it feels like it is whispered in your ear. Here, sound is tied to memory. Far-flung feelings and forgotten recollections can be triggered by sound's ethereal power, seeping into our subconscious and awakening sleeping fantasies.
Much of Passamonte's work contains an imaginary landscape in which the listener feels strangely familiar. In this familiarity lies the work's power as it doesn't prescribe the said landscape, but rather works itself into the listener's own past experiences, colouring them with a startling abstract and evocative presence.
Coming back home to close this all-too-short investigation into Passamonte's music, I believe her best work is too humid and close for it to have been made dreaming of the Northern hemisphere. Its character is essentially primal and present. Exactly how you would imagine the feeling of a Durban heat wave would sound.
On September 6 Mira Calix releases '3 Commissions'. A mini album running at 36 minutes, the record features pieces specifically commissioned from her by Geneva's Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, London's Royal Festival Hall and The Barbican, and includes two contrasting versions of Nunu, her groundbreaking interplay between human and insect worlds.
Mira Calix's ' 3 commissions' album launch party
Hayward Gallery, London
6.30 - 11pm, Friday August 20
Guest editor of ArtThrob's Sound Issue, James Webb is an artist, lecturer and writer. He is featured in this month's Art Bio.