Over the years Warp-signed electronic artist Mira Calix has gradually expanded from her home studio to explore new genres and artistic platforms. She has worked with the London Sinfonietta, Streetwise Opera, Royal Shakespeare Company, underscored films and created sound-led art installations for festivals and venues from Sonar to Transmediale.
Since her last solo album for Warp, Eyes Set Against the Sun (2007), Mira has become hooked on creating ambitious pieces of public art in strange locations. She is now best known for her work on the boundary between visual art and sound, provoking audiences to share her controlled experiences.
On the surface, it may seem that Mira has left the popular music circus behind for something altogether more elite, but she says she’s determined to share real stories with real people and has a proven knack for elevating the ordinary.
We caught up with her after the PRS for Music Women in Music event to get her take on the gender imbalance within the music industry and hear how she’s learned to bring out the best in classical musicians and visual artists.
You are interested in music archiving and modern history. Do you think there is a lack of women in the story of modern music?
Yes, definitely. I watched a series of BBC programmes to do with Alex Ross’ book The Rest Is Noise and it was great but it really struck me that there weren’t any women composers in the whole five hour series! There were a few women commentators but it felt as though someone had made an effort to squeeze a few into the documentary, which is great, but it seemed slightly bizarre that they couldn’t find any female composers of interest and worth to discuss.
I’m quite aware of the rewriting of history and how history is told. Obviously I didn’t live through that period, so when I look at early 20th century culture I’m lead to believe there were no female artists or composers of any worth. I don’t think that’s the case and I’m aware that the same thing will be done for this period. If there’s a documentary about nineties dance music, won’t they be able to find any notable women to mention? Or what about Britpop, or any genre you could pick? With 20th century art will we just be left with Tracy Emin?
Who does a young girl look to when she’s studying art or music? Or when she goes out into the world and looks around her? Potential role models are not documented so, as far as we are all concerned, they do not exist and never made a contribution.
Why do women drop out of modern musical history?
It’s a combination of things. It’s never one person’s fault, it’s the society we live in. We have to remember that women have only had the vote for just less than 100 years. Lives used to be very different and women didn’t go out to work. But there were writers and composers – they just didn’t get much attention or acclaim at that time. So there was an issue at the time but also we are a bit lazy when we look back and just pick up on the big hitters.
We need to keep ourselves in check so that when we are assessing music now we are sure to include all those female composers and musicians of note. Writing history is a collective experience.
What can be done to readdress this?
It’s important to make sure women are visible at their moment in time, and also document that so that their voice does perpetuate and resonate.
You work across art forms and musical genres. In what areas do you find this issue most problematic?
I don’t actually find it problematic in one particular area – it’s societal. Even the concept of equality is very new. It’s 100 years old in certain parts of the first world. So the issue is no worse in music, or science or literature. For me, I just get on with my work and can’t really evaluate myself in any other way other than a composer. I can’t assess how much I’m being judged as a woman. But on a societal level I can see it for what it is. I can see the magazines when I walk into a supermarket, I know what’s on the front covers, I know how women are portrayed in the media and how they are treated in society.
You started out as an electronica artist; was it natural for you to move into cross-arts collaboration and classical composition?
It was totally natural and organic. I’ve always been interested in visual arts – video, operatic platforms, installation pieces. To me it’s all art. I never really saw their boundaries as barriers.
So you like to create experiences?
I like to tell stories. I change the tools I use, but I’m still always telling stories. At first it was just with electronic instruments because I’m not a trained musician. That gave me the opportunity to create sound and make music and tell stories. I incorporated strings because I really like real strings and I’m not so keen on sampled strings. From there I started to bring in visual elements. If I have something to say then it’s a case of finding the best way of saying it. I’m not afraid of failing or looking stupid – I’d rather just do it.
So you learn along the way?
Yes. I like being scared. I don’t mind that not everything is known when you start a project. I don’t mind that it might fuck up. The fact that it might fuck up makes it really interesting because it means I work much harder and learn much more.
Do you ever find it intimidating to enter the classical music world?
The first time I worked with classical players was with the London Sinfonietta. The principles were going to help with the transcription and scoring of a piece because I couldn’t read or write music. I realised within 10 minutes that it was all music and there were so many other words and ways to discuss what I wanted and what they thought, so the rules were not important.
Classical musicians have this image of being snooty and you expect them to look down on you because you are a bumpkin who just knows about electronics and you don’t know what a stave is! But I found the opposite. People who are really passionate about their field – whatever it is – want to share it with you. You find a common language and that’s when it’s exciting and interesting.
Do you think this is a new openness?
Well, the rules in classical music haven’t always been there. They are really modern. Opera was originally for the masses. People used to go along and talk, eat, throw things. Now we know we are all supposed to behave but we’re not sure how. That is a modern convention. I say balls to the rules! I’ve found a lot of people who are really open and interested. Within five minutes of meeting the Sinfonietta principles, the slight bit of scared I felt vanished.
Do you feel an affinity with one particular genre or medium these days?
I’m incredibly particular and fussy about my work but I go through phases with things. Over the last few years I’ve been very interested in the physical manifestation of sound and creating entire environments to give people an experience I have controlled. It’s control freakery! Of course, people are people and will experience things differently, but how do you share a story or a piece of music? I’m interested in the delivery of my work to the point where I am now creating the delivery system. A tunnel, or a room… I think people love weird and wonderful things. People like things they don’t necessarily understand. People like proper weird stuff, it just depends how you give it to them.
How do you know when something is finished?
Normally there is a deadline. You have to accept that something is the best it can possibly be at that moment. But you do everything in your power to control that!
Would you ever go back to making albums or doesn’t that excite you any more?
It does in some ways but I haven’t put one out in such a long time. I have one waiting to be finished with Malcolm Middleton. We got together after the BBC asked me to pick someone I would like to work with for some sessions they were doing. We probably seem like we wouldn’t have much in common, but we got on really well and musically we do something really interesting. We’ve been slowly sending things back and forth.
Is there a woman in music who has really inspired you?
Yes, there are quite a lot. Kaija Saariaho is an amazing composer who’s in her eighties now. I absolutely love her music. I am a big Beyonce fan, not all her music but particularly Destiny’s Child. I also like people like Grace Jones, people who are on the outside. At the moment I am really keen on Laura Mvula too. I like the way she represents herself and I like her music. She doesn’t fit into a box. She’s being sold as pop music but it’s not really. I love the fact that it’s been sold and accepted as pop but she’s definitely doing it on her own terms. I love Merrill Garbus (aka TuneYards). They are all doing something super-interesting and they are doing it really well.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a film soundtrack. The film is set in Jordan within a Bedouin camp around the time of Lawrence of Arabia. A strong part of Bedouin culture is song but there’s not a lot of archive material because it’s folk music and it’s passed down. It’s very important to the director to incorporate this music. I didn’t want to write over the Bedouins so I’m finding things that link it all together to make it work in the context of the narrative. But I’m also keen to give an archival platform to that music too.