Mira Calix, the South African-born composer, is an intriguing character, a free-spirit who travels across musical boundaries creating unique soundworlds, these days increasingly combining her trademark electronic music with a classical vibe. We saw she was coming to the Barbican recently so hot-footed it down for a chat, with our trusty camera in tow. Journalist Emma Bharj interviewed her. Meanwhile, below, Philip Clark tells her story and traces the fascinating history of electronic music.
Laptops, digital recorders, mixing desks, wires everywhere – watch our interview with the Durban-born, UK-based electronic composer Mira Calix and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally clicked on a website that has nothing to do with classical music.
But Calix is representative of a mint fresh future for modern composition. She belongs to a generation of composers as comfortable generating work from pure electronic sine waves, or sound sources collected on the move, as she is with the apparatus of classical music.
The work she discusses in our film, was pieced together from sounds Calix recorded on a plane journey, mixed into an instrumental commentary scored for classical players.
A departure too far perhaps from that hard to define alliance between inspiration and perspiration that makes classical music what it is? Not at all. As Calix says, it’s her aim to create “beautiful and great music” and the techniques she deploys are “simply the best technique for what I’m trying to realise”. Sentiments probably shared by all great composers from Bach to Birtwistle.
And Calix is, as it happens, plugged into a long, noble history of influences passing between classical composers and electronic artists. Ever since Edgard Varèse embedded electronic tape inside his 1954 orchestral piece Deserts, the interchange of ideas has been fast, furious, purposeful. Pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage built a new grammar for music via electronics; sounds circling around your head, collaged together, bass rumble and high-register screech far beyond the capacity of acoustic instruments. Wendy Carlos (Switched on Bach), and later William Orbit (Pieces in a Modern Style), refracted familiar baroque/classical melodic patterns through plugged-in technologies.
Mira Calix is signed to Warp Records, the Sheffield-based label famous for releasing electronic music no matter what an artist’s background: rock, pop or classical. But she’s also worked with Opera North, has been performed at the Aldeburgh Festival and, in 2009, won a British Composer Award. An artist who redefines what it is to be a composer; what ‘classical’ composition means circa 2012.
Philip Clark contributes to Gramophone and The Wire and is currently writing a book about Dave Brubeck.
Want to hear more?
- Visit Mira’s London 2012 Sound Sculpture from 21st June until 9th September nothingissetinstone.info. A musical composition set in a standing stone sculpture at Fairlop Waters. Watch the BBC news report on the piece on their website.
- Listen to the Mira Calix playlist below