AArtists whose careers began in electronic music are often portrayed – sometimes deliberately – as aloof and detached characters. Mira Calix, the artistic nickname of Chantal Passamonte, who died this weekend at the age of 51, was quite the opposite. She was as warm, generous and human as her art, which spanned sound installations – some seen by hundreds of thousands – soundtracks, scores and sculptures, as well as studio albums and numerous collaborations.
Born in Durban, South Africa in 1970, Calix moved to the UK in 1991, becoming a central figure on the then fledgling Sheffield electronic label, Warp Records. She co-compiled two of her first seminal compilations (Blech in 1995 and Blechsdöttir in 1996 – the latter named by Calix in honor of one of her heroines, Björk) before becoming a DJ, then a fascinating experimental composer.
Calix’s first major work was an orchestral version of NuNu from 2002, which she premiered with the London Sinfonietta a year later, before touring internationally. It was a tank of amplified insects, chirping around electronics and shuddering orchestral strings. Projected around the auditoriums in surround sound, the effect was both mesmerizingly beautiful and eerily nostalgic.
After that, more orders – many of them winning prizes – came in droves and fast. In 2008, she directed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 for Opera North; she would later write emotional scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, showing her ease as a writer for brass and electronic ensemble, as well as string quartet and soprano.
Calix particularly enjoyed working on projects that could appeal to the general public. Her 2009 sound installation with United Visual Artists, Chorus, encouraged her in this regard: an extraordinary installation of swinging pendulums, emitting light and the sound of singing voices, strings and wood, one of the most most haunting of its kind I have ever seen. seen.
One of the most magical moments she “ever had as a musician”, she told me in 2012, was when she installed Chorus in Durham Cathedral three years earlier. An elderly man and a very frail woman were sitting there, quite by chance, then walked up to her, asked her if she had succeeded, and the man began to cry. The woman – 90 – said it was the most incredible thing she had experienced in her entire life. “So we were all crying!” Callix said.
This experience made her think about how public art is often labeled as inaccessible, she told me – what I discovered was her always open and accessible way – while the public art is often anything but. “What was amazing to me was that the whole room was completely abstract, but it made them feel something. They didn’t say, it’s too weird. This very old woman didn’t think of technology…it wasn’t an obstacle for her at all. It cemented that in me: that people love fantasy…people also love fairy tales. And they love abstractions. Art is not not just for assholes. People can handle it.”
The idea of people being involved in works of art also inspired Calix. In 2012, she created Nothing Is Set in Stone for the Cultural Olympiad: a huge singing egg in Fairlop Waters, a park on the northeast outskirts of London, made of stones that obscured 22 loudspeakers inside. They responded to the proximity of people.
She chose the site in part because she knew there had been no public art before. “I like people finding out about something without any expectation. They don’t care who did it, they didn’t go and buy a ticket, so it’s not about being reverent…something [has been brought] in their afternoon that they had not planned, and I hope [it captures] them, making them feel something. I find that really motivating. »
Calix also hated that music was presented as something only certain people could experience and understand. “What I want to do more than anything is remove the barrier that says, ‘I don’t understand’.”
His projects remain inventive and international. For the 2015 Sydney Festival installation Inside There Falls, she hid loudspeakers in hand-crushed paper, as well as costumes of dancers, encouraging attendees to wear paper costumes and immerse themselves in mobile sound installations. A year later, she created the very first public artwork in Nanjing, China: Moving Museum 35, a multimedia sound artwork on a commuter bus.
His 2018 work for Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers, attracted his biggest audience yet: 300,000 people over seven days. Set to music from a sonnet by early 20th century poet and war nurse Mary Borden, she worked with the singing collective Solomon’s Knot and musician Laura Cannell to create her incredible sound installation at the Tower of London, as its moat floated with candles marking the centenary. of armistice day.
Calix was also a bold political activist. She has consistently championed women in music, including in her work with the Ivors Academy; she was also the driving force behind the 2019 campaign that journalist Luke Turner and I worked on to save BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction show, working full throttle to rally her many friends and collaborators from her career to the cause . More recently, she has worked hard to expose the effects of Brexit and the horrors that have happened in Ukraine, including on social networks; her 2021 album, Absent Origin, was full of ideas that highlighted her feminism and internationalism.
It was also a hopeful record, a fascinating reassembly and reimagining of his work over the past decade. “After periods when many things break down,” she wrote in her liner notes, “new things must be done.” It’s devastating to think of this album as his final statement, but his message is something to remember, take out into the world, and encourage people to hear. We should do the same with the music that Calix left us, so full of life and love.