Tag Archives: Mira Calix

Metropolis: Mira Calix, Looking for Cowslips

MIra Calix
Mira Calix, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Mira Calix
Looking for Cowslips
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 April

Occupying the 6pm slot before Thomas Adès’ Shadows, there was a welcome informality to Mira Calix’s juxtaposition of her own chamber works with those of four other contemporary British composers. No projections, choirs or crickets: Instead, Calix gathered an intimate council of composers, performers and listeners to consider their relationship to nature with the help of poetry from the nineteenth century and today.

“This is me,” begins the electroacoustic track of “looking for cowslips,” Calix’s work for soprano, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and electronics based on Alice Oswald’s poem. The phrase proliferates in the space before being captured like a thought by soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. In such a simple gesture the multiple identities of nature are realised in a single human being.  The moment of self-awakening does not last long as the air is quickly disturbed by a tremolo on cello (Zoe Knighton) and Betts-Dean frantically calls “no, no, no, no.” Throughout the piece the harmonics, trills and pizzicati of the cello provide an internal, affective countermelody to the soprano’s narrative. Bird and insect calls form an external environment to which the soprano responds, while echoes and transformations of the soprano line reflect the permeability of the natural and human worlds.

Calix and Larry Goves reverse their usual compositional roles in their collaboration “eyepoe.” Calix takes control of the instrumental parts, while Goves is entrusted with the electronics. The piece contrasts melodic string and clarinet parts with short, prerecorded, haiku-like passages for what sounds like harp and steel-string guitar. As the piece progresses the instrumental parts become darker and the electroacoustic track more suffused with a wind-like roar, dissolving the musical into the ambience of natural sound.

The collaborative descent of “eyepoe” prepared the audience for Tansy Davies’ stark vocal setting of lines from the nineteeth-century nature poet John Clare’s autobiography. The soprano evokes cornfields and forests “troubled” by the “destroying beauty” of weeds through Davies’ hypnotic, falling chromatic lines.

The ensemble achieved a perfect balance between electroacoustic and instrumental sound in the intimate acoustic of the Salon. The result was a highly affective performance that drew the audience into the composers’ worlds of cowslips, cornbottles and sunflowers. In withdrawing her book Memorial from the T. S. Eliot prize in 2011 because of the prize’s questionable sponsors, Oswald described poetry as “the great unsettler.” Calix and company’s music provides unsettling settings of unsettling poetry, placing humanity’s relationship to nature on the salon table.

Metropolis: Mira Calix, Fables and Other Works

Mira Calix, photo by Jana Chiellino
Mira Calix, photo by Jana Chiellino

At E21’s recent concert at St. Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne the choir had just begun their third thrilling medieval processional chant when, as the sun set and the church cooled, several voices of polyphony were introduced by a group of stray crickets. Insects are usually unwelcome performers in Australia, but composer and sound artist Mira Calix brings them centre-stage in her entomology-inspired composition, “nunu.”

Like a parenthesis to the crowd taking their seats, a quiet chirping can be heard to stage left of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The marginal sound reminds the audience of the omnipresence of insect life (as though they need reminding). Calix enters and removes a cloth covering the sound-source, an aquarium of crickets, whereupon the bass-clarinet quintet begins imitating insect noises on the backs of their violins, through flortando trills and squeaky-high tones.

Projections of insects confined to shadowy jars fill the back wall of the stage. In the colour-saturated images an apple covered in cockroaches becomes a blood-red heart and leaves glow fluorescent green. As the camera pans across the jars the beetles, crickets and slaters are enlarged to enormous proportions. Their movements take on an almost human weight and gravity. The struggling of a cockroach on its back becomes that of an old man getting out of bed, the searching mouth of a grasshopper the very picture of hunger.

With sounds captured from the ensemble and the calls of other animals including frogs and cicadas, the sonic menagerie builds to a crescendo and fades, revealing the layered, irregular instrumental ostinati so characteristic of Calix’s music. In its spacious arrangement of diatonic triads, fourths and ninths Calix’s music resembles the “sacred minimalism” of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The chromaticism-tinged solo lines emerging from the ensemble recall the Brodsky Quartet’s collaborations with Björk in 1999 and 2000. The playful naturalism of her works conjures Meredith Monk’s compositions of the 1990s. Within such a minimalist stylistic frame the musique concrète of insect calls provides welcome timbral complexity and stereophonic interest.

The more complex electroacoustic element of Calix’s music was further developed in her Made of Music commission. I previously wrote about the Made of Music Project and Matthew Herbert’s Made of Music commission One Room. The Melbourne Recital Centre gives composers data extracted from the width, colour and texture of a piece of the hoop pine from which the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is made. The composers may then sonify this data as they see fit. In Calix’s piece “he fell among roses” the hoop pine was interpreted as MIDI data that determined an electronic track. The piece opens with a rising gong sound like an enormous bubble rising out of water, with gibbering vocal fragments running off on all sides. Resembling recent work by British composer Natasha Barrett in its timbre and movement, the track would have benefited from some sort of ambisonic diffusion, perhaps even performance in the Salon rather than in the Hall. The electronics rode above an ensemble of string quartet, clarinet and piano that drove through a series of rhythmically charged scenes until the track faded to a pulsing bass, as though we were standing outside the hall while the concert continued within.

The “ento-” in “entomology,” like the word “insect,” refers to something cut into pieces or segmented. In this sense we might consider music a sort of insect and talking about music a sort of entomology. A single piece of music is also made of smaller pieces separated either in time, as in the verse and chorus of a song, or in “vertical” musical space, such as the simultaneous human and insect voices in E21’s concert. Like the thorax, abdomen and legs of an insect, the different parts of a musical composition have to work together to form a whole that “works” for the listener (or a non-working fragment, if you like). Unlike many contemporary compositions, Calix’s music is about “working.” Most pieces contrast episodes of layered irregular rhythms—like the simultaneous movement of the irregular segments of an insect’s legs—and satisfying chords in rhythmic unison. Most pieces build to a strong finish, complementing their more ambient beginnings.

Mira Calix performs her second and last concert at the Metropolis New Music Festival tonight, Saturday 20 April, at 6pm.