Chopping, slicing, cutting and pasting – in both the digital and the analogue worlds – Mira Calix immersed herself in the history of collage for her album, ‘Absent Origin’

Since the release of Mira Calix’s debut album, ‘One On One’, on Warp in 2000, the London-based producer’s practice has grown to encompass writing for classical music, theatre and film, as well as sound installations and multidisciplinary performance work. The South African-born artist often treats sound as sculptural material, on her new LP, ‘Absent Origin’, Calix has picked up her scissors and glue, both literally and metaphorically, creating a sonic paste-up that uses collage to make sense of the fragmented state of the world.

‘Absent Origin’ began with her research into the various processes applied by collage artists throughout history. Each of the 17 tracks is influenced by the methodology of visual artists, including widely-recognisable names like Matisse, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Lee Krasner and Robert Rauschenberg.

Artists have long used collage as a mark of resistance. The history of the medium is intertwined with social unrest and disjunction, from early 20th century Dadaists like Hannah Höch – who made biting photomontages that critiqued popular culture, the failing Weimar Republic and socially constructed gender roles – to the punk feminists of the 1970s such as Linder Sterling, whose artwork adorned the 1977 single release of ‘Orgasm Addict’ by Buzzcocks.

A Mark Of Resistance’ just happens to be the name of the opening track on ’Absent Origin’. An energetic collection of beats, chants and field recordings from Calix’s own archive has been processed, layered and synthesised into a melodic and powerful audio collage, with the pioneering American artist Hannah Wilke being both the inspiration for the opening track and a catalyst for the album as a whole.

“Hannah Wilke is one of those people who I wouldn’t have thought of as a collagist,” explains Calix. “She’s known as the artist who sticks chewing gum on her body. My research made me re-evaluate her work and think about it completely differently. I’d already decided on collaging my own archives. In 2018, I was working on a sound installation project looking at the First World War called ‘Beyond The Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers’ at the Tower of London. It was then I had the idea of making a musical collage.

“What changed last year was how I viewed it. I started to really focus on artists so, weirdly, it comes back to Hannah Wilke again. At that point, I was looking at the body to make sound. On ‘A Mark Of Resistance’, the first track on the album and the first one I wrote, the rhythms are from my body and all the other bits on it are collected from the world and from my own archive. So Hannah was the one, I think, who made me realise I wanted to take that approach.” 

Each sonic patchwork making up ‘Absent Origin’ is deeply connected to these artists and how they work. Talking to Calix, it’s clear she’s passionate about their output and also, by inhabiting their ways of working, that she felt attuned to their personalities and histories. Was it like playing a cast of different characters?

“Completely!” she agrees. “Ultimately, it’s an abstracted version. It was my interpretation of their methodologies. Audio collage has its own history and trajectory, but I was definitely coming from a visual perspective. It was a world without parameters and I was really trying to set myself some. The ones I gave myself were kind of random. If you listen to the album, you don’t necessarily even need to know about collage. But it does influence me and it gave me a good foundation for how to tackle each track.”

Most of the best-known collage artists of the last century were making analogue works with paper and printed images, but for contemporary artists working in the digital realm it’s a different landscape, where we are bombarded with images on screens all day long. Does Calix’s quest for parameters reflect disillusionment with our media-saturated present?

“If you’re doing analogue collage, then your resources are limited to whatever is in the shoebox!” replies Calix. “I was using shoeboxes to store clippings. I was cutting things out, collecting them and leaving them in lots of different boxes. 

“I think I took this approach because at the core of it was my archival material. In a way, I was working more like the people I referenced who were all analogue collagists. That’s the interesting thing about working like this – we tend to look at the outcome, but it’s also so much about the collection, the source material.

“I’d say, as a general rule, that limitations make you try harder to make sense of things. I’m used to someone giving me directions, such as, ‘It has to work with a string quartet’, so I think I was seeking limitations out.”

For many people, collage will be a vaguely remembered arts and crafts activity from school days, but there is currently a wave of new generation artists adopting it as their medium of choice, with a proliferation of Instagram accounts dedicated to both analogue and digital works. As well as creating an online community of collagists, there’s something to be said for the mindful state that the simple act of cutting and pasting allows.

“It is almost like a meditation,” declares Calix. “It’s like puzzle-solving, looking for the perfect thing to go next to another thing. I experienced it making the actual collages that ended up on the record sleeve. I was making lots of them with scissors and glue to help me clarify an idea before I wrote a track. I had thousands of magazines all over the floor in the studio. It looked like a bomb site. I’d periodically clean them up, but I’d have to walk over them to go and make music.”

Calix sees obvious links between collage and making music. Both require skill in editing and composition – as though making a pre-emptive sketch before writing a fully fleshed track.

“Making music has always got that element. To me, it’s like dreaming and making something new. But the two things were never separate. The reason it says all this stuff in the press release – god bless Warp – is because the two things were so linked. I couldn’t really separate them or talk about this album in any other terms. Even on the physical records, the names of the artists are in grey under the track title. The file names were always the artists’ names.”

The source material Calix has so radically reassembled on ‘Absent Origin’ is drawn from her own collection of recording sessions from all over the world – from India to Tasmania, Jordan to Belgium, China to Uganda, her former home of South Africa and her current home in the UK.

Sliced into these are further recordings of vocalists, percussionists, choirs, orchestras, quartets and soloists. There are voices of people and protests, which Calix collected via news videos on Twitter. It’s a polyphonic collection of diverse and predominantly female voices, with sounds found, created and, in some cases, even salvaged from the cutting-room floor.

“With a lot of the recordings, there was so much material, but I quite often used the offcuts,” she explains. “A section from before we recorded the actual piece might end up on these tracks – lots of little bits of detritus from here and there. They’re pretty chopped-up – although sometimes a phrase is very clear, like on ‘Nkosezane – For My Daddy’, which was inspired by the artist Deborah Roberts. But then there was the nightmare of having to actually find it! I went through a lot of old hard drives.”

There’s sometimes that serendipitous thing where a fragment or an offcut magically pulls the whole work together, isn’t there?

“It’s like the rug in ‘The Big Lebowski’,” she laughs. “You know, ‘It really ties the room together’. But you’re right, you’ll be hunting for something and it’s the little scrap that makes you know it’s finished. There were new discoveries for me and I think that was part of the fun. Also, if it did take a different path, I went with it. I didn’t get hung up on the rigidity of thinking, ‘I really want to use this recording from Edinburgh, but I can’t find it’.”

There’s that Zen-like mindfulness again, as though the act of making a collage encourages us to just go with the flow. Digging deeper, does Calix think the cut-and-reassemble process promotes a positive mentality in that nothing goes to waste?

“Repurposing and recycling things is at the heart of it,” she says. “But there’s also the idea of ‘Absent Origin’, the decontextualisation that makes something seem completely different because you’ve removed part of the source. And in analogue collage, that’s a big sacrifice sometimes, because the source is destroyed. When I’m working digitally, say if I’m using Photoshop, I’m not spoiling anything in the process. But when you cut up a magazine or a book, you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, because you’re about to destroy the thing you’re making it from. And it sometimes hurts a little bit!”

Taking scissors to something might feel painful but it can also function as an act of rebellion.

“You’re literally chopping shit up, so there has to be some element of rough and readiness,” declares Calix.

Collage often conveys meaning through appropriation and subversion with a satirical streak that underscores the political subtext – think Terry Gilliam’s surreal ‘Monty Python’ animations.

“I am very interested in politics,” nods Calix. “In 2016 the world certainly took a very different turn, with the rise of populism, nationalism and closing borders – all of which mirrored the movements towards the First World War a century ago. That does run throughout the album. There are also things from real-time, like in ‘A Mark Of Resistance’, the line from Kamala Harris’ acceptance speech as Vice President saying, ‘I may be the first, but I won’t be the last’. So I’m also capturing something hot-off-the-press, so to speak.”

There’s an undeniable current of frustration running through the album, a sense of pent-up energy and protest. Is Calix angry with the state of the world?

“A lot of things get on my nerves,” she laughs. “I am kind of saying, ‘What the fuck?’. But some of it is beautiful too. With some of the old sounds, it was encouraging to look back. Like the line from the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Power’ about Marie Curie, ‘Her wounds came from the same source as her power’. I was looking at things from the 1960s and 70s running in parallel with now. She was writing text that could have been written today, so there’s definitely some fusion happening with time when I am referencing things.

“‘Transport Me’, which is the track inspired by Paolozzi, features a poem by Edith Sitwell. I actually use the whole poem. Nowhere else do I use the whole of something, but it’s so fucking amazing. From 1955! It’s a utopian dream for today. I wanted people to hear it or read it. It touched me very much.”

The diversity of voices woven through ‘Absent Origin’ inject the album with a feeling of people power. As well as being primarily female, there are voices and sounds from across the world, particularly from the Global South.

“It seemed important in the wider context of this album. So much of the music had been made on different continents, and I wanted to use those elements. And it was also a reflection of, or an antidote to, this attitude in the UK of, ‘Let’s all shut up shop’, which I’m very against. I’m an open-borders person. I’ve had the privilege of being in different places and working with different musical traditions.

“In a way, it’s a bit like Rauschenberg’s Overseas Culture Interchange. It was idealistic, and he got a lot of shit for it! But I think his intention was pure – he was trying to connect people.”

With ‘Absent Origin’, it seems Mira Calix has similar aims – to bring people together, to collect sounds and voices from around the world and, in doing so, to dream about a collective future. With a bristling electronic soundtrack to match.

‘Absent Origin’ is out on Warp

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