She has appeared on stage with classical musicians and live insects and composed the soundtrack to an opera performed by puppets, so when you hear that Mira Calix is now involved with rock music you know it’s going to be a bit different.
I am in the cavernous workshop of a set design company near Waterloo, getting the first look at Calix’s almost finished project for the London 2012 Festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad. Four metres high and almost three across at its widest point, it’s a round sculpture of lined, uneven stones that will stand on the top of a hill at Fairlop Waters in north-east London. It will appear tiny as you enter the park but as you get up close you’ll find that it makes sounds — burning, trickling, rubbing sounds, and the angelic voices of the women of the University of Johannesburg Choir.
Calix, 37, whose real name is Chantal Passamonte, tells me about the project in South African tones diluted by 20 years spent living in England. She’s a small, livewire presence, big smiles and big hand gestures, who discusses her work in a far less pretentious manner than you might expect from someone who counts the RSC, Opera North, the Aldeburgh Festival and experimental dance label Warp Records among her collaborators.
“You’ll laugh when I tell you the pitch,” she says. She had to impress a number of different organisations to get this thing made, including Oxford Contemporary Music, the Natural History Museum, the Mayor of London and Redbridge council. “I basically said: ‘I want to make a Kinder egg out of stones, and the surprise is music!’”
Of course, her concept is more serious than that, though the one-line description does do a neat job of capturing the wonder of the piece, called Nothing Is Set in Stone. “I partly explained it to people by saying, ‘This is what music looks like’,” she says. “The whole thing is a song but you can look at it and touch it and stand under it. I was trying to remind people that music is not just zeros and ones that I email to you. It’s something that you can physically feel, and I’ve made a holder for it.”
The choir sings lyrics Calix has written about time and change, while the other noises are inspired by classical elements. It will sound like there is water trickling down it or a river running through it; birdsong will represent the air around us; for earth, the stones will sound as if they are shifting and rubbing together; at times it will sound as if it is on fire.
Everything was recorded over a two-week period in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site north of Johannesburg, so in Fairlop Waters’ manicured parkland you’ll be able to listen to the very roots of the earth.
When I see it under construction, it is not yet in a position to make these sounds. Great coils of black wire spill from its open belly, and multiple amplifiers balance on the edge. It is amazing to see the amount of high-tech kit crammed inside something that looks as if it could have been crafted by druids thousands of years ago.
Motion sensors mean it will only activate when approached, and certain movements will alter the sounds. “It’s like the proverbial tree in the forest — it only makes a sound if there’s someone there to hear it.”
You will also hear different things if you stand three feet away from it or put your ear right up to certain points — Calix is using two different speaker systems to create what she calls “halo” and “pinhole” effects.
Can I touch it? “Hell yeah!”
Those stones do look very touchable, all different greys and browns with thin white lines curving across them. She picked them partly for their name, which is officially gneiss (pronounced “nice”) and colloquially angel stone, and had them imported from Turkey. “I originally wanted white stones to make something very pure, but I fell in love with these because you don’t have to know anything about minerology to look at them and see movement. You can see what the earth has done to them. You can see that time has passed on these things. Every one is unique.”
Such a monolith is a new direction for an art school-trained electronic musician who is used to performing on stage. She supported Radiohead on their Kid A tour a decade ago and has released three albums of computerised sounds. But nature has always been in her work, which has often featured field recordings manipulated on a laptop. Her 2003 piece, Nunu, incorporated the sounds of butterflies’ wings, larvae hatching, wasps and flies, and was performed with the London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall.
She lives in the countryside near Aldeburgh, Suffolk, a noted outpost for modern classical music. “I’ve always used natural sound. I can go out into my garden and record some twigs and leaves and make an entire percussion section.”
Ideally, the sounds of the woodland around her creation will also start to form part of the piece. “To me that’s brilliant, the idea that you’re not sure whether a sound is coming from the trees or the sculpture. Music obviously means a lot to us as a species, yet we seem to have fooled ourselves into thinking it’s not that important. It’s now so ubiquitous that you can zone out from it. That should make people listen more.”
Listen, and look, and feel. There will possibly be some who seek brief respite from the Olympic melee this summer. This calm focal point at the other end of the line will provide exactly the stillness they need.
Nothing Is Set in Stone (nothingissetinstone.info) will be at Fairlop Waters in Barkingside from June 21 to Sept 9. Mira Calix performs live on June 22 at the Science Museum and appears on a panel to discuss her new work on June 23 at the V&A, SW7 (information for both events on 0870 870 4868, exhibitionroad.com/supersonix).