Check into any of the albums electronic artist, composer, and collaborator Chantal Passamonte has released under the moniker Mira Calix, and the giddy playfulness of her work becomes apparent. There’s something delightfully unsettling about much of it. Depending on the track, you might get glimpses of Chicago footwork jitters, Laurel Halo’s Dust-era attention deficit, or odd cut-up collages reminiscent of Christian Marclay. Not that her work sounds all that much like any of these folks’ art. Her pallet is much too wide for that. She’s also put Shakespeare sonnets to music with Gavin Bryars and performed work inspired by 17th-century choral music with the 100-piece Streetwise Opera at the Royal Festival Hall in London. She’s imitated insects with the London Sinfonietta and set poet Alice Oswald’s words to music.
Yet, her solo recordings, released over the last two decades on Warp, are where her most experimental tendencies soar. Absent Origin takes the concepts of Dada and re-arrangement from the likes of visual artists such as Duchamp or designer and architect Eileen Gray for a series of tracks that are impossible to pin down. Snagging snippets from older tracks in her “vault”, bits of collaborations, and found sounds, the record is full of moments of lucidity hi-jacked by bodiless voices, strange strings, and whiplash-inducing shifts. In other words, it’s an insanely fun listen.
The opening track “A Mark of Resistance” finds its way from quiet clicks and unearthly, operatic moans into something like a dance track, with what sounds like voices of protest and a recitation of an Adrienne Rich poem used as a foundation for a pulse that coalesces as it builds. “Bower of Bliss” places a bass riff underneath a hovering voice, a distorted keyboard line, and a sound that could be a pig snorting or a saw but is likely to be neither, as repeated pornographic moans, looped strings, and beats take over. It’s as if Calix has assembled a sonic box, letting the song out one sound at a time over the track’s three and half minutes.
“Nkosezane – For My Daddy” pits a stumbling four-beat drum pattern behind several voices, some of which float like clouds while others provide the pulse. Near the end of the song, the field recording of a chorus that started the track dominates. What strings all of this music together are the rhythms that are often at its center; it’s what allows Calix not to disappear altogether in a swamp of samples and edits.
Throughout the album’s 17 tracks, the voices of politicians and poets mix with ocean waves or a clarinet for a record that obliterates context or origins to engage the listener in immersive displacement. A photo from Calix’s website shows her working on Absent Origin, her back to us, computer screen surrounded by speakers with something of a detective’s crime-collage of pictures and words that inspired this record. It’s a window into her process. The results are not quite like anything else to be found in Warp’s massive back catalogue, and serve as an invitation for absorption. Where her samples are from becomes less important than where, under Calix’s inspired re-imaging, they take us.