Concert for 1 – 100,000. Mira Calix discusses working with sound

Sound artist and musician Mira Calix writes about the complexities of creating a sound to fill the California desert and how the systems she uses for installations, big or tiny, completely inform her work.

i’m on a train returning from london, having just had a really great meeting about a project i’m working on for 2012.

i’ve got my headphones on, my pod on shuffle is shuffling. i’m in a concert for 1 –  the dirty projectors –  are playing just for me.

i’m glancing out the window.  i’m thinking about sound and scale. composition for spaces. better weather.

in april  i created  the soundtrack for the sculptural design of the main stage at the coachella festival by United Visual Artists.

‘ the orchestrion’ is definitely the largest stage  i’ve  ever written a piece for. it was certainly the loudest i’ve ever been.

in order to create music for such a large scale sound system, in my small countryside studio,  i had to try to imagine the vastness and power  of the sound and the drama of our event. there were a lot of technical as well as narrative issues to consider.

i came to the conclusion that i wanted to exploit the sub bass, and create a piece you could feel, before you could hear.

lucky for me, coachella really do make sound a priority, i wish more festivals in the U.K did the same, there are multiple stacks placed throughout the main

stage field, all the way back.  that sub bass rolled out for about 2 miles…. of course, its one thing to plan and prepare for the mighty sound system, another to hear yourself back surrounded by roughly  100 000 companions

fortunately i managed to squeeze a brief soundcheck in on the thursday before the crowds arrived, do a few eq tweaks, trying to compensate for the bodies that would fill the space and suck up the sound the following evening in the california dessert.

of the projects i’m currently working, there is such a variety of sound scale. i can call them large, medium ,small, and xtra small. there doesn’t seem to be a regular, i could probably do with a regular cappuccino right now. ….. the project we were meeting about today, has to give the feel of intimacy. almost a headphone experience, but  without headphones, in a public space.

I’ve  been looking  at new technological innovations, talking to experts, trying to figure out what will work best to achieve the effect that i know is crucial to the success of the piece.

whatever system we go for in the end, will completely inform the work. it will become part of the compositional structure, just like the piece for coachella.

next week i have to mix down a surround sound piece. 8 channels, for a space/sound  that is medium at the national portrait gallery.  writing for any size of diffusion piece, like the project i’ve mentioned above, really informs the compositional process for me. i write and produce all my own work. sometimes the pain comes when you have to reproduce an extract or a version of the music for another platform. the big big sound of the coachella piece, has to be acceptable on the video on the website. but this isn’t music for computer speakers. i would write something completely different for if that is my xtra small sound.  if a computer is my performance space,  then i will write for that.

the national portrait gallery, need a version of the diffusion piece, mixed to stereo mp3 for  an iphone app. should i call this xtra xtra small sound? but i wrote it for 8 speakers in a medium size room!   these things make my life complex. changing the scale of the piece, or making it multi-platform, means sacrificing frequencies. re-considering the audience experience, their virtual concert hall, it’s size and shape. the reverb.  this can be tricky.

making music work at any scale, isn’t always easy, or even possible, but getting the best out of a changing scale is often a necessity of my working day. for me, its essential that the performance space influences the creation of the  work,  in order for the music to be successfully communicated, i must consider its ‘theatre’. sometimes its like alice in wonderland, and that theatre just gets too big or too small for its original purpose.

now to the small.

‘just one more thing’ is  a piece i completed recently. it  was made for headphone listening. a classical silent disco concert at the soundwaves festival in brighton. its a piece for bass and electronics. the bass was played by the highly talented robert black of bang on a can, and recorded in san francisco.   the audience were invited to bring headphones, mp3 players and go to the theatre for a concert.  i wasn’t able to attend, but i suspect there wasn’t much ‘disco’ dancing, hopefully some nodding heads.  i  thought about the performance space.  the space between your ears. i took it  into consideration , while i was mixing the final work. i was looking to enhance the stereo effect  for  the singular audience, the intimate sound, the darkened theatre.  it was just about as far as away from that blistering hot california dessert as i could imagine, just as much fun, just as challenging.

concert for 1, concert for 100 000  and all the spaces in between.

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