The story goes that in 1959 Brion Gysin declared literature to be “50 years behind art”, before demonstrating the cut-up technique to an attentive William Burroughs. But, if Gysin’s statement was true, music was only very slightly ahead in the race, and the technology allowing musique concrète tape splicing was still shiny and fresh when Gysin was wielding his scalpel.
Fast forward a mere decade though, and multitrack studio methodology meant that almost every recording was effectively a montage, and in our digital world it’s almost impossible to envision a music-making that doesn’t consist of placing discrete elements together. For new album Absent Origin, Mira Calix has studied fine art collagists to create a record from samples and fragments of previous projects that reinvigorates the concept of the audio collage in the age of drag-and-drop assemblage. It is arguably her best work to date.
Calix came to prominence when Warptonica was becoming a recognised series of gestures, a defined genre to be emulated, and revisiting her debut, 2000’s One To One, we find a series of IDM workouts which are adept and enjoyable, but hardly shocking: anyone with an I-Spy Book of Late ’90s Electronica will be able to tick off Plaid tinkles, Autechre awkwardness and dark Aphex Twin brooding before a few tracks have passed. Absent Origin, on the other hand, is as idiosyncratic as it is immersive.
Opener A Mark Of Resistance starts with tiny slaps and claps, moments of skin-on-skin contact that gradually increase in frequency like building rain heard inside a tent, before spoken or chanted samples are weaved over the top, in a manner that recalls the finger clicks and found fragments of Elizabeth Price’s Turner-winning video The Woolworth’s Choir Of 1979. This sets the blueprint for the construction of the rest of the album – if techno can be thought of as having a grid structure, most of Absent Origin may be envisaged as a swarm. It also introduces a concern with feminism – or at least strong female voices – expressed through the delightful contrast of the snippets “Her wounds came from the same source as her power”, “Free our sisters, free ourselves”, and “Cross my path, your ass’ll get whipped!”
Although the album is best experienced as a single hour-long event, an aural pool in which to become submerged, there are myriad highlights. Silence Is Silve introduces some delicately pretty piano amongst the found sounds, which is reminiscent of Anne Dudley’s work in The Art Of Noise, and also boasts scissor samples so gloriously crisp you worry your headphone lead might get cut (it’s tempting to think of these snips as Calix collecting her source material, and the duct tape unpeeling sounds on Fractions Fractured Factions showing how they got stuck together). Bower Of Bliss pushes porn groans and a whirring mecha-snore into a blizzard of strings in a manner that is far from blissful, and is immediately balanced by Wooddrifts’ bucolic flute and archival description of an isolated creative hideaway.
A stately piece like An Infinite Thrum (Archipelago), which adds syllabic fragments and birdsong to strings in a way that recall ’90s Balanescu Quartet, is contrasted with Transport Me, which seems to adapt Charles Ives’s compositional conceit of being equidistant between two marching bands, except that this time we’re hemmed in by five radio receivers, a New Orleans funeral march, a colliery silver band, an electro workout, and a beautifully fruity voice reading poetry (which might just be Edith Sitwell). Oh, and someone recites some lyrics from Toni Basil’s 1982 hit Hey Mickey, just in case that melange sounds too predictable.
The few moments where this album falters are some instances where slightly more regimented rhythms are introduced, such as on There Is Always A Girl With A Secret and the wonderfully titled Like Jenga (Only It reaches All The Way To The Sky And It’s Made Of Knives): programmed or looped drums are so much a part of the lingua franca of contemporary popular music that it jars slightly when they are paired with more abstract material. This is a minor criticism though, and by the time the melancholic Schoenberg soprano has drifted into the ether at the end of The Abandoned Colony Collapsed My World, you’ll be ready for a repeat listen – although you’ll hear so many different elements the second time round, you’ll wonder whether the album isn’t secretly mutating whilst your back’s turned.