Chosen One: Christina Vantzou
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
“Performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles: pulling back a swing, releasing it, and observing it gradually come to rest; turning over an hour glass and watching the sand slowly run through the bottom; placing your feet in the sand by the ocean’s edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them.”
—Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process” (excerpt)
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
‘N° 1’ is one of those special records that holds a resonance and (quiet) power over you – the listener – long after the swirling ambient flourishes fade into the the star-lit sky overhead. The creator of this spellbinding music is Kansas-born artist, musician and composer, Christina Vantzou. Although released back in 2011, the record continues to reveal new hidden depths and meaning, such is ‘N° 1’s infinite beauty and remarkable artistic achievement. Much like the music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Arvo Pärt, Vantzou’s music becomes more than mere musical notes, but rather, a symphony of cascading emotion – raw, delicate and powerful – that indeed resembles the slowly sifting sand of an hour glass or the ocean waves’ slow-dance at your feet. The ebb and flow of Vantzou’s divine ambient soundscapes conjures up the spectrum of human emotion that enriches all of life’s surroundings. Very soon, before the year draws to a close, the follow-up – naturally titled, ‘N° 2’ – will see the light of day.
The debut album from Christina Vantzou was released on the Chicago-based independent label, Kranky. A common theme in the discovery of music – new or old – are the paths or desire lines you happily find that introduces you to a new artist. The source to my discovery of Vantzou’s music is indeed a figure integral to both Kranky’s roster of awe inspiring talent and Vantzou’s own musical compositions, namely Adam Wiltzie. The pioneer of ambient and drone music, has been involved in a wide of array of vital musical projects over the years. As one half of drone/ambient specialists, Stars Of The Lid – alongside compatriot Brian McBride – several life-affirming records such as ‘Avec Laudenum’ and the most recent LP, ‘And their Refinement Of The Decline’ were released on the Kranky label. Outside of Stars Of The Lid, more recently Wiltzie has been creating Neoclassical infused ambient soundscapes, under the guise of A Winged Victory For The Sullen (a collaboration with pianist/composer Dutin O’ Halloran, home to the Erased Tapes label). It is yet another project of Wiltzie’s that formed my connection to Vantzou, namely The Dead Texan, which is the collaboration of Adam Wiltzie and Christina Vantzou. The common thread here is the peerless independent label, Kranky, who released these ambient masterpieces into the world.
The Dead Texan’s self-titled record from 2004 is a wonderful document of a special collaboration between like-minded artists, that continued to filter into Vantzou’s solo music. ‘N° 1’ is produced and mixed by Wiltzie, as is the soon-to-be-released sophomore full-length, ‘N° 2’. Vantzou’s main role in The Dead Texan was making videos to accompany the drone-based musical compositions of Wiltzie. Having studied visual art and receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Maryland College of Art, Vantzou’s music can be seen as a natural extension from the medium of visual art. Similar to Stars Of The Lid, the music itself is rooted in minimalism, where melodic patterns – using only a few notes – are intricately layered, forming a rich musical tapestry of divine shades and textures. A parallel can also be drawn to Vancouver’s Loscil or Brooklyn-based duo Mountains, who effortlessly blend drone and ambient spheres of sound, forming a beguiling landscape of treasured sounds.
‘N° 1’ started in 2007. In the words of Vantzou: “I just kind of sunk into the composing.” Much like the frame by frame animations Vantzou worked on for years, ‘N° 1”s sublime sonic tapestry reveals a slow methodical process that lies at the heart of the music’s inception. ‘N° 1’ was made in tiny fragments, where each meticulous detail reveals a snapshot in time, like cherished memories from a distant past. Over the course of three years, the artist assembled together the tracks that would soon become the foundation of ‘N° 1”s final entity. During this time, Vantzou worked in isolation, using synthesizers, samples and her voice, before a long-distance collaboration ensued that would evolve the music into new realms of possibility. Minna Choi, director of Magik*Magik Orchestra, transformed the sprawling 45-minute single track into a score for a seven-piece orchestra. This culminated in a two day recording session with Magik*Magik at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco. The album of full symphonic movements was finally mixed in Brussels (where Vantzou resides) with production assistance from Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie.
The ten symphonic movements that comprise ‘N° 1’ showcases Vantzou as a powerful voice in contemporary Neoclassical composition. I feel the stunning music belongs to several genres, from drone-based embellishes of sound, where a single tone (of a violin, cello, french horn or clarinet) has a long, slow duration, to ambient flourishes that sees Vantzou tapping into a hidden, sacred dimension. The album ‘N° 1’ is a testament to the seamless array of gorgeous fragments that coalesce together, forming an achingly beautiful and cohesive whole. The instrumentation of strings (violin, cello, viola) and woodwind (flute, clarinet, oboe) performed by the Magik*Magik Orchestra creates an organic and enriching sound that fills the void and awakens your senses.
Much like the music of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, what becomes important is the space around the music. It is through this space that an envelope of sound ascends upon the listener’s headspace, and soaring emotion is filtered through. This sense of oblivion is wonderfully present on ‘N° 1’ from the opening notes of ‘Homemade Mountains’ to the ambient ebb and flow of the closing ‘Joggers’. ‘Super Interlude pt 2’ is my personal highlight that evokes a vivid sense of nostalgia and melancholia. The crescendo of strings that arrives a short time later, is one of the many stunning moments dotted across ‘N° 1’. Gavin Bryar’s symphonic movement ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’ could be a reference point here. Towards the close, some field recordings depicting audible voices conjures up the sound of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s timeless works ‘Fordlândia’ and ‘IBM A User’s Manual’. ‘N° 1’ belongs immaculately at the interface of contemporary classical and ambient music.
This year marks the legendary Chicago-based Kranky label’s twentieth anniversary, amongst its awe-inspiring roster of talent there have been innumerable classic albums that have showcased the label – and therefore independent music’s – best-loved and most revered records. And amidst the infinite sonic treasures that the label has been responsible for over the past couple of decades lies the spectacular achievement of Christina Vantzou’s ‘N° 1’, an album, while surpassing all boundaries, reveals the full possibilities inherent in the art of music-making at its most beautiful.
“While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.”
—”Music as a Gradual Process” by Steve Reich (excerpt)
‘N° 1’ is out now on Kranky. The follow-up, ‘N° 2’ is a forthcoming release on the Kranky label.
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
Congratulations on the truly stunning album ‘N° 1’. It is such a transcendental ambient journey that forever evolves upon each revisit. Please discuss for me the three year period where you worked in isolation using synthesizers, samples and voice? I would love to gain an insight into the creative process involved during this time?
I started composing N°1 in 2007. I was a closet composer. I didn’t have proper monitors so I worked using headphones. I listened to sample libraries, researched orchestral midi possibilities, and made new samples when I couldn’t find the sounds that matched the ones in my head. I was pretty nerdy about it. I was going through some emotional turmoil and isolation was kind of a byproduct of a decaying relationship. That and also living in Brussels…I just kind of sunk into the composing. I had been doing frame by frame animations for years so a slow methodical process was comfortable to me. Someone had given me a CD of synth-y meditation music from the 70’s that I got obsessed with. I was also listening to a lot of film scores. I worked without a click track, and wrote everything using a midi keyboard. I could only muster playing small bits at a time. I made N°1 in tiny fragments.
Discuss for me please the samples you collected? What found sounds are on ‘N° 1’? I love how the samples seep into the music so effortlessly, and blends gorgeously with synthesizer and voice.
I sampled some Talk Talk (harmonium), I sampled of lot of film soundtracks, nature documentary soundtracks…I sampled synth tutorial videos on youtube and some real synths plus I sampled my own voice.
I remember when I was younger, going to a lot of shows where 2 guitars seemed to produce a 3rd voice. That 3rd voice always sounded like a distant female voice to me. That’s the kind of voice layer I was interested in creating on N°1. I recorded my voice and on top of most of the tracks.
I would love for you to discuss the long distance collaboration that ensued with Minna Choi, director of Magik*Magik Orchestra that transformed your 45-minute sonic journey into a score for a seven-piece orchestra? Did you envision this collaboration – and ultimate transformation – to happen during the time you were alone recording your music?
I had worked on the album for about three years around the time I contacted Minna. I had stitched all the Reason files, mini orchestral parts, and samples together into one long 45 minute track. I had no idea how to notate the music I had created, and I’d never worked with classical musicians before. I was also broke. Somehow I convinced myself to search for an ensemble to collaborate with. Meanwhile, I wrote a grant to see if I could get some financial assistance. I was looking for someone who would get into the feel of the music for the notation part of the job and to finalize arrangements. I also needed an ensemble to record with, and a recording space. I asked Dustin O’Halloran for advice and he recommended Minna Choi and Magik*Magik. I contacted Minna, sent her the 45 minute track, she was into it, and the collaboration began there. Minna worked by ear. I passed along details notes and an instrument list. There were click issues all over the place so she created a moving click with her voice.
As a composer of these gorgeous pieces of music, you must have been enlightened when you heard the full symphonic movements that were finally formed. Please recount for me your memories of first hearing the finished pieces with orchestra, and your thoughts, looking back now on how your music underwent this beautifully organic metamorphosis?
The week of the Tiny telephone sessions Minna sent me the first midi versions of the final arrangements. I was in Kansas City at the time. I hadn’t met Minna in person yet, we had only skyped a few times. I listened to every track, and I can’t really explain how I felt. I was really moved, it felt like a breakthrough.
Describe Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco and what makes this setting such a good recording place? It is amazing to think the recording session for ‘N° 1’ only took a mere two days. How was that possible?
Originally, the session was planned for 1 day but Minna strongly recommended a second day. Sometimes broke-ness brings on miracles. Even two days was a super economical, condensed approach but we got it done.
I was really impressed with Minna in the studio. She’s great at what she does. Jay Pellicci engineered the album and everyone worked tirelessly and gracefully.
It must be special to be composing music today, during a time when so much utterly captivating music is being made. You are a powerful voice in contemporary Neoclassical music. What albums for you have inspired you the most?
I listen to a lot of hip hop. I’m a foot soldier in neoclassical music. I admire Jóhann Jóhannsson. His records and live performances have been a big inspiration. I got to see him perform The Miners’ Hymns in Belgium last week.
Please tell me about your wonderful collaborative work with Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid? I adore the music of The Dead Texan in which you both work together. Discuss the creative process between the pair of you and how you tap into this remarkable ambient music, when your two minds combine?
The Dead Texan was a special time. Adam and I work very well together. My main role in The Dead Texan was making videos. Adam wrote and recorded the music. He recorded my voice for When I see Scissors I can’t help but think of you and Glen’s goo. While he was working on the tracks I created the animations and videos. After the album was released he taught me the basics of how to use Reason and I played keyboards on tour. When I got the hang of how midi worked I started fumbling around on my own. We still collaborate. Adam mixed N°1 and he’s currently mixing N°2. I made a few tour videos and the cover artwork for A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
Looking back, when and where did your fascination with sound begin? What were the defining moments for you when you realized the pathway of creating art was the path for you to walk on?
My early childhood record collection consisted of The Muppets’ Greatest Hits, Tina Turner’s Greatest Hits, Talking Heads, Eurythmics, and the Annie Soundtrack. My dad snuck me into a 21+ Tina Tuner concert when I was really little. It blew my mind.
My mom is an artist and I grew up in an artist community in Kansas City. Drawing was the only thing thing I’d done all my life that I’d never got tired of so that’s why I applied to art school.
You currently reside in Brussels. It’s a city I’ve been to once and fell in love with the place. It’s clear that the arts and culture is in full bloom in this beautiful city. Please tell me about your love for this city and how the city helps you create art?
Brussels is very laid back. It’s inexpensive to live here, and there’s a lot of support and funding for the arts. I fell in love with Brussels when I first moved here. It’s a bit of a lawless place and there’s a laziness here that’s inviting. It can be slightly annoying sometimes too. There’s a fine line between laid back and lethargy. The city moves in slow motion compared to Berlin or Paris or London or New York.
Can you shed some light on your follow-up to ‘N° 1’? It will be another life-affirming record, for sure.
Mixing’s nearly finished. Mixing this record has been an unusually long, slow process. I spent 3 months premixing. Adam Wiltzie is now doing the final mixes and it’s a mammoth effort. He’s peeling back layers and adding a few special touches. There are so many layers. I’m not exaggerating, it’s a bit of a monster. Sound-wise there are a few new elements—the ensemble on N°2 is a 12-piece—I added oboe and bassoon which add a particular color. The best creative collaborations in my life have come from a generous place. Both Minna and Adam bring this generosity to the record. The overall sound has matured and I’ve been a bit more daring compositionally this time. I’ll spend the summer making videos and it all will be unleashed by the end of the year.
‘N° 1’ is out now on Kranky. The follow-up, ‘N° 2’ is a forthcoming release on the Kranky label.