Chosen One: Christina Vantzou
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
“ I think about images a lot while working on sound, but in a very simplified way at first. I collect images and slowly individual scenes starts to form in mind. The feeling or level of tension the images would hold against the music is what I think about, rather than narrative.”
Words: Mark & Craig Carry
October 2015 saw the Kansas-born and Brussels-based artist and composer Christina Vantzou release her third solo album – ‘N°3’ – via Chicago-based independent Kranky. Vantzou – whose formidable body of work also spans the mediums of both visual art and film-making – began her own music career as one half (alongside Adam Wiltzie) of the duo The Dead Texan as the hybrid role of keyboardist/animator/video artist. The pair released their debut self-titled album in 2004 (Vantzou’s distinctive artwork graces the sleeve) and still ranks as one of the finest records released on Kranky’s esteemed back catalogue.
In the decade since The Dead Texan, Vantzou has quietly amassed a formidable body of solo composition work comprising: ‘N°1’ (2011), ‘N°2’ (2014) and this year’s ‘N°3’. Tracing Vantzou’s journey across these albums is a fascinating one and the sheer scope and scale of its achievements ranks Vantzou – alongside the likes of Jóhannsson or Richter – as one of the finest contemporary composers making music in the modern classical realm today.
Much like Vantzou’s soul-stirring and visually-arresting films (the act of making films as accompaniments to each of her songs has become an increasingly important part of her work practice), a distinct sense of both space and time is always apparent. This stems through all stages of the music – from composing in her laptop/midi keyboard setup to the editing stage and making selections from this sprawling raw material; to the time-honored process of writing and developing notation and arrangements to the laborious pre-mixing and final mixing stages of the final album. When working over such necessarily long spells (‘N°2’ developed over a four-year period while ‘N°3’ stemmed from a two-year period), its fascinating to think of all the myriad decisions, impulses and choices that must – both consciously and unconsciously – feed into such an organic and fluid process. The traces of time can indeed be closely felt on the final recordings.
The spirit of collaboration is another vital factor in the art of Vantzou. Close collaborators over the years have included Adam Wiltzie (Stars Of The Lid, AWVFTS) and Minna Choi (of San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra). A keen development for ‘N°3’ is the contribution by John Also Bennett (who composes music as Seabat and plays synthesizers with Forma) on synthesizers across the album. How the synth lines merge and interact with the classical instruments and arrangements (‘N°3’ was recorded in Belgium with a 15-piece ensemble of strings, horns, woodwinds and micro-choir) is a pure joy to savor. Moments of both quiet beauty on one extreme to moments of dense and tightly layered passages co-exist. Much like the collaborative work (and indeed solo work) of Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, there is always a certain sense of dichotomy at play: an interplay of both light and shadow; good and evil seem to permeate the recordings.
From the gradual rise and slow build of opener ‘Valley Drone’ (the addition of a soft drumbeat is reminiscent of Grouper’s ‘Made Of Metal’) the listener is slowly and irrevocably entangled into the heart of Vantzou’s glorious maze. World of both synthetic and analogue sounds merge to hypnotic and mesmerizing effect. An homage to the pioneering American composer Laurie Spiegel (‘The Expanding Universe’ marked an influence on Vantzou for both its author’s conceptual approach as well as the music’s own resonance) is beautifully made in the form of the album’s second track (it’s tempting to make parallels to Vantzou’s own background as a Maths teacher and how it influences her own approach to music-making). Interestingly, the series of tracks entitled ‘Pillars’ point to this direction (the compositions adhere to a solid mathematical scheme) and comprise more drone-orientated and ambient, texture-heavy passages. These ‘Pillars’ act as beautiful counterpoint to the more symphonic parts to ‘N°3’ (‘CV’, ‘Entanglements’), while elsewhere Kranky labelmate Loscil (Canada’s Scott Morgan) collaborates on the delightful ‘Stereoscope’. Reminiscent of the recordings of The Dead Texan, an increasing use of vocal samples marks another glorious shift in direction on ‘N°3’, moments of pure epiphany (recalling the likes of Julianna Barwick’s ‘The Magic Place’ or Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’) are arrived upon on the likes of ‘Pillar 5’ and ‘Robert Earl’.
‘N°3’ confirms – not that confirmation was ever needed – Vantzou as one of the most consistently intriguing artists and highly imaginative minds making music today. While we quietly await ‘N°4’ we can rest assured knowing that we already have enough in Vantzou’s treasured music presently to last a lifetime.
‘N°3’ is available now on Kranky.
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
Congratulations on the truly stunning new record, Christina. If ‘Nº1’ and ‘Nº2’ felt like sister records, it feels that ‘Nº3’ marks a significant advancement in this compelling series of ambient infused drone creations. In terms of scope, ambition, the prominence of synthesizers, and overall the intensity and sense of oblivion that ‘Nº3’ takes you on, this record is formidable in every sense. Please take me back to the two-year process of making the album and recount your memories of assembling the layers; composing; arranging and the overall experimentation process? I am sure having two solo records under your belt, your mindset or approach to ‘Nº3’ also changed?
Christina Vantzou: I initially composed ‘Nº3’ in my apartment in Brussels on a laptop, midi keyboard and headphones. This is my preferred composing set up. I like everything to be portable so I can move easily from room to room.
I was listening to a lot of early synthesized film score music and female composers while working on ‘Nº3’. I got to see Eliane Radigue perform in Brussels, I was exposed to the music of Eduard Artemyev, and I listened to current film scores like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ‘Prisoners’ soundtrack and Mica Levi’s score for ‘Under the Skin’. Early 2014 I went on a trip to London and visited the Natural History museum. There was incredible music pumping through the gem room, which I made a crappy recording of on my phone. I found a YouTube video of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra performing video game music. All of this was inspiration for ‘Nº3’…
From the beginning I knew I wanted to work with an orchestra, and if not an orchestra a sizable ensemble performing together. For ‘Nº3’ I worked in collaboration with The Chamber Players and their director/conductor David Anne. We’re all based in Belgium so the material could be discussed, planned and arranged in person. David Anne clued me in early on that recording with an orchestra would require a structure. I’d never thought about a global structure before when writing music and I never compose to a click track. Based on the material I gave him, he suggested that I think of the structure as an intro followed by “landscapes” alternating with “pillars” and an epilogue at the end. The image of landscapes and pillars worked for me so for the first time I worked with a structure in mind.
Focusing on the synthesizer instrument, please talk me through the various synthesizer instruments utilized on these recording sessions? This must have been quite a liberating and fun part of the creation of ‘Nº3’ in the sense that the strings would have been recorded to tape at this point in the process? In what way(s) did you approach the process of melding these two worlds: the synths and strings? It’s a real testament to the sonic journey of ‘Nº3’ of how these elements are so beautifully not only captured but so effortlessly fused together. For example, ‘Entanglements’ epitomises this, where the brooding strings are masterfully coalesced with some luminous synths. It’s just a joy to behold for the listener.
CV: Around the time ‘Nº2’ came out I heard the album ‘Scattered Disc’ from Seabat and became an instant fan. John Also Bennett, one half of Seabat, did the synth work on ‘Nº3’. We worked together over about a week using synths from John’s collection; A Roland Juno 6, a Yamaha DX7, CS20 and several Eurorack modules. I had MIDI files for each of the parts recorded by the orchestra so we fed a lot of this MIDI information through the synths, which basically means the synths could play back any part from the ‘Nº3’ score. John also played parts freely, like the descending melody on Laurie Spiegel. He recorded everything on the fly in one take for the most part. We recorded tons and tons of material. ‘Nº3’ became a very big project in terms of recordings at that point so it took several months to mix it all.
‘Entanglement’ was a one take/5 minute recording of the entire orchestra responding to a graphic score. The score lays out simple parameters: the bassier instruments drone in A and the instruments of the higher registers can enter when they want with notes in the key of E, D and sometimes C. Synths were recorded in response to the same score and the whole thing was mixed together. I got to perform this one in Belgium at an outdoor concert in August with synths and orchestra and it turned out pretty great. It’s different every time.
Please discuss (and explain for me) the structured tracks that comprise ‘Nº3’ and this specialized technique you have dubbed as “pillars”. Furthermore, can you perhaps shine some light on the relationship (or direct correlation) you feel exists between musical structure and mathematics?
CV: Musical scores are essentially all math; they rely on a counting system and regularity of counts. It’s a way to structure time and coordinate a group of people playing together. It’s very practical for ensembles which is why it’s the basis of classical music. But listening to music that’s 100% on a fixed tempo, particularly classical music, dulls my brain a bit.
Because I teach math part-time it would make sense that I would get into the math part of musical notation, but it’s not the case. Working without any click track, there’s been a dilemma on each record over whether to re-shape the pieces into a mapped tempo or not, for the purposes of recording. On ‘Nº3’ we decided to do a bit of both. The ambient pieces have no time structure whatsoever and the more melodic pieces were scored out traditionally — these are the pillars.
The score for ‘pillar 3’ was slowed down 4 times for the recording of ‘Robert Earl’. ‘Pillar 3’ and ‘Robert Earl’ are essentially the same score with entirely different arrangements; ‘pillar 3’ is all synths and ‘Robert Earl’ is all orchestra. Because of the slowing down business, I named the track ‘Robert Earl’ after DJ Screw.
My current favourite is ‘CV’, a gorgeous ambient gem of soaring strings, voices and harmonies. Worlds of Reich, Part, Loscil & Jóhannsson seem to seep wonderfully into the mix. Can you recount your memories of writing, composing and recording this particular track, Christina?
CV: ‘CV’ is very much a collaboration between myself, Minna Choi, The Chamber Players, and John Also Bennett. Minna did the arrangements on ‘CV’, (she did all the arrangements on ‘Nº1’ and ‘Nº2’) and I meddled heavily with these arrangements after recording. It was completely deconstructed and reconstructed. Parts that were assigned to winds and voices became synth parts and effects were piled onto to the voice of Els Wollaert; one of three vocalists on ‘Nº3’. I also time stretched some parts. I was thinking a lot about Talk Talk while working on this track.
The second track is named after Laurie Spiegel. Her cosmic spirit seems to be floating in the ether amidst the beautiful sound waves of ‘Nº3’. Can you discuss the importance of Spiegel’s work and the impact her musical philosophy and recorded work has had on your own music?
CV: In the early stages of composing ‘Nº2’, I listened to Laurie Spiegel’s ‘The Expanding Universe’ for the first time while reading her interview / liner notes printed on the back of the original 1980 vinyl. I related to her use of time, which sort of feels like structure without structure, because of some time-varying going on, and also the minimalistic qualities of her movements. She said in that interview: “I suppose the rates of change within and between my pieces are about halfway between the atonalists and the minimalists. I’ve tried to find a balance between predetermination and spontaneity, and to compose simple materials into complex relationships.”
On ‘Nº3’ I wanted to try a spontaneous recording with the orchestra without scores and make a nod to Laurie. So I had the orchestra listen to a 5-minute modulated sample of Laurie Spiegel’s ‘The Expanding Universe’ through headphones and asked them to play what they were hearing. Each section of the orchestra did a take, synths were overdubbed on top, and these became the raw materials for that track. It was an experiment and ‘The Expanding Universe’ sample is the artifact, in honor of Laurie.
‘Stereoscope’ sees you collaborate with label-mate Scott Morgan (aka Loscil). I would love for you to talk me through the contribution Scott made to this track and indeed if this was a track where both artists worked on creating together, from beginning to end or was it more a case of gradually sculpting something together by exchanging tracks & different ideas, back & forth?
CV: I asked Scott early on if he could send me some “sub bass-y pulse-y” sounds to compose on top of. He asked what key and what BPM. I said F, and BPM was up to him. So he sent me the pulse that you hear in ‘Stereoscope’. It was great to compose from, I made a bunch of sketches with it but I often listened to his file on its own and thought it might not need much on top after all. So I abandoned all the sketches and left it alone for a while. At some point in the latter stages of the mixing I came across something I’d made, a collage of different samples, possibly when working on ‘Nº1’, and layered it on top of Scott’s pulses. And at the bottom of the mix I added ambient engine noise from Star Trek with lots of reverb added in. There’s a 24-hour video clip of that sound on YouTube. People like to relax to it.
In terms of themes, primary concerns and the sonic world you envisioned for the new record, do you feel what you strived towards from the outset had changed in any way during the course of the two-year period? I feel you must have had a very clear focus on delving much deeper into the incorporation of synths and having a dichotomy of worlds inherent in the record, between modern-classical and ambient/electronic worlds.
CV: I intentionally wanted to explore sub bass and deep bass territory. It made sense to spend time on the synths to reach those lower frequencies. Bass was also given special attention while working with Francesco Donadello at Voxton studios on the final mixes in Berlin. In general, my ears tend to prefer when classical strings are doubled with synth sounds. Raw, unmixed orchestra can be very harsh on the ears. Drown it all in reverb I say.
Talk me through the slow motion videos that accompanies the new music, a trait which has gladly continued from the first two records. One of the great hallmarks of your music is the hugely immersive nature of your music. In terms of the films you make (which in turn, embodies the music & vice versa), are these perhaps the scenes and visions you internalize when it comes to composing the music?
CV: I think about images a lot while working on sound, but in a very simplified way at first. I collect images and slowly individual scenes starts to form in mind. The feeling or level of tension the images would hold against the music is what I think about, rather than narrative. So I end up filming several things, that are seemingly quite disconnected, and I’m not really sure what will come of these scenes while I’m working away, filming and recording. It’s a nerve-racking way to work because often times I feel like there’s a good chance it will end up all wrong, with me drowning in a huge pile of shit and not knowing what to do with it all. But it turns out a lot of artists amass a great deal of material and are heavy editors. I’m one of those people.
What music, art, film, books, travel, and overall sources of inspiration do you feel filtered into the creation of ‘Nº3’, Christina? It must feel very magical to witness the music translated to the live context when touring ‘Nº3’? What other plans and projects do you feel lies on the horizon?
CV: I was in Greece twice during the process of making ‘Nº3’ and also Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. Being on an island and taking long walks really clears the head. On Tenerife I listened to rough mixes on day-long walks and made a lot of decisions about the final mixes. I call it walk-editing. I was also inspired by a book that a good friend lent me in the summer of 2014, an intense occult read: ‘Liber Null and Psychonaut’. It made me think a lot about the act of making things and brain function.
‘N°3’ is available now on Kranky.