Posts Tagged ‘Christina Vantzou’
We’re proud to present an exclusive unreleased track by Christina Vantzou for August’s mixtape.The Kansas City-born and Brussels-based composer has released three solo full-length LP’s to date (‘N°1’, ‘N°2’ and ‘N°3’) via illustrious Chicago-based independent label Kranky.
Vantzou’s formidable body of work also spans the mediums of both visual art and film-making while her own music career began with duo The Dead Texan (alongside Adam Wiltzie) as the hybrid role of keyboardist/animator/video artist. The pair released their debut self-titled album in 2004 via Kranky. Through her preferred composing set-up of laptop, midi keyboard and headphones and an ever-present curiosity and tireless passion for exploring new sonic territories, Vantzou is among the the finest contemporary composers making music in the modern classical realm today.
Also featured on August’s edition are selections from the awe-inspiring Guerssen Records, a record label based in Catalonia, Spain. Set up in 1996, Guerrsen’s ever-expanding catalogue specialises in the reissuing of rare and obscure psychedelic, progressive, folk and garage albums from the 60s to early 80s.
Featured here are tracks from Paul Martin’s mid-sixties timeless opus “It Happened”; We The People’s fascinating compilation “Visions of Time: Complete Recordings” (a 60s teen band from L.A. who also recorded 45s under the American Zoo alias) and Oberon’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, a classic in the British psych-folk genre (it was originally released in 1971 as a private edition of only 99 copies).
August’s mixtape also features new releases from MJ Guider’s stunning debut album “Precious Systems” (Kranky), hype williams’ “10/10” (Bandcamp); the return of legendary duo Xylouris White (Australia’s Jim White and Greece’s George Xylouris) with “Black Peak” (Bella Union) and Peter Broderick’s latest masterful record, “Partners” (Erased Tapes).
Fractured Air x Blogothèque – S1E8 | August mix
To Read/listen on La Blogothèque:
01. Christina Vantzou – “juno loop 200 BC” (Unreleased)
02. Tomorrow The Rain Will Fall Upwards – “…And I Tried” (Blackest Ever Black)
03. Spiritualized – “Let It Flow” (Dedicated)
04. The Velvet Underground & Nico – “Venus In Furs” (Polydor)
05. Dirty Three – “Furnace Skies” (Anchor And Hope / Bella Union)
06. Xylouris White – “Black Peak” (Bella Union)
07. Trader Horne – “Jenny May” (Earth)
08. Dieterich & Barnes – “Parasol Gigante” (LM Duplication)
09. Kamuran Akkor – “Kabahat Seni Sevende” (Pharaway Sounds)
10. Mulatu Astatke – “Nètsanèt (Liberty)” (Buda Musique)
11. The Avalanches – “Because I’m Me” (XL Recordings)
12. Kamasi Washington – “Change Of The Guard” (excerpt) (Brainfeeder)
13. hype williams – “DIVA” (Bandcamp)
14. Jenny Hval – “Female Vampire” (Sacred Bones)
15. MJ Guider – “Triple Black” (Kranky)
16. Julian Winding – “The Demon Dance” (The Neon Demon OST, Milan)
17. Rival Consoles – “Lone” (Erased Tapes)
18. Bibio – “Wren Tails” (Warp)
19. Benoît Pioulard – “Layette” (Kranky)
20. Roj – “Attaining The Third State” (Ghost Box)
21. Oberon – “Nottamun Town” (Guerssen)
22. Georges Delerue – “Au Revoir Mon Amour!” (Cartouche OST, EmArcy)
23. We The People – “Back Street Thoughts” (Guerssen)
24. Robert Wyatt – “At Last I Am Free” (Rough Trade)
25. Jóhann Jóhannsson – “Flight from the City” (Deutsche Grammophon)
26. Peter Broderick – “Up Niek Mountain” (Erased Tapes)
27. Glenn Jones – “Spokane River Falls” (Thrill Jockey)
28. Brigid Mae Power – “Sometimes” (Tompkins Square)
29. Fiona Brice – “Glastonbury” (Bella Union)
30. Paul Martin – “This Is The End” (Guerssen)
Compiled by Fractured Air, August 2016. The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
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.
Nature of Daylight [A Fractured Air Mix]
To listen on Mixcloud:
01. Meg Baird ‘Dear Companion’ [Drag City]
02. Max Richter ‘Path 5 (Delta)’ (excerpt) [Deutsche Grammophon]
03. Linda & Irene Buckley ‘Passages’ (excerpt) [Sounds from a Safe Harbour]
04. Christina Vantzou ‘Pillar 3’ [Kranky]
05. Mikael Tariverdiev ‘Boys and the Sea – part one’ [Earth Recordings]
06. Julia Holter ‘Lucette Stranded on the Island’ [Domino]
07. A Hawk And A Hacksaw ‘Lajtha Lassu’ [LM Duplication]
08. Marlene Dietrich ‘Go ‘Way from My Window’ [Columbia]
09. Joe Meek Orchestra ‘Cry My Heart’ [Castle Music]
10. Townes Van Zandt ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’ [Poppy]
11. Micachu & The Shapes ‘Oh Baby’ [Rough Trade]
12. Corrina Repp ‘Woods’ [Caldo Verde, Discolexique]
13. La Nuit ‘Road Snakes’ [Beacon Sound]
14. Rival Consoles ‘Morning Vox’ [Erased Tapes]
15. Cillian Murphy ‘In The Morning’ [Late Night Tales]
16. Brumes ‘I heard you’ [Bandcamp]
17. Dinah Washington & Max Richter ‘This Bitter Earth / On the Nature of Daylight’ [La French OST / Gaumont, Légende Films]
18. Blaze Foley ‘If I Could Only Fly’ [Lost Art]
Linda & Irene Buckley’s ‘Passages’ is taken from an installation piece commissioned by Sounds From a Safe Harbour (more info HERE).
Cillian Murphy’s ‘In The Morning’ is written by Enda Walsh exclusively for Nils Frahm’s Late Night Tales compilation (more info HERE).
The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
The following is a selection of the albums and re-issues that had the greatest impact on us for a wide range of different reasons. As difficult as it proved to settle on a final (and very concise) selection, we both turned to these special albums most often throughout the year. 2014 has been a year which has produced so many absolutely wonderful and truly special albums, here’s our personal selection of some of these (with a selection of ten albums and five re-issues).
Words: Mark & Craig Carry, All artwork: Craig Carry
Albums of the year:
Grouper ‘Ruins’ (Kranky)
‘Ruins’ was made while U.S. musician and artist Liz Harris was on an artist residency (set up by Galeria Zé dos Bois) during 2011 in Portugal’s Aljezur region. The location would provide a striking influence to Harris’s subsequent recordings (recorded in typically minimal fashion: a portable 4-track, Sony stereo mic and an upright piano) while the sense of both departure and a new-found freedom flow throughout ‘Ruins’ and its majestic and dreamlike eight tracks. During her Aljezur residency, Harris would embark on daily hikes to the nearest beach where she would encounter the ruins of several old estates and a small village. As Harris has said: “The album is a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love. I left the songs the way they came (microwave beep from when power went out after a storm); I hope that the album bears some resemblance to the place that I was in.”
‘Ruins’ is a stunning achievement which proves all the more astonishing considering the already extensive (and consistently breathtaking) recorded output of Grouper since the mid 00’s. ‘Clearing’ is arguably Harris’s most singularly beautiful song conceived to date. As Harris sings: “What has been done / Can never be undone” over a gorgeously delicate piano line we embark on yet another wholly unique and deeply personal odyssey under the stewardship of Harris’s very heart. Like a silent witness we hold our breath as we remain under Harris’s spell throughout (from the timeless ballad ‘Holding’ to the closing epic drone-heavy tour-de-force ‘Made of Air’). ‘Ruins’ is a quietly breathtaking force of nature: an album made as much by Harris’s own hands as by the moonlight’s illumination in the night sky or the evening sun’s last rays of faded half-light.
‘Ruins’ is available now on Kranky.
Caribou ‘Our Love’ (City Slang/Merge)
One of my most memorable moments of this past year was undoubtedly witnessing Caribou’s storming live set at 2014’s Body & Soul festival. A euphoric feeling ascended into the summer evening skyline as each transcendent beat and luminous pop-laden hook flooded our senses. The majority of 2010’s glorious LP ‘Swim’ was revisited, from the tropicalia-infused ‘Odessa’ to the hypnotic ‘Sun’ and all points in between. Dan Snaith & co’s set further confirmed the legendary status of Caribou; whose innovative and utterly compelling sonic creations (where elements of krautrock, dance, jazz, soul, hip-hop, and electronic soundscapes form one irresistible, mind-blowing sound spectrum) have long served a trusted companion for the independent music collector.
This year marked the highly anticipated fifth Caribou studio album, ‘Our Love’, which, in many ways, nestles beautifully between its predecessor ‘Swim’ and Snaith’s more techno-oriented project of Daphni. Lead single ‘Can’t Do Without You’ is an instant classic with a seamless array of melodic patterns and soulful vocals that evokes the soul-stirring songbook of Al Green as much as it spans the history of the dance floor. Several of the songs were co-written by gifted Canadian composer/violinist Owen Pallett (whose own solo record ‘In Conflict’ has been one of the most original, daring and innovative records of 2014) and Pallett’s distinctive violin-led melodies coalesce effortlessly with Snaith’s visionary dance structures.
Numerous remixes have since seen the light of day (where new perspectives and insights are drawn and re-configured) with the latest example being Carl Craig’s techno mix of ‘Your Love Will Set You Free’. Much in the same way as ‘Swim’, I know (and firmly believe) ‘Our Love’ will remain as vital and significant for many more years and decades to come.
‘Our Love’ is available now on City Slang (EU) and Merge (USA).
Sharon Van Etten ‘Are We There’ (Jagjaguwar)
When Jersey-native and New York-based songwriter Sharon Van Etten first announced the arrival of ‘Are We There’, Van Etten’s fourth full-length and follow-up to her 2011 seminal work ‘Tramp’, she had these words to share: “I really hope that when someone puts my record on that they hear me.” Of course, Van Etten’s wishes have clearly been fulfilled. If there’s one thing we can firmly establish by now it is this: Van Etten makes music from the real world; a world of real events and real people with real feelings. Subsequently, steeped in a sometimes harsh reality, Van Etten’s songs are imbued with fears, struggles and (often) much pain. Much like Chan Marshall’s pre ‘The Greatest’ recorded output, Van Etten bravely examines her own life’s immediate surroundings and relationships to share her most innermost confessions and feelings for us all to bear witness. Through Van Etten’s songs we too can find our own deepest feelings long hidden in the shadows of some forgotten, distant dream.
‘Are We There’ is Van Etten’s first self-produced album (The National’s Aaron Dessner produced its predecessor ‘Tramp’) and features a host of wonderful musicians, including: Torres’s Mackenzie Scott on vocals (who toured extensively supporting Van Etten); Heather Woods-Broderick (on strings and vocals); Mary Lattimore (harp) as well as Van Etten’s trusted and formidable rhythm section (Zeke Hutchins on drums and David Hartley on bass). The use of vocal harmonies (Van Etten, Scott and Woods-Broderick) is a pure joy to witness. The resultant musical arrangements are stunningly cohesive and yet genuinely innovative, providing for many moments of challenging and divine musicianship — at times wonderfully dense and strikingly tactile (‘Our Love’ or ‘Every Time The Sun Coms Up’) — other times remain starkly sparse (‘I Know’) but, importantly, such intricacies of musicianship and arrangements only ever serve the song.
“Everybody needs to feel” sings Van Etten on ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’. It’s a sentiment that best serves the phenomenal and beloved artist that is Sharon Van Etten and ‘Are We There’. It’s another step to becoming your own true self. It’s a destination no one is ever likely to realistically reach but striving for it is proving to be Van Etten (and her sacred songbook)’s true towering achievement.
‘Are We There’ is available now on Jagjaguwar.
Clark ‘Clark’ (Warp)
‘I Dream Of Wires’ is a documentary based on the phenomenal resurgence of the modular synthesizer; exploring the passions and dreams of people who have dedicated part of their lives to this electronic music machine. The splendid documentary — released earlier this year — features interviews with Ghostly’s Solvent (who co-wrote the film in addition to composing the film score), Carl Craig, Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys) and Warp’s Clark. Reflecting on this particular film now, I feel it is precisely this exploration of passions and dreams that filters into the dazzling music of UK’s Chris Clark. The unique blend of utterly transcendent electronic creations is forever steeped in a rare beauty, filled with endless moments of divine transcendence.
This year marked the eagerly awaited release of new self-titled full-length (and seventh for Warp), following up 2012’s magical ‘Iradelphic’. The gifted producer’s meticulous touch can be felt throughout, from the cold-cut classic ‘Unfurla’ to the blissful synth-laden ‘The Grit In The Pearl’. Dance music for the here-and-now that breathes life and meaning into music’s endless possibilities.
As Clark has said: “Music is like sculpture. It’s like trying to capture a moment of ultimate momentum, and distill it forever”.
‘Clark’ is available now on Warp.
Hauschka ‘Abandoned City’ (City Slang/Temporary Residence Ltd)
Witnessing Hauschka’s Volker Bertelmann — whether in live setting during his renowned concert performances or in recorded contexts — a certain sense of magic fills the air. Sylvain Chomet’s 2010 animated marvel ‘The Illusionist’ comes to mind, as we are left in wonderment to observe the artist’s vast collection of skills and unlimited wells of talent. Known worldwide as one of the most recognizable 21st Century proponents of what is known as Prepared Piano, Bertelmann has amassed a considerable body of work over the last decade, ceaselessly weaving his own singular path — and on his own terms — to wondrous effect (much like fellow modern composers and restless souls Nils Frahm and Max Richter or such Twentieth Century masters as Eric Satie, John Cage and Steve Reich). Importantly, the album itself draws from research Bertelmann made (after the discovery of a series of photographic prints depicting the subject of abandoned cities) on the number of actual vacated cities in existence (each track title references a particular city). As Bertelmann has said: “I was interested in finding a metaphor for the inner tension I feel when I’m composing music, a state of mind where I’m lonely and happy at the same time.”
‘Abandoned City’ proves a certain milestone in Hauschka’s recorded output to date. An intriguing sense of both adventure and discovery seeps through every pore of the album’s ten compositions. Like all of Hauschka’s art, nothing is as it first seems. As we delve further into this abandoned city Hauschka has built for us we begin to lose all sense of what we initially thought was important in the process. We lose all traces of ourselves for that beautiful instant we are under Bertelmann’s sacred spell and that is what Hauschka’s divine art forever manages to do.
‘Abandoned City’ is available now on City Slang (EU) and Temporary Residence Ltd (USA).
Steve Gunn ‘Way Out Weather’ (Paradise Of Bachelors)
The flawless North Carolina-based independent label Paradise of Bachelors has yet again been responsible for a string of modern-day Americana masterpieces, not least the latest tour-de-force from the ever-prolific, Brooklyn-based guitar prodigy and songsmith, Steve Gunn. This year’s ‘Way Out Weather’ feels like a natural culmination where every aspect of Gunn’s deeply-affecting songs — poignant story-telling quality, immaculate instrumentation and intricate musical arrangements — is heightened as the towering eight creations hits you profoundly and stirs your soul. 2013’s ‘Time Off’ was the starting point of Gunn’s song-writing path, having collaborated closely with Kurt Vile, Michael Chapman, Mike Cooper, The Black Twig Pickers and a host of others in recent times.
A timeless feel permeates every corner of the record. The recording sessions took place at Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York, featuring a formidable cast of musicians (and Gunn’s long-term collaborators) further adding to the widescreen, cinematic sound to ‘Way Out Weather’s sprawling sonic canvas. Longtime musical brothers and kindred spirits Jason Meagher (bass, drones, engineering), Justin Tripp (bass, guitar, keys, production), and John Truscinski (drums), in addition to newcomers Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, keys: Black Twig Pickers, Pelt); James Elkington (guitar, lap steel, dobro: Freakwater, Jeff Tweedy); Mary Lattimore (harp, keys: Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile); and Jimy SeiTang (synths, electronics: Stygian Stride, Rhyton.)
On the utterly transcendent album closer, ‘Tommy’s Congo’, shades of Sonny Sharrock beautifully surfaces beneath the artefacts of time. The deep groove and rhythm interwoven with this vivid catharsis is nothing short of staggering. The cosmic spirit captured on the closing cut — and each of these sublime recordings — permanently occupies a state of transcendence. As each song-cycle unfolds, the shimmering worlds of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue or the Stones’ ‘Exile On Main St.’ fades into focus. ‘Way Out Weather’ is dotted with captivating moments from the ways of a true master.
‘Way Out Weather’ is available now on Paradise Of Bachelors.
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Dan Trueman ‘Laghdú’ (Irishmusic.net)
2014 has been a remarkable year for Ireland-based composer Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Firstly, January saw the release of contemporary quintet The Gloaming’s stunning self-titled debut album via Real World Records. Subsequent concerts would be performed across the globe (including Sydney’s Opera House) to mass celebration and widespread critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as touring with his other band, the Irish/Swedish quartet This Is How We Fly, across both Ireland and Europe, Ó Raghallaigh also performed a series of truly special solo concerts (entitled “In My Mind”, a solo fiddle and film show) across the length of Ireland for the month of October. Despite the hectic touring schedules, Ó Raghallaigh also released two stunning works: the solo album ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’ (via Dublin-based label Diatribe Records) and the mesmerizing ‘Laghdú’, a collaboration with U.S. fiddle player Dan Trueman.
‘Laghdú’ (an Irish word which translates as: a lessening, a decrease, a reduction) is a hugely significant work for many reasons. Most notably, it was Trueman who first introduced Ó Raghallaigh to his beloved ten-string hardanger d’amore fiddle (custom-made in Norway by Salve Håkedal) during September 2000. It is the simple dialogue and deep connection which exists between the pair (both performing identical instruments and identical baroque bows) which is a pure joy to savor. Two traditional pieces are performed by the pair (‘The Jack of Diamonds Three’ and ‘Fead an Iolair’) while the remainder of ‘Laghdú’ comprises original compositions written and arranged by Trueman and Ó Raghallaigh. The dynamic range is nothing short of staggering — from the near-silent to the nigh-on orchestral, at times exploding joyously from their hybrid 10-string fiddles, at times barely there — holding time still in the process. The resultant eleven heavenly tracks occupy both the realms populated by the most ancient forms of traditional music as well as those thrillingly in-between spaces carved out and inhabited in modern neoclassical composition of the most utterly enchanting and truly sacred kind.
‘Laghdú’ is available now via Irishmusic.net HERE.
Christina Vantzou ‘N°2’ (Kranky)
‘N°2’ is the second solo album by the Brussels-based artist and Kansas-born composer Christina Vantzou and, like its predecessor, ‘N°1’, was issued by the formidable Chicago-based independent label Kranky. Written over a period of four years, ‘N°2’ finds Vantzou reunited with Minna Choi — of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra — and regular contributor Adam Wiltzie (A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Stars Of The Lid) who Vantzou effectively began her musical career with when the duo made music as The Dead Texan (Vantzou was keyboardist as well as film-maker, illustrator and animator). A wide sonic palette is used throughout, from the gentle ripple-flow of piano notes on the album’s penultimate track, ‘Vostok’ and prominence of harp on the achingly beautiful ‘VHS’ to the rapturous crescendo of strings of ‘Going Backwards To Recover What Was Left Behind’ where an emotion-filled sadness engulfs every pore. Elsewhere, slowly shifting layers of brass and woodwind drifts majestically in ‘Brain Fog’ before brooding strings come to the fore, resulting in a cathartic release of energy. Layers of angelic voices appear and disappear throughout, forming not only a monumental symphonic movement but also an other-worldly choral work.
Indeed, the most appropriate analogy to imagine while attempting to surmise the sheer magic of ‘N°2’ is the act of making those frame-by-frame animations Vantzou has so patiently and laboriously created in the past: while they are meticulously worked on, over such a long and painfully slow process, the results yielded are both stunningly imperfect and remarkably pure. It’s a characteristic which runs through all of Vantzou’s breathtaking art (from her drawings and sleeve artwork to her dreamlike slow motion film works) which truly heightens all that surrounds you.
‘N°2’ is available now on Kranky.
Birds Of Passage ‘This Kindly Slumber’ (Denovali)
New Zealand-based composer Alicia Merz has been quietly amassing a soul-stirring collection of albums under her Birds Of Passage moniker over the past five years or so. ‘This Kindly Slumber’ — released by German independent label Denovali Records — is Merz’s third solo full-length album and features Merz’s spellbinding lyricism (at times recalling Mark Linkous or Daniel Johnston in their open honesty and raw emotion). Like Grouper’s Liz Harris, Birds Of Passage’s power emanates from minimal musical arrangements (vocal takes are often first takes) where a sense of both purity and intimacy is conjured by Merz throughout, providing for an unforgettable listening experience. As we delve into the innermost caverns of ‘This Kindly Slumber’s mysterious and complex maze of real and imagined landscapes; the sensation one feels is akin to the finest of Murakami’s fictional prose or the most ancient of children’s nursery rhymes and folklore tales. Interestingly, Merz holds a deep fascination with nursery rhymes since a very young age and ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ is combined with ‘And All Of Your Dreams’ to powerful effect. Elsewhere, the deeply personal ‘Yesterday’s Stains’ contains an openness and honesty rare in music.
‘This Kindly Slumber’ is a life-affirming journey which finds Merz navigating the darkest of nights while facing her gravest of fears. On the other side of this kindly slumber we realize that even the darkest of shadows lie closest to light: through the sacred and secret songs of Birds Of Passage we learn that in every moment of hopelessness exists hope. For that, we can be eternally grateful.
‘This Kindly Slumber’ is available now on Denovali.
Marissa Nadler ‘July’ (Bella Union/Sacred Bones)
‘July’ (which documents Nadler’s life events from one July to the next) is the ever-prolific U.S. songwriter’s latest opus of longing and hope. The album can be read and interpreted autobiographically but, crucially, like all of Nadler’s songbook, songs are masterfully left open to the listener’s interpretation. Interestingly, Randall Dunn (Earth, Sunn O))), is at the helm of production duties on ‘July’; providing a first-time collaboration for the pair. Accompanying Nadler is Eyvind Kang (strings), Steve Moore (synths) and Phil Wandscher (Jesse Sykes, Whiskeytown) on lead guitar. However, as is always the case with such a truly unique songwriter, it is Nadler’s breathtaking voice and impeccable lyricism which quietly dominate proceedings. Like such kindred spirits as Missourri songwriter Angel Olsen or British folk legends Vashti Bunyan and Bridget St. John, Nadler’s music captivates the mind (and heart) of each and every listener fortunate enough to cross paths with her. From album opener ‘Drive’ to the forlorn closing piano ballad ‘Nothing In my Heart’, immediacy and directness prevails throughout ‘July’. Transcendental moments abound, from the poetic lyricism to ‘We Are Coming Back’ (“Still I live many miles away / So I can miss you a little everyday”) to the brooding tour-de-force ‘Dead City Emily’ which combines both gut-wrenching honesty (“I was coming apart those days”) and heart-stopping beauty as, ultimately, the prevailing sense of hope outlasts all struggle and inner-conflict (“Oh I saw the light today / Opened up the door”).
As the lyrics of ‘Drive’ return to my mind: “Still remember all the words to every song you ever heard”; I feel those very words reflect the empowering feeling in which the cherished songbook of Marissa Nadler ceaselessly awakens (and continues to re-awaken) in me.
‘July’ is available now on Bella Union (EU) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Reissues of the year:
The Moles ‘Flashbacks And Dream Sequences: The Story Of The Moles’ (Fire)
Looking back on 2014, the first sounds which come to my mind is Australian band The Moles and the magical first-time discovery of their music in the form of their first retrospective ‘Flashbacks And Dream Sequences: The Story Of The Moles’, released via Fire Records. The double-album is packed to the brim with impeccably constructed pop songs, heart-breaking love songs and just about every shade and nuance in between (spanning punk, shoe gaze and indie rock). ‘Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of The Moles’ contains the band’s two studio albums; debut full-length ‘Untune The Sky’ (originally released in 1991) and follow-up ‘Instinct’ (the latter was heralded by The Sea And Cake’s Archer Prewitt as being “as close to perfection as any Beatles or Beach Boys record and it stands on its own as a classic in my book”) and a whole plethora of b-sides and rarities, culled from various EP’s and singles. Led by Richard Davies (who later would join Eric Mathews and form Cardinal), The Moles were formed in Sydney in the late 80’s and unleashed a resolutely unique songbook which would prove hugely influential on a whole host of diverse bands (The Flaming Lips, The Sea And Cake). The original band line-up consisted of Glenn Fredericks, Richard Davies, Warren Armstrong and Carl Zadra, friends from law school who were fans of Flying Nun, The Fall and The Go Betweens, drawing their name from a reference to ‘Wind In The Willows’ and spy novels (John Le Carré and Graham Greene).
What’s most apparent on this defining release is that the truly unique vision (in both Davies’s songwriting and The Moles’ music) deserves to be known — and embraced — the world over. “It’s always an adventure. There’s an element of a well that never runs dry,” Richard Davies told us earlier in the year, on discussing The Moles. It’s a sentiment which could not be more true for The Moles and their utterly visionary and absolutely essential music.
‘Flashbacks And Dream Sequences: The Story Of The Moles’ is available now on Fire Records.
Lewis ‘L’Amour’ (Light In The Attic)
When Light In The Attic Records reissued the much-fabled, timeless cult-classic ‘L’Amour’ by Lewis (originally released in 1983 on the unknown label R.A.W.) not much was known about the whereabouts of its esteemed author, not least the actual identity of “Lewis”, for that matter. The sense of mystery only deepened when consulting the album’s liner notes: Was Lewis still alive? What has he been doing in the intervening years? What other musical treasures are lying around only awaiting to be discovered written by this elusive figure? Crucially, without even beginning to dig any further into biographical detail (or absence thereof), it’s clear that, on listening to ‘L’Amour’, Lewis created nothing short of a bona-fide masterpiece. Heartbreak is immediately evident from Lewis’s lonesome, brooding, ghostly baritone from album opener ‘Things Just Happen That Way’ (“I took her hand / She took my heart”) while a sparse set-up of whispered voice together with only piano, synthesizer (or an occasional plucked guitar) remains throughout — recalling Waits or Springsteen at their most hushed and introspective best — creating a defining album of heartbreak — and love — in the process.
And what about the biographical gaps? Indeed Lewis was, as it turned out, a pseudonym. Lewis’s true identity has proved to be that of Randall Wulff (as confirmed by famed L.A. photographer Ed Colver, who had shot the über-cool cover-shoot for L’Amour’s album sleeve). However, for the purposes of the Light In The Attic liner notes, the mystery remained unsolved (after a long two-and-a-half year search). That is, until August 2014, when the real-life Randall Wulff was found (read Light In The Attic’s amazing article HERE) — alive and well and still quietly making his own masterful music — in what must have been the year’s most enchanting and heart-warming of stories.
L’Amour’ is available now on Light In The Attic.
One Of You ‘One Of You’ (Little Axe)
One of the most stunning re-issues of recent times came this year via the Portland, Oregon-based label Little Axe Records (a label founded when Mississippi Records split into two labels in 2011), with it’s issuing of a self-titled LP by One Of You. The author’s name and identity remains anonymous but we do know this startling collection was made by a Czech immigrant to Canada who set up her own Scarab label in the early ‘80’s, releasing music under the pseudonyms One of You and The Triffids. Having fled her homeland in the late sixties to emigrate to Canada for hopes of a better future and life there, One Of You’s music would be imbued with a prevailing sense of loss, regret and much hardships. The music itself, written in both Czech and English, and arranged in typically minimal fashion (synthesizer, guitar, organ) touches upon outsider folk, folk-psych, Eastern European folk and minimalist music traditions. One Of You’s deeply affecting, timeless music yields moments of powerful intensity while a whole spectrum of emotions, images and textures are unleashed beautifully upon the listener all at once.
‘One Of You’ is available now on Little Axe.
K. Leimer ‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’ (RVNG Intl)
RVNG Intl. is a Brooklyn-based music institution that operates on few but heavily fortified principles, dealing with forward-reaching artists that ceaselessly push the sonic envelope. From visionary luminaries such as Julia Holter, Holly Herndon, Blondes, Maxmillion Dunbar et al, RVNG Intl. has consistently delivered some of the most adventurous, enthralling and breathtaking records this past decade. One of the label’s cornerstones has become the awe-inspiring archival series which has featured (and celebrated) musical pioneers Craig Leon, Ariel Kalma and K. Leimer. The third installment of the archival series — released earlier this year — was Seattle-based sound sculptor, K. Leimer and a vast treasure of ambient voyages entitled ‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’. I simply cannot think of a more special musical document to have graced my life this past year than Kerry Leimer’s resolutely unique and deeply human canon of pioneering ambient music.
A glimpse into Leimer’s creative process is touched upon on the compilation’s liner notes: “The loop provided an instant structure – a sort of fatalism – the participation of the tape machine in shaping and extending the music was a key to setting self-deterministic systems in motion and held clear relationship to my interests in fine art.”
‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’ offers the perfect entry point (across an exhaustive double-album and thirty spellbinding tracks) into the beautifully enthralling and ever-revolving world inhabited by the special soul of Mr. Kerry Leimer.
‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’ is available now on RVNG Intl.
Fikret Kızılok ‘Anadolu’yum’ (Pharaway Sounds)
Although technically issued at the tail end of 2013, legendary Turkish folk singer Fikret Kızılok (1947-2001)’s exquisite collection of singles from 1971-75 (compiled into a 14-track set entitled ‘Anadolu’yum’ and issued by Pharaway Sounds, a subsidiary label of Light In The Attic Records) proved — like the many equally formidable Pharaway Sounds releases — a true haven for music lovers. Merging genres and fuzing styles almost at will (as evidenced by the immense musical arrangements drawing from such diverse sources as Western influences, India and his own native Turkey), Kızılok’s diverse appetite and deep appreciation for music shines through in every one of this magical compilation’s fourteen tracks. From the heavenly and beautifully forlorn Anatolian folk masterpiece ‘Anadolu’yum (1972&1975)’ to the irresistible sitar-aided ‘Gün Ola Devran Döne’ (1971), Kızılok’s musical path would be dictated by numerous external obstacles of the day (namely, the political unrest of his native Turkey throughout the 1970’s) while a pressure to conform to audience’s expectations (Kızılok was a pop phenomenon in Turkey, regularly charting instant hits) proved immense in the intervening years, while he would become most often associated with his best known love ballads from his considerable 1970’s output.
‘Anadolu’yum’ is available now on Pharaway Sounds.
All designs and artwork by Craig Carry: http://craigcarry.net
With very special thanks to all the wonderful musicians and labels for the true gift of their music. And a special thank you to all our readers for reading during the year.
2014 marked the hugely anticipated release of Kansas-born composer Christina Vantzou’s breathtaking second album ‘N°2’, featuring, once again, Minna Choi of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra and Adam Wiltzie (Stars Of The Lid, A Winged Victory For The Sullen). Since its February 2014 album release on the Chicago-based Kranky label, Vantzou has also filmed and directed a film for each of the eleven pieces from ‘N°2’, as well as inviting a host of artists to remix and re-interpret the material from ‘N°2’.
Fractured Air 31: Australian Double-Triple (A Mixtape by Christina Vantzou)
“I made sure to keep some room for experimentation and failure. Leaving room for failure was very important to the overall process of ‘N°2’.”
To listen on Mixcloud:
01. Grouper ‘Made of Metal’ (excerpt) [Kranky]
02. The Dead Texan ‘The Adversary of Evil Budd’ [N°1 DVD & Remixes / Self-Released]
03. Popul Vuh ‘Aguirre I, from ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ (excerpts) [PDU]
04. Daniel Lanois ‘Oaxaca’ [Anti-]
05. Animal Collective (feat. Vashti Bunyan) ‘It’s You’ [FatCat]
06. Grouper ‘6’ [Kranky]
07. This Mortal Coil ‘The Lacemaker’ (excerpt) [4AD]
08. C. Young ‘Shereen’ [Jj funhouse]
09. Earl Sweatshirt (feat. RZA) ‘Molasses’ [Columbia]
10. Grimes ‘Dream Fortress’ [Lo Recordings]
11. The Caretaker ‘False Memory Syndrome’ [History Always Favours The Winners]
12. Arvo Pärt ‘Antifone al Magnificat – 07 – O Immanuel’
13. Eleni Karaindrou ‘Voices’ [ECM]
14. This Mortal Coil ‘Song to the Siren’ [4AD]
15. Eleni Karaindrou ‘The Weeping Meadow I’ [ECM]
16. Jacaszek ‘What Wind – Walks Up Above!’ [Ghostly International]
17. This Mortal Coil ‘Fond Affections’ [4AD]
18. Giacinto Scelsi ‘Anahit’ (excerpt) [CP² Recordings]
19. Moebius ‘Ay Juz Doh No’ [Joseph C Montanaro]
20. C. Young ‘Big Choice’ [Jj funhouse]
21. Animal Collective (feat. Vashti Bunyan) ‘Prospect Hummer’ [FatCat]
The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
“N°2” is available now on Kranky.
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
This year marked the hugely anticipated release of Kansas-born composer Christina Vantzou’s breathtaking second album ‘N°2’, featuring, once again, Minna Choi of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra and Adam Wiltzie (Stars Of The Lid, A Winged Victory For The Sullen). Since its February 2014 album release on the Chicago-based Kranky label, Vantzou has also filmed and directed a film for each of the eleven pieces from ‘N°2’, as well as inviting a host of artists to remix and re-interpret the material from ‘N°2’. We’re delighted to premiere the videos (directed by Christina Vantzou) for both ‘Anna Mae’ (opener to ‘N°2’) and Ken Camden’s exclusive remix for Christina Vantzou’s ‘The Magic of the Autodidact’. All films are made in 100% slow motion using a Phantom Miro 320S slow motion camera. ‘N°2’ is available on all formats via the Kranky label.
Words: Mark Carry
The Kansas-born and Brussels-based composer, Christina Vantzou is one of those rare treasures in the 21st Century Neoclassical realm whose music has graced the world with her stunningly beautiful compositions. The latest album, ‘N°2’ is the appropriately titled follow-up to 2011’s utterly transcendent opus ‘N°1’ released on the formidable Chicago based label, Kranky. What remains vividly present on Vantzou’s newest masterwork is the infinite beauty and unlimited emotion that pours from the intricately layered compositions. Similar to its predecessor, ‘N°2’ bloomed into vital life over a long period of time (over a four-year period to be precise) and it is the composer’s meticulous detail and sheer musical capabilities that lies at the heart of these truly captivating artistic works.
‘N°2’ was composed using synthesizers and a wide array of unidentified samples that were manipulated beyond recognition. Although similar patterns can be traced on ‘N°2’s gradual ambient flourishes (akin to Vantzou’s beautifully constructed frame-by-frame animation work), compositionally, the record shows a more daring approach with added instrumentation and the presence of a 15-piece string section. New addition of bassoon and oboe adds gorgeous colour and texture to the densely layered strings that enriches and heightens the musical journey unearthed by the U.S. composer. A wider sonic palette is used throughout, from the gentle ripple-flow of piano notes on the album’s penultimate track, ‘Vostok’ and prominence of harp on the achingly beautiful ‘VHS’ to the rapturous crescendo of strings of ‘Going Backwards To Recover What Was Left Behind’ where an emotion-filled sadness engulfs your every pore. Elsewhere, slowly shifting layers of brass and woodwind drifts majestically in ‘Brain Fog’ before brooding strings come to the fore, resulting in a cathartic release of energy. Layers of angelic voices appear and disappear throughout, forming not only a monumental symphonic movement but also an other-worldly choral work. ‘Vancouver Island Quartet’ could be the record’s pinnacle as a seamless array of fragments (celestial voices, empowering strings, tranquil harp notes) coalesce together forming a deeply affecting and cohesive whole.
A collaboration between Vantzou and Minna Choi of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra took place once again for ‘N°2’s recording sessions. Prior to recording at Tiny Telephone studios, Vantzou and Choi worked on the notation and arrangements. Later, the Brussels-based artist spent four months pre-mixing the album before close friend and colleague, Adam Wiltzie (Stars Of The Lid, A Winged Victory For The Sullen) engineered the final mixes, in addition to adding his signature sound texture at his studio in Brussels, Belgium. As Vantzou previously described of the mixing process in our interview from last year: “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.”
The results are nothing short of staggering where a ground-breaking work of immense power and cascading emotion heightens all that surrounds you. As the drone embellishes of ‘The Magic Of The Autodidact’ blurs in and out of focus, a magical spell is cast upon all those fortunate enough to witness such unfathomable beauty.
‘N°2’ is available now on Kranky.
From the album “Nº2” out now on all formats via Kranky.
Directed & Produced by Christina Vantzou
Cinematography: Léo Lefèvre Assistant Camera: Elvis Fontaine-Garant
Featuring: Stefanie De Regel & Marcus Doverud
Gaffer: Denis Antheunissens
Key Grip: Artur Castro Freire
Assistant Director: Adrien Monfleur Color Grade: Florian Berutti
Shot with a Phantom MIRO M320S
Special Thanks to: Perrine Wens and BFC, Julie Calbert, Eye Light & KGS
Ken Camden Remix: “The Magic of the Autodidact”
Directed & Produced by Christina Vantzou
Cinematography: Léo Lefèvre Assistant Camera: Elvis Fontaine-Garant
Actress: Stefanie De Regel
Gaffer: Denis Antheunissens
Key Grip: Artur Castro Freire
Assistant Director: Adrien Monfleur
Color Grade: Florian Berutti Shot with a Phantom MIRO M320S
Special Thanks to: Perrine Wens and BFC, Marcus Doverud, Julie Calbert, Eye Light & KGS
Interview with Christina Vantzou.
Congratulations Christina on your truly stunning ‘N°2’ album. You must feel deeply proud of this mesmerizing and beautiful work of art. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your latest masterpiece. Please discuss the four-year period where you worked on composing and recording ‘N°2’ please and the creative process that ensued?
Christina Vantzou: Thank you. It’s difficult to encapsulate a four-year period in a few words. I remember a lot of composing time and then long listening sessions. Sometimes I would listen to rough draft portions of the record while I cleaned my apartment. I had too much raw material at first, so the decision-making process, as far as what would go into the studio, was long and arduous. It’s both meditative and maddening.
It is clear upon listening to ‘N°2’, your compositions are more adventurous than ever before, with use of added instrumentation and heightened layers of immaculate sounds. For example, I love the use of woodwind instruments and the prominence of solo instruments on particular pieces. Can you please discuss your main priorities from the outset, in what you wanted to achieve on ‘N°2’ and the direction you were moving towards from ‘N°1’?
CV: I was sure I wanted an oboe in the sound. Adding a bassoon was second priority together with a bassier string section. There was one track that was intended for woodwinds only – a woodwind quintet. I had put together 15 tracks for N°2’s recording session, and 11 tracks made it on the final album. I made sure to keep some room for experimentation and failure. Leaving room for failure was very important to the overall process of ‘N°2’.
Since the last time we spoke, it feels that the process of making ‘N°2’ follows a similar pattern to that of its predecessor, ‘N°1’, in terms of collaborating with Minna Choi, Telephone Studios in Francisco and indeed, your trusted collaborator Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie. Can you please recount for me your memories of working again with these gifted people and the collaborative process between you and Mina and Adam?
CV: Yes, like ‘N°1’ ‘N°2’ involves close collaboration with Minna Choi in the early stages and Adam Wiltzie in the final stages. Minna and I have built an interesting working relationship together: I think the work we do is special because of her excellence and my naïveté.
For both ‘N°1’ and ‘N°2’, I composed some tracks that were more or less finished in their midi stage, without much transformation, but a lot of tracks were quite sketchy and some were just weird ideas, like a drone-y audio file with a list of instructions on paper and a few images for inspiration. Minna has a way of attacking everything, no matter what stage, leaving nothing untouched or unconsidered.
Although mixing took several months, there’s an efficiency to working with Adam because we have done so for a very long time. Both Adam and Minna were very generous towards ‘N°2’. When the record was passed to Jason Ward at Chicago Mastering service, I felt he took special care of the record too. Jay Pellicci at Tiny Telephone is very much a part of the sound as well. Everyone’s time and care had an influence.
What stage of the process is the most challenging, Christina? I’m always amazed to think of the time, emotion, artistic input and energy that pours into a record such as ‘N°1’ or ‘N°2’ but one can feel that space and time embedded in your heavenly music. For example, working on the notation part of the music with Minna or finalizing arrangements, mixing stages towards the end, are just some of the stages of the creative pathway. What stage comprises the moments you cherish the most?
CV: Every stage has its challenges. Composing is challenging because it’s done in isolation. It takes a lot of time, and most of that time is in front of a computer. When I passed the record to Minna it felt like Christmas. She sent me mock ups for each track — samples transformed into midi arrangements that would then be turned into notation for the ensemble at Tiny Telephone. The recording session was like triple-Christmas, the pre-mixing phase was terrifying at first because the record was a monster. Some tracks consisted of more than 20 layers. The tracks were still forming in the pre-mixing. Hearing the final mixes was like Christmas again, and then I still had to see if anyone was interested in releasing it.
I was intrigued to read about your work as a SAT university entrance exam mathematics tutor that entirely funded the making of your album. I must ask you please about this aspect of your work: is there a correlation between mathematics and music for you, as I imagine there must be some sort of parallel between both worlds?
CV: Math is in music, but in my case the two worlds have not quite unified. That might change…but to date I haven’t composed along to a click track, so the Math goes out the window right there.
My favourite piece at the moment is the gorgeous sonic creation ‘Sister’. The moment the crescendo of strings arrive is one of the many defining moments of this captivating album. I love the layer of ethereal voices that flows beneath and also, the woodwind re-occurring motifs present. Can you please talk me through this piece of music, Christina?
CV: Sure. ‘Sister’ was one of those monster-tracks. The original composition was made in Reason, with a beginning and a middle like what you hear on the final version. Minna added a crazy ending with voices, piano, and winds. I ended up re-working her idea in post production and changing the part she intended as piano to pulsing strings. I also found an instrument line in her midi mock-up that was muted and discarded. I turned that melody into a harp part. All of these additions lead to more and more tracks and big mess in Pro Tools. I color coded the instrument sections to make it easier to navigate. But it was still ghastly. So ‘Sister’ is the only track that Adam did not mix. He refused on account of too many layers.
In terms of samples, can you please shed some light on the various sources these audio recordings originate from? Similar to ‘N°1’, I love the plethora of voices that combines with the synthesizer lines, it works so beautifully.
CV: I used synth samples found on YouTube from early synthesizer instructional videos. I also used some Stravinsky samples (from The Nightingale), Snow White samples (from The Original Disney soundtrack), and there are some John Carpenter soundtrack samples…
Listening to ‘N°2’ almost religiously these past few weeks, the works of Jóhann Jóhannsson (particularly, The Miner’s Hymns) comes to the forefront of my mind, such is the sheer beauty and spellbinding magic unleashed by your music. I can imagine he must serve an influence on your music, Christina? I would love to know what records, gigs, artists you have been most obsessed with of late?
CV: Jóhann is a big influence. As far as I’m concerned in new classical music there’s Jóhann Jóhannsson and then there’s everyone else.
I saw ‘The Miner’s Hymns’ performed in Kortrijk last Spring. My mom was there with me. I played the same festival. I remember it was a stressful week getting ready for the show, but the Johann concert just sucked all the anxiety out of me and put me in a good place for the rest of the evening.
I am a huge fan of your video work that accompanies your own music and indeed the videos of Dead Texan’s music. I would love to learn more about this area of your artistic work and the processes and tools you utilize to create such human and affecting visuals? It’s clear that the frame-by-frame animations — a slow, gradual process — must act as a close companion to the gradual music of your own musical compositions?
CV: The slowness and gradualness of animation and maybe its simplicity as a medium / technology does relate well to the music. Making animations cultivates patience like nothing else. The slow pacing is a big factor in ‘Nº1’ and ‘Nº2’…I’ve tried to make faster music. I started a dance album two summers ago, but everything I make ends up slow and weird.
I’m pretty much attracted to anything slow and weird so for ‘Nº2’ I grew obsessed with a slow motion camera. It took over a year to figure out a way to work with the camera (I used a Phantom Miro 320S) and finally I decided to transfer my SAT teacher earnings into time with the camera. BFC, a rental house in Brussels, also decided to support the project so eventually I got 3 days to work with the camera. These experiments will become the videos for ‘Nº2’. 100% slow motion.
It’s really cool to see both your album and A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s new record enter into the world during the same general time-frame. I love the cover artwork you did for their first record. Can you please discuss this aspect of your work and your drawings — something that has been a constant for you most of your life — and how this feeds into your music? Any other projects in the pipeline, Christina?
CV: I’ve been drawing all my life — my mom is an artist so art supplies filled the house and it was just a part of everyday life. I remember writing an essay to enter art school about drawing. I said it was the only thing I’d done my whole life that I’d never got bored of. My most recent drawings were of young girls and old people. I have years of drawings in my apartment in Brussels and in Kansas City. The drawings are kept inside boxes that are inside drawers, so not many people know about that work. Adam became a huge fan of my drawings and prints at one point so he chose that particular nude drawing for the Winged Victory album. I hear that a lot of people liked it as a record cover.
‘N°2’ is available now on Kranky.