Published Apr 06, 2018Belgium-based orchestral ambient composer-director Christina Vantzou grew up in a pre-internet age, when music that you were exposed to was largely, if exclusively, shaped by what was physically around you in local record stores, concert halls and zines, and spread by word of mouth. She staked out the local haunts, attending all the all-ages shows she could around her Kansas City, MO hometown, while Paul Simon, the Eurythmics, and Talking Heads never left the family car stereo. A hand-me-down tape of Tina Turner was on repeat in her Walkman, which led to a hugely influential moment when her dad convinced a bouncer to let her attend a Turner concert across the street from the restaurant that her parents ran, a night that cemented her fascination with the hypnotic power of live performance.
Later, while attending the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Vantzou was exposed to the influential experimental films of Maya Deren, but she wouldn't truly absorb her work until years later, after the rise of internet ubiquity allowed her to explore and learn about music and visual art freely, if obsessively. Yet, she still sources much from personal relationships. Just a few years back, a friend convinced Vantzou to listen to The Expanding Universe by electronic music legend Laurie Spiegel, an album that would become a core influence for her 2015 full-length, No. 3.
"The cover, the colour fade, the text on the cover, the interview: it was all very captivating," Vantzou tells Exclaim!, recalling Spiegel's landmark record from 1980. "Hearing the piece that's titled 'The Expanding Universe' on the B-side, and reading the liner notes at the same time, I felt so energized — [it was] something I felt an affinity for and a connection to immediately. I remember how many times she referred to 'time' in that interview in the liner notes, the function of time. The way she constructs a lot of her music is through a very simple source sound that becomes a chorus slowly and involves a lot of strange time complexities and overlapping.
"All of the changes in her music don't fit on any grid; they're fluctuations that are so complex, based on the algorithms that she designed to create the music. Our approaches are different, but that was a big source of inspiration. When you come across the language that explains what you've been doing, it's really helpful. Up until that point, I had never used a click track in composing music, and I never wanted to. I tried because a lot of people told me it would be so much easier when I take my music to work with different ensembles, but it wouldn't work for me. It's my natural tendency to want to work in a more liquid time-space."
A fluid approach to creativity is all over No. 4, her fourth album for Kranky. Vantzou steered away from the word "improvisation" that has become codified to the point of creating expectations of a particular style, rather than fulfilling the name itself. Taking influence from Spiegel, Brian Eno and Jon Hassell, she organized the studio sessions with the likes of vocalist Angel Deradoorian (ex-Dirty Projectors), pianist Beatrijs De Klerck, and synthesists John Also Bennett (Forma) and Steve Hauschildt (ex-Emeralds) in a freewheeling style, where her collaborators were encouraged to add to or remove things from their collective efforts in progress. She actually prepared quite a bit, with the idea of equally balancing the composition-based pieces with the openly processed tracks, but the results pushed her to take more chances.
"We had enough time in the studio to do a lot of the open stuff, but we also did more rehearsed stuff, more stuff that had compositional input in the obvious sense from me," Vantzou explains. "When it came to mixing, there was enough material to make quite a few more finished tracks — way too much stuff. I took a lot of time mixing. I have final mixes of pieces that were the more together ones before recording, and I just didn't feel like they had the right qualities. They sound nice and all, but, for this record, as I found myself getting deeper in the process, it was only the most open ones that made it on the record, 100 percent. Nothing that was premeditated made it on the record. It was a surprise and also almost a defeat, because the ones that had been premeditated on more, I took so much time on those as well. I lost a couple months, but the sound at the end seemed to demand that from me."
Vantzou's grandfather was, among many things, a water-colourist. As children, she and her sister would hang out on his desk, where he placed the paraphrased Louis Pasteur quote, "Chance favours the prepared mind." Like everything else in her continually expanding universe, she absorbed the gravity of that tidbit, and a small piece of it is expressed in No. 4, an album home to worlds within worlds where everything is connected.
No. 4 is out now on Kranky.