Christina Vantzou makes a dense, rich music that brings old-world classical textures into a contemporary electronic realm — and vice versa. She directs her own videos, drawing not only on the slow-motion aesthetic that guides her music, but also on the training she received as an art student in Baltimore, Maryland. Video is what brought her into music in the first place. She collaborated with, among others, Adam Wiltzie, of Stars of the Lid, and their work together culminated in recordings under the name the Dead Texan.
Having lived in Brussels, Belgium, for over a decade, Vantzou has released a trio of solo albums whose evocative stasis never fully hides the sense of sheer effort that is required for her to consistently achieve this level of concerted, sublime quietude. This interview was timed to coincide with the release of her latest full-length record, Nº3 (Kranky). She agreed to be interviewed, and after some phone calls we did this via email as a back-and-forth. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that discussion, in which she details her compositional process, describes how she interacts with chamber ensembles by utilizing graphic scores, and reveals that the sound she most wants to achieve may be that of an orchestra performing inside a giant bell jar. Her use of graphic scores and mid-performance flash cards bring to mind the experiments of Frank Zappa and, later, John Zorn. For one track on the new record the “score,” as she describes it, was a prepared recording that musicians listened to on headphones and responded to in real time. We discussed her graphicscores.com website, which she launched to explore common ground between visual artists and musicians, including John Also Bennett, Peter Broderick, and Julia Kent.
Interspersed throughout are photos shared by Vantzou that depict her visual scores and her live interaction with musicians. Also below are two videos from the album, both of which she directed. (And full disclosure: Vantzou contributed a score to a museum installation, “Sonic Frame,” that I developed for the 45th anniversary of the San Jose Museum of Art based on a video by artist Josh Azzarella.)
Vantzou makes music that doesn’t so much blur the lines between what is broadly considered “classical” and “electronic,” as it is that she lets the two conceptions overlap until wonderful moiré patterns result from where they do and don’t inherently align.
Marc Weidenbaum: Just to start with, what brought you to Brussels?
Christina Vantzou: I was passing through. I was on my way to Greece. I’m half Greek, so I would travel to Greece a lot, and I had a plane flight that was rerouted through Brussels. So, I had an unexpected stop in Brussels, and I liked it and decided to stay. Well, I did go to Greece, but I ended up moving to Brussels not long after that. It was all these unexpected circumstances that introduced me to Brussels. I’ve been there since 2004. When I moved to Brussels I spoke the kind of French that you learn when you learn French in American schools, so very little, but I did take French classes in elementary school and high school.
Weidenbaum: That’s around when the Dead Texan work came out.
Vantzou: Yeah, the Dead Texan work started in transition from when I was living in Baltimore. I remember starting there and then continuing in Brussels. I was working on that for a couple years — 2003, 2004 — and then focused on touring with the Dead Texan the next few years.
Weidenbaum: Please say a little about your art-school education.
Vantzou: I went to MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. They had a general fine art degree, which is common now in art schools, but it was not so common at the time. It was the “newest” major in a lot of art schools. You could shift around to different departments. It got made fun of within the school at that time. While now interdisciplinary work is really well accepted, at the time I remember the general fine art department — which was called “GFA” for short — was referred to as “generally fucking around.” [Laughs.] I got into art school after I got a full scholarship based on a very strong ceramics portfolio. [Laughs.] I was doing a lot of ceramics but I thought I would be a painting major. And then after my first foundation year I decided I wanted to do GFA as a major where I ended up doing mostly photography at first, black-and-white and color, and then slowly I started focusing more and more on video. My last two years I took mostly all video and animation courses. I took a sound class and learned Pro Tools, which I still use today. I think on my degree it says “general fine arts major with an emphasis on video.”
Weidenbaum: Were there instructors there who were especially instrumental in honing your sense of what you wanted to do?
Vantzou: Yeah. There were two or three people in particular who were influential in their open-minded approach to being practicing artists in the world. I remember there was one teacher in particular. We spent a lot of the class time just watching music documentaries. We watched the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan, and on and on. Anyone could recommend one; we’d watch it. I got really interested in this genre and even thought, as a video artist at the time, that I would work in this field. I was really inspired by cinéma vérité and the artists making these documentaries. That particular class had a number of individuals in it who have become successful visual artists. I think the teacher inspired a lot of us. His name was Jeremy Sigler, and his class was called “Parapainting.” We also had to form bands as part of the class and each band played a show at the end of the semester. Read more »