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The Muffled Classicism of Christina Vantzou

A track off her new album, No. 4

“So, when you play this live, you just have to figure out a way to construct a huge bell jar to put over the entire orchestra except the cello player.” That is how a friend of Christina Vantzou’s described her aesthetic back to her, per Vantzou’s own recollection when I interviewed her a few years ago on the occasion of her third album, Nº3 (Kranky). It’s an apt comparison. There is a restraint, a sense of sounds emanating down a dark hall, music heard through thick fabric, to Vantzou’s recordings, and the approach holds strong on her new album, No. 4, released earlier this month.

This No. 4 track, “Staircases,” exemplifies Vantzou’s approach. Traditional classical elements, heavy on sedate strings and a minimal piano line that descends like the title subject, are heard in a quiet but intense echo, one in which space — whether real or virtual, physical or a matter of post-production — is as much an instrument as the instruments themselves.

Album posted at christinavantzou.bandcamp.com. More from Vantzou at her youtube.com channel and at christinavantzou.com.

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Remixing the Chamber Ambient Music of Christina Vantzou

Steve Hauschildt reworks "Stereoscope"

Christina Vantzou’s first three solo albums of chamber ambient music are numbered, like Led Zeppelin’s before hers. There is Nº1, Nº2, and Nº3, the most recent of which was released late last year. Naturally the collection of remixes is seen as an iteration, not a release unto itself. Its title: 3.5. She’s assembled a great crew to rework the originals, and the first track, Steve Hauschildt’s take on her “Sterepscope,”was posted a few days ago as a promotion. Other participants in 3.5 include Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (aka Lichens), Loscil, John Also Bennett, Tara Jane O’Neil, the Sight Below, CORIN, and Francesco Donadello. Bennett played all the synthesizers on Nº3, Vantzou told me when I interviewed her last year (“The Bell Jar Filter”). Bennett and Loscil also contributed to the Nº2 Remixes collection, and Loscil was also on the Nº1 Remixes album. If the original “Stereoscope”was quiet and unassuming, with a glitchy undercurrent that suggested rain on a living-room window, then Hauschildt’s rendition is full-on orchestral. (You can stream the original at youtube.com for comparison.)

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/platform. The album will be available as of March 18 at christinavantzou.bandcamp.com. More from Vantzou at christinavantzou.com.

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10 Great 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums

And 10 additional notables

I haven’t done one of these lists in several years. But I’ve come to realize that while the whole idea of top 10 lists is absurd — especially in a realm, like electronic music, that is such an embarrassment of riches these days — it can be a healthy exercise to take stock of the year before moving on to the next one. I think the recent 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com is especially on my mind, how an archive can be of use as time passes. Here in alphabetical order by artist are 10 especially great albums from 2016, and an additional 10 as well. For this list “ambient/electronic” is a broad field, from drones to broken beats to neo-classical, all works that emphasize texture as a form of composition, and that evidence a fully intentional approach to their instrumentation.

(1) Autechre — elseq 1-5 (Warp)
The IDM godfathers return with a massive, stately, sprawling collection, five LPs’ worth of broken beats, industrialized entropy, and conspiratorial static. Each piece has a rhythmic singularity, an organizing principle of beat, that then unfolds through alternately subtle and chaotic states of generative complexity.

(2) Madeleine Cocolas — Cascadia (Futuresequence)
Piano-based compositions merge in myriad ways with electronics, found sounds, and voice. And yet, for all the variety, all the depth of sonic field, under Madeleine Cocolas’ meticulous direction they never break the jewel-box self-confinement of modern classical minimalism.

(3) Sarah Davachi — Dominions (Jaz)
A second solo full-length from Sarah Davachi goes even more introspective than did its predecessor. The five tracks here, all made from synthesizer and violin, offer nuanced variations in sonic fabric, shifting minor bits of thread count, color, and patterning as they proceed.

(4) Masayoshi Fujita + Jan Jelinek — Schaum (Faitiche)
The latest collaboration between the Japanese prepared-vibraphone player Masayoshi Fujita and German electronics maven Jan Jelinek takes its title from the German word for foam. Gentle textures belie the rich source material and generous interplay.

(5) Daniel Lanois — Goodbye to Language (Anti-)
In many ways Daniel Lanois finally this year released the album his most ardent fans longed for, in which production techniques he’s provided to Bob Dylan, U2, and so many others are finally given their own space to stretch out. He brings his textural focus to his and Rocco Deluca’s guitars for a moody, glitchy achievement.

(6) Loscil — Monument Builders (Kranky)
The prolific Scott Morgan, who performs and records as Loscil, unfolds one forbidding techno-schooled, minimalism-informed soundscape after another, sometimes shot through with an urgent momentum, often left to their own artfully bleak devices. Sharing credit are Nick Anderson on occasional French horn (bringing to mind Ingram Marshall’s stately “Fog Tropes”), synthesizer player Joshua Stevenson, and a vocal sample of Ashley Pitre.

(7) Machinefabriek + Gareth Davis — Shroud Lines (White Paddy Mountain)
An extended excursion into live improvisatory collaboration, with the gregarious and prolific Machinefabriek on drone- and noise-oriented synthesizers and Gareth Davis on bottom-rumbling bass clarinet.

(8) Matmos — Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
The duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) team up with a washing machine and a host of guest stars for an album of glistening, churning, pop-inflected noise, all charming beats and anxious atmospheres. The guests include Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun).

(9) Nonkeen — The Gamble (R&S)
Nils Frahm steps out from his solo-piano realm to produce, with fellow Nonkeen members Frederic Gmeiner and Sepp Singwald, this strong collection of sedate fusion grooves. Think early Miles Davis electric filtered by way of a hybrid Erased Tapes / Stones Throw aesthetic, all downtempo funky ether. There’s one track on this, “The Saddest Continent on Earth,” that I listened to more than just about any other piece of music this year. (Andrea Belfi is credited with percussion on just over half the track.)

(10) Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — Ears (Western Vinyl)
The ace synthesizer player shares eight stereoscopic fields of sonic play, each a fully inhabited aural world of instants and melodies, riffs and figments. There’s a whirligig festiveness to each undertaking, chamber pop snapshots of an incredibly vibrant imagination at work.

And 10 More Notable 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums
In alphabetical order by artist: The abstract hip-hop of (11) Arckatron’s Subtle Busyness (Twin Springs) ”¢ The electronically mediated vocalese of (12) Julianna Barwick’s Will (Dead Oceans) ”¢ The austere, sedate drone confections of (13) Donnacha Costello’s Mono No Aware (self-released) ”¢ The field-recording-inflected microsound of (14) Federico Durand’s A Través Del Espejo (12k) ”¢ The dramatic vocal/feedback explorations of (15) Lesley Flanigan’s Hedera (Physical Editions) ”¢ The whirring synth+ (voice, violin, more) of (16) Marielle V JakobsonsStar Core (Thrill Jockey) ”¢ The outworld dub of (17) Toshinori Kondo + Barton Rage’s Realm 2 Parallax (Toshinori Kondo Recordings) ”¢ The electronica collages of (18) Funki Porcini’s Conservative Apocalypse (self-released) ”¢ The inchoate data pop of (19) Tristan Perich’s Noise Patterns (Physical Editions) ”¢ The remixed neo-classical of (20) Christina Vantzou’s 3.5 (self-released).

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The Bell Jar Filter

Talking with Christina Vantzou about graphic scores, structuring improvisation, and the compositional facets of post-production

Vantzou (standing) in a performance at M-Museum in Belgium with a six-piece cello ensemble

Vantzou (standing) in a performance at M-Museum in Belgium with a six-piece cello ensemble

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 »

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One More Month of “Sonic Frame”

My sound installation at the San Jose Museum of Art

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The installation “Sonic Frame” that I developed for the San Jose Museum of Art will be exhibited for one more month from today. The exhibit runs from October 2, 2014, through February 22, 2015. I’ll be giving a little talk the early evening of February 19, 2015, at the museum as part of the latest edition of its Art Rage event series (details will surface at sjmusart.org).

“Sonic Frame” is a three-screen response to Josh Azzarella’s video “Untitled #8, 2004.”Each of the three screens has original pieces of music, 21 total, that are intended to serve as scores to the video. Each score changes the viewer’s experience of the video, which in its original form is entirely silent.

The scores are largely drawn from members of the Disquiet Junto community of weekly music projects (disquiet.com/junto), and were created by the following musicians: Taylor Deupree, Van Stiefel, Natalia Kamia, Naoyuki Sasanami, Carlos Russell, Mark Rushton, Paolo Mascolini (Sōzu), Stephen Vitiello, Steve Roden, ævol, Marcus Fischer, Julia Mazawa, the duo of Westy Reflector and Lee Rosevere, Ezekiel Kigbo (The Atlas Room), Steiner (Stijn Hüwels), Christina Vantzou, Scanner, Inlet (Cory K.), Jean Reiki, Marco Raaphorst, and Bad Trails.

There is a video in which I talk about the piece. The thorough summary is here: “How Sound Frames Vision.”

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