Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous nine interviews, as well as additional articles and features, here.
Christina Vantzou released her debut solo record No. 1 on the august Kranky label, just a few months before we launched ACL in early 2012, and we’ve followed her career carefully since. Though we knew her as one-half of the audio-visual duo The Dead Texan (alongside Adam Wiltzie), we were not prepared for just how captivating we would find her serene classical ensemble drones. What structure there was seemed to come more from organic development than any imposed rigidity, as seemingly free-floating clouds of strings and mellow horn swells emerge and dissipate. Ethereal vocals add layers of ornamentation, blurring with the sonorities of the ensemble. Her sophomore effort, entitled simply No. 2, increased the size of the ensemble with the addition of several woodwinds and was met with critical acclaim, including topping our charts for Top 10 Modern Composition and Top 10 Albums of 2014.
Last October Vantzou released her most ambitious record yet. No. 3 is certainly still in the vein of her earlier work, but the addition of more prominent synthesizer and electronic parts and an emphasis on bass frequencies adds a greater tension to the work than was discernible on the earlier recordings. Vantzou’s skills as a composer are informed by her outsider status, with no formal musical training, and especially her experience as a filmmaker. Her compositions are relatively open, and her compositional technique lends itself to constant reinterpretation depending on the restrains of a given performance. Each of her three solo records have also been subject to reinterpretation resulting in three remix albums, the most recent of which was just released. Entitled 3.5 (No. 3 Remixes), this seems to be a recognition of the way that her creative process is driven forward through channeling her compositions through the lenses of various collaborators; whether it is in transforming her voice and MIDI sketches into fully-formed recordings with the help of her ensembles, through the process of mixing and reworking those recordings in the studio, producing arrangements of those recordings for live interpretation, or being reimagined and remixed by other artists. Scott Morgan (Loscil) is the only artist to have contributed to all three records, and in fact produced the sub-bass frequencies that became the root of some of No. 3.
No. 3 is also distinct from its predecessors in that it relies on a slightly more rigid sense of time. Vantzou tells me that she came to think “of certain pieces as “pillars” and certain pieces as “landscapes,” and that was before we even did the notation.” The more ambient and atmospheric sections became landscapes buttressed by the more structured pillars. This solution grants No. 3 a greater sense of cohesion as an album-length work than her earlier records.
In preparing for our interview I had I thought of Phill Niblock as a point of comparison for a variety of reasons: as an “intermedia artist,” his approach is that of a non-traditional musician; he also works with film, and with 16mm, as does Vantzou; he’s based in Belgium; his work tends to utilize classical instruments; it is a kind of drone (though quite different from Vantzou’s work); and most relevantly, he faces perhaps similar challenged in scoring compositions for orchestration. In an interview with Paris Transatlantic, he notes that “pretty much the ProTools file is the score of the piece.” But after a long conversation with Vantzou these comparisons began to feel mostly superficial. Vantzou’s initial voice and MIDI sketches do hold up on their own, at least if the version of No. 1 predating her collaboration with the ensemble Magik*magik is any indication. Again, each iteration of her compositions seems to be a related but distinct creature, depending on the conditions. Vantzou creates very stripped down processes, a form of minimalism that produces the best results when the interacting elements are kept relatively simple. In this way, Vantzou’s work seems to me a strong example of the kind of aesthetic that this series champions: the ability to produce something beautiful from limited resources and techniques, through a process of careful attention and listening.
Born in Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas as is often claimed in the press), Vantzou studied Visual Arts at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. Two years after finishing art school, she found herself in her now home of Brussels, mostly by accident. After collaborating with Wiltzie in the Dead Texan, and citing inspiration from the late-Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse), she was driven to work on her own compositions, a process that for her is still very much linked to the creation of her films. In fact, though she used Reason for the MIDI parts on No. 1, she arranged the compositions in Final Cut Pro rather than a traditional Digital Audio Workstation.
Vantzou’s influences reflect this, as she cites film composers, sound designers, and artists more often than musicians. The titles on No. 3 gesture towards Laurie Spiegel and DJ Screw, two very different artists but both make perfect sense. Yet she draws more inspiration from a rare figure like John Carpenter, a filmmaker who composed his own scores, relying on repetitive minimalist synth compositions, as a particular influence for his ability to turn his limited skills as a musician into a strength. She also speaks highly of Walter Murch, who did the sound design for Apocalypse Now, and mixed other’s of Coppola’s movies. Bobby Beausoleil’s soundtrack to Lucifer Rising is maybe most interesting to my mind. A member of the Manson Family, the soundtrack was composed and recorded from jail, as intense a constraint as one might imagine.
This interview was conducted over Skype in late October, and edited and refined by email in the months since. We discuss her development as a composer, her experiences touring and adapting her compositions for live performance, her use of graphic scores and cards for conducting, and much more. (Joseph Sannicandro)
JS: How did the Dead Texan get started? Your role was initially creating video to accompany the music?
CV: Yes, I created video and animations to accompany the audio. Adam had started composing the music for The Dead Texan long before we met and together we made it into an audiovisual project. We began sharing files when I still lived in Baltimore and we continued the project full time when I moved to Brussels. My voice is on a couple of the tracks: “Glen’s Goo” and “When I see Scissors I cannot help but think of you.”
I’ve read that Adam drafted you to help with the live audio, but did you have any prior experience with music?
Well, no, not really. I’ve always listened to a lot of music, I went to shows in Kansas City, where I grew up, starting from a young age and later in Baltimore where I went to art school. I always had friends in bands but I was never in a band myself. The only sound experience I’d had was a ProTools course at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in their video department. I made a lot of compositions by layering samples and using simple effects. When The Dead Texan record came out Adam said “we’re gonna play some shows and you’re going to play keyboards,” and I said, “you’re crazy, I don’t play keyboards” and he said no seriously, someone has to do it and it’s easy. I remember, he just kept saying, “it’s so easy, a monkey could do it.” [laughs] He set me up with Reason and a MIDI keyboard, I learned my parts, we rehearsed, and then we played our first shows. I had major stage fright, I remember my hands shook, a lot, and I worried the shaking would cause my hand to slip and play the wrong note. Being on stage made me paranoid and I thought about potential mistakes each and every concert. Eventually the shaking stopped, and I started to relax and grew to really love exploring sounds.
Do you approach music from a similar compositional head-space as you approach your visual art or art in general? Some people are really adamant against using visuals and for it to be just about the one sense, so is it harder to separate in your case?
I work on video and sound in a very similar way. Film and film soundtracks are what I’m mostly inspired by. Nowadays, when I watch a movie at home I like to listen through headphones in order to hear the sound design together with the score. It’s amazing when it’s done really well. I’m attracted by films because it’s a medium where sound and image exist together. I do like working on music on its own, but it’s a nice challenge to work with both sound and image and find a relationship that works between the two. But on the other hand, like you said, sometimes the two just do not belong together, I totally get that too. In some performance situations the screen can be awkward and intrusive to the music and I end up just closing my eyes. It can be a really huge problem sometimes and a total disaster. Even though that’s what I spend my time doing. [laughs]
It seems that, as a composer, there are maybe similarities in working with film; they’re both really studio practices. You can work on something until it’s ready, and then it goes out into the world. I wonder if you have any shared techniques in terms of your workflow and how you approach creating this work. We can talk about performance later, I know that’s a whole different sphere. But do you find any homologies between them? Working with slow-mo in video, and composing the way you do, for instance? Are their commonalities between how you compose film and how you compose with sound? How much are they even separable?
It suits me to work on music over a long period of time. Things take shape in small incremental steps. I never sit down and compose a track in one sitting. I just do one layer at a time and it builds slowly.
I tend to start each record by gathering a lot of material: music, images, videos, texts,…And then I take a lot of time to review and sort this material…I tend to have way too many ideas at this stage so sorting helps me figure out what’s pertinent. Then I usually sit down and start writing musical phrases, in whatever way I can, usually by playing a keyboard. For the video I start formulating scenes in my mind and writing down what’s in them. Often it’s a female character walking or doing a simple action.
Slow motion is something that I’m very drawn to in both sound and video. 100% of the video material for Nº2 and Nº3 was shot in slow motion with a camera called the Phantom Miro. It’s a very special camera in a league of its own. Using this camera was made possible by a Brussels camera rental house called BFC. Slowing down sounds is something a lot of musicians employ, it can be addictive.
The other thing I tend to do to both sound and image is leave things very open ended and subject to change. I generate a lot of material to work with and I edit heavily. Sometimes if feels like total chaos. There’s definitely moments where a year and a half into a project and major financial debt I’m thinking, I don’t even know what I’m doing. [laughs] But then, things sort of find their way.
In both cases you have this push and pull with the material itself. Your computer blueprint isn’t exactly a score because you’re waiting to see where the acoustic instruments take it, and responding to that reality.
Yes, a lot of the original ideas go out the window at some point. Which is great because that opens space for everyone who steps into the project to have space to bring what they bring. I like to leave room for unplanned things and let things take shape without me forcing it.
At a certain point, after you’ve worked through the live orchestration, for example, do you then consider it finished, or is it always open to reinterpretation?
It’s always open to reinterpretation. From concert to concert the material changes. I do like to perform, and keeping the tracks flexible and open to different interpretations keeps things interesting. I like each performance to be its own thing and for the musicians involved in each concert to bring something of their own. I offer a clear structure but the rest depends on a collaboration that develops with the ensemble. This is how I’ve worked from the beginning and I’ve been lucky to work with musicians who get into this aspect. The constant adding is crucial. It keeps the thing alive.
I find something interesting in the reciprocity, and the tension, of going back and forth between the virtual of ‘the box’ and ‘the Real’ of the ensemble. Over the course of the three records, you began with a 7-piece on No1, then a 12-piece on No2, to a 15-piece including electronics on No3. I wonder, firstly, if you’re planning on growing even more on the next record, or if you’re going to take a left turn somewhere. Seems like, how much bigger can you get?
For Nº3, I knew I wanted a big ensemble, or an orchestra if possible, and for everyone to be in the room at the same time. Nº2 was recorded with a 12-piece, but the recording was made in sections, over two days. Strings first, then winds and horns, recorded individually. It’s a very efficient way of working but at the same time I wanted to see what kind of sound could be produced by a large group playing together. For Nº4 I have an urge to scale back down and work with a few close collaborators. I am thinking about writing a couple quartet pieces for Nº4.
Did recording everyone in the same room on Nº3 include the electronics?
The electronics on Nº3 were recorded separately. I had three days to record with the orchestra (in Belgium) and a couple weeks later all of the synths were recorded in Brooklyn, New York.
And you played the synths?
All the synths on Nº3 were played by John Also Bennett. He plays with a trio called FORMA and also a duo called Seabat. I had heard the Seabat record, Scattered Disc, after No2 came out and loved it, particularly for its use of synths, so I had John in mind to do the synth recordings on No3.
Though No3 isn’t a radical departure–you’ve got some similar sonorities, similar timbres, it’s recognizably your work– listening straight through all 3 solo albums, the shift is certainly more apparent than between No1 and No2, which of course are by no means less individually distinct. But the nature of the synths seems to have noticeably changed your style. Are the introduction of synths and a more structured approach to time related? Nº1 and Nº2 was composed without time structure or steady click.
I knew starting Nº3 that I wanted to explore the bassier spectrum of sound, both electronic and orchestral. Taking more time with synths made sense because of their capabilities. They sound great layered with strings and they can reach really low frequencies. There was a double bass, trombone, and horn in the ensemble–together they produce a very nice and bass-y sound. Often the 14 classical instruments and voices on Nº3 form a light cloud of sound around the electronics. This sonic quality emerged in large part in the mixing. I did the majority of the pre-mixing through headphones –it was an extensive exercise. I spent a couple months on this step. I worked on the layers until the edge of the orchestra’s sound and the edge of the synth’s sound fused and softened, and they sort of melted together. The mixing work felt like using a dry brush on an oil painting to get the smooth finish. The final mixes were done by Francesco Donadello, who has an extremely refined ear for the kind of sonic territory the record exists in. He handled the final mixing step with great care. The mastering was done by Jason Ward, also a specialist.
When you were talking about your approach to instruments and sound, I thought of “The Magic of the Autodidact,” and it seems like your approach is very much an idiosyncratic one in that you’re not locked into the training that a musician or composer would go through, and that seems to be more of an inspiration for you than a constraint necessarily. Or, better put, it’s been a very productive constraint for you. (If, perhaps, a frustrating one.)
When I was working on No1, I felt like I could almost talk myself out of finishing the record, because what did I know about recording with an ensemble? I feared working with classical musicians would never work because I didn’t know their language and I cannot tell you anything about composition in any kind of academic way. I still can’t. But as soon as I started trying things out, I realized everyone was open to all my suggestions.
I have a lot of choreographer / dancer friends here in Brussels—there is a big contemporary dance scene–and a dancer friend came to see a show of Nº1 and said, “there’s this really cool autodidact thing about your work. You’re just figuring it out and making things up as you go along, making up your own way to communicate with the musicians, and it all works just fine.”
So, that’s how I came about that title…
Nº1 before collaboration with Minna Choi and Magik*Magik orchestra
What drew you towards working with classical ensembles, is it just the instrumentation, or something else?
I initially composed Nº1 in Final Cut Pro and in Reason. In Reason I worked mainly with virtual instruments and MIDI– using horn and string sounds the majority of the time.
Around the time I was in the final steps of composing Nº1 Eluvium released Copia. I remember reading that Copia was all MIDI, no real instruments. At the time, it caused a bit of a controversy but I thought it sounded great, and I got encouragement from hearing it. I was on the fence about what to do for a while, but I eventually went down the road of recording with classical instruments because I was already working with the so many virtual classical sounds.
Do you expect to continue that relationship with classical ensembles, or can you imagine branching out into other types of groups altogether?
I can see both. I would like to continue working with classical ensembles. I feel really drawn to the sounds that these instruments can make, but I also feel like it’d be nice to go back to just working with samples, and make something really minimal, and fully electronic, out of home recordings and field-recordings and things like that.
You did these two remix records, so I’m curious what your reaction was, and how hearing others interpret your music may have changed the way you thought about your music in anyway, or if it influenced your subsequent approach to composition.
After mastering Nº1, I wondered what someone else might have done with all the recorded material. And so I went about asking people if they would like to remix the tracks. All remixes turned in have been great. Something really beautiful and different comes out every time. It’s a great way to collaborate. It’s simple and painless on all sides. Ken Camden made a remix of “The Magic of the Autodidact,” and I preferred his remix over the original. He simplified the main theme in a beautiful way. I ended up asking him if I could perform his version, which I did a few times. I made a graphic score out of his remix, adapted it for strings, and I added a voice part on top. So the thing grew and grew…
Since you’ve mentioned performing your work, I wonder if you might talk a bit about how tour works. At first you were hiring different ensembles in each city. Are you still using this approach?
On Nº2 I worked with all Brussels based string players, where I also live, with the idea that we could rehearse and really work on the material together. Time to rehearse was a luxury. I had worked with different ensembles until then because there was just no way to fund the travels of a group of string players. It’s still nearly impossible to be honest. It takes a lot of diligence to organize and finance each show.
Well, I spoke with Kyle Bobby Dunn about this a few years ago, about the limitations of touring, with brief (or no) rehearsal, and I wonder if you have had similar experience.
The very first show I did for Nº1 was opening for Balmorhea in a church in Gent. It was Balmorhea’s first show on a European tour and they had flown from the US on the same day. They had a string trio, piano, and generally a lot of things to set up, so their soundcheck ran quite long. I had asked Balmorhea’s string players if they’d play with me, by email, a few weeks prior to the show and they all kindly said yes. We agreed, over email, to do a mini-rehearsal during soundcheck. I spent many days preparing flash cards with notes on them to hold up during the set. I practiced the timing of it by myself in my apartment and intended to try this out in our mini rehearsal. In the end time ran out so there was no mini-rehearsal and almost no soundcheck. I remember the audience walking in to take their seats and realizing we would have to wing it, 100%. I asked the three string players to follow the cards and made up some simple hand gestures on the spot to control a couple parameters. It all worked perfectly and I learned volumes about what can be done with no rehearsal.
Has working with musicians in Belgium made the funding of your concerts easier at all? Are there arts grants that you’ve been able to take advantage of?
I can easily say this series of records would not exist without the support, in the form of grants, from the Belgian government. Nº2 did not receive any Belgian funding but Nº3 and Nº1 did. Nº3 was performed with the full ensemble three time in Belgium thanks to a few very supportive venues here.
You mentioned a little bit about your role in the live performance. Do you always use the cards to conduct?
I used the cards all through Nº1 cos I knew there would be little to no rehearsal time for every concert. For Nº2 I stopped using cards but kept the subtle cues. Lately cues are only needed for transitions, like when to come out of a long drone-y passage and move onto the next thing.
I was playing around with graphic score ideas a lot performing No 2. What struck me was… I came up with so many graphic score ideas and tried em all and it seemed like the simplest instructions always yielded the best results. So the most recent graphic scores I’ve done have been really simple. Sometimes I just assign a key to the bass instruments and assign a key to the higher instruments and let there be some variables and as long as everything harmonic together you end up with this really unique tonal piece just by assigning those things. Scores like this are very easy to perform in their simplicity.
A E D was one of em. And that became a piece on No 3 called “Entanglements.” [see figure of score on music stand] In the recording session I had a few other instructions and I ended up scrapping those and the final score was just that one. A E D, sometimes C.
So that composition came out of the recording session?
That was a score I tried out in the recording session and I had a big digital clock that everyone could see and set the timer for five minutes and then we recorded it and that was that. And I spent time mixing it for sure but I think it was just a take. And by that point we’d recorded all the structured tracks and we’d had a rehearsal and so the direction of the sound was pretty clear at that point and they just played. I gave them the score and said very little. I think we tried staggering the entry of the instruments a little bit, and that’s it. Otherwise they just produced this cloud of sound over five minutes. That was it.
In terms of the evolution of your notation system, were you drawing inspiration from anyone in particular?
Yeah, Sol LeWitt. I was invited to play a concert near Brussels a few years ago inside a Sol LeWitt exhibition. I made a bunch of graphic scores– it was the first time I’d tried this–and created them with LeWitt’s work in mind. He’s someone who wrote out instructions for his pieces to be executed by other people. His wall drawing pieces are a series of instructions, and then anyone can make them. Musical notation works in a similar way. The graphic scores scores I made for that performance featured featured Sol LeWitt-like stripes. Julie Calbert took a great photo of that show where I camouflage onto the wall painting.
You have mentioned before the social conventions of the classical music hall being off-putting in some ways. What kinds of venues have you performed in?
I just played in North America in a church, an art gallery, a radio station, and an experimental venue called Trans-Pecos. It’s always been like this, a big cross section. I’d love to play in more movie theaters. There a big screen, comfortable chairs, and I like playing on the floor.
I wonder, what have your audiences been like? Similar types of audiences across these different venues?
Audiences are really all over the place, I think. I’m not sure. I don’t know who comes to the concerts! [laughs] It’s definitely not the high school crowd.
I played a concert recently and after the show one of the house engineers told me, “oh, I like what you’re doing, it’s really cool, but it’s going to be difficult for you to get people to know about this music because it’s too weird for the classical crowd and it’s too weird for the pop music crowd.”
Things are starting to change though, people want to relax at a concert of ambient instrumental music more and more.
In Europe, or Belgium anyways, anything interesting and new in the classical genre tends to get an audience. They love that stuff over here.
You’ve talked quite a bit about Brussels, and so I wonder, can you say something more about your relationship to the city? It seems like it’s been a really nurturing environment for you.
The concept of artists being subsidized here creates a laid back life-style. No one has much money, or any money, but there’s still support–a lot of support–to make things happen. Many of my friends here are busy traveling artists, constantly in a grant writing cycle and working on large scale performance projects.
I was in Brussels just once, passing through for a few days, and you’ve really made me reassess my initial impression, which was that is was a bit stuffy and sleepy and all glass and steel. Now you’ve made me curious about what I missed. I want to come back and dig deeper.
Did you go to any concerts or anything?
No, it was at the end of two months of traveling and I was just on my way to catch my flight home and after Berlin and Napoli and Paris it just seemed like a very different kind of city, you know?
It’s a strange place. Belgium is a young country. You have France and the Netherlands on either side, and it was the territory that those two countries, and other nearby countries, used to have their wars on— Nobody wanted to fight on their own land so they always used this middle ground. At some point Belgium was created to pacify the borders. But long before that Brussels was a city. It’s been around for a very long time. You still see the castle walls around from the original fortress that it was. It was its own sort of place, not really part of France or the Netherlands.
Now there are a lots of different bubbles here, it’s very international. There are things going on all the time but it’s not a loud bustling city so it feels quiet too. It’s dark and grey and rainy but I don’t mind that.
Have there been cuts due to austerity measures taken post-2008 as in other countries, like in the Netherlands?
Yeah, there have been. In the last five years the Netherlands made drastic cuts. Institutions that had been supported for years no longer had their funding. Belgium made cuts but sort of phased them in, and they weren’t nearly as big.
I’m curious if maybe you could speak a bit about your influences. You mentioned an interest in sound design. Are there any directors or particular films that come to mind?
Stanley Kubrick. The Shining soundtrack in particular. It’s fantastic. The music selections are so great and I’m a big fan of the work Wendy Carlos did on the score, reinterpreting classical pieces.
John Carpenter, because he composed a lot of the music on his films himself. It’s just so rare.
David Lynch together with Angelo Badalamenti are a beautiful combination, of course. Very inspiring.
Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising with soundtrack by Bobby Beausoleil.
Terence Malick. I watched Tree of Life with a pair of good headphones, when I was working on Nº3. I know people either love or or don’t get that movie, but I think the sound design is incredible.
Chantal Akerman’s films have always been very inspiring. She passed away recently [5 October 2015]. She was a Belgian filmmaker.
What about maybe from other spheres?
I visited the Dream House several times in 2015. Did you ever go there?
Yeah, I’ve been there a few times.
I love visiting Dia: Beacon. I went a few times lately.
And Wiels in Brussels.
One final question. “The future” is pretty bleak, huh? There’s increased dissonance, high frequencies, rumbling sub-bass. Should we listeners read into this choice to end the album? Is it too early to ask about your future plans?
The future is extremely simple, loaded minimalism.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Christina.