How do you loosen time? Many consider time to be rigid and inescapable, but it is not. Much of the world just ‘lost’ an hour by welcoming spring with Daylight Saving Time. Take a long-haul flight, and time becomes elastic. Even when you are still, it can ebb and flow in times of great distraction or focus. We need not be governed by our own invention.
Christina Vantzou cites sleep and ‘the loosening of time’ as profoundly impactful on her work. From one angle, the pair seem at odds – the first is acceptance of the body clock’s regularity, the second rejection of time’s regularity. But just as time can escape its rigid structure, so too can sleep (it is a 20th century idea that it be confined to one uninterrupted chunk of the 24-hour cycle). This lack of structure and delineation is especially pervasive across the splendid and understated No. 4. Its textural ambience seems to drape over the liminal space between the absolutes of day and night, wakefulness and sleep. Vantzou has always straddled modern composition and ambient; here she finally steps toward the latter, as though in a dream. It’s a natural transition.
“Sound House” is the barest of pieces, a light synth texture partially illuminating a corridor that grows increasingly ominous, as a droning cello beckons us onward. Are we sleepwalking? If so, the haunting vocals that end the track suggest a dreamer ill at ease. Elsewhere, prosaic titles commingle with musical abstraction. In “Doorway”, gently piercing strings penetrate the soft furnishings of cello and piano as though rending holes in the ordinary, creating passages to the extraordinary. “Staircases” is more lucid. A mournful string ostinato – one of few distinctive melodies across the record – reins in a fragmented, distracted piano line. But repeated listens reveal layers of vocals and synths like diaphanous curtains to a strange outside.
All the tracks share this translucent quality, borne of either the airy timbre of the wordless vocal and synth layers (“Glissando for Bodies and Machines in Space”), or the hesitant or languorous acoustic instruments (the piano in “Some Limited and Waning Memory”). The voices are many – keys, strings, harp, vibraphone, marimba, vocal and percussion – but their use is sparing and their dialogue minimal.
And those voices are not always in agreement. There has always been dissonance in Vantzou’s work, but on No. 4 the colours are pallid. Dissonance has evolved into eeriness. A monotone bass line guides us through “Garden of Forking Paths”, and we try not to look up at the wraithlike forms we imagine encircling us above. An unknown being beckons us at the start of “Lava” – the record’s most salient moment – but it soon disappears into a mist of strings. Were we dreaming again? Together with label-mate Steve Hauschildt, Vantzou offers us a moment of levity with closer “Remote Polyphony”, whose cleansing arpeggios and drones chart us a steady course from disorientation toward wakefulness.
I suppose we should see what time it is. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)