For as long as I have been listening to it, christina vantzou’s music has been a gentle, immersible force. Her ability to craft sonic environments that are simultaneously tactile and ephemeral creates extraordinary spectacles where the edges are soft, and the horizon never ends. Emotional depth underlies the expansive aural images of her latest album, no. 5, imbuing the intuitive arrangements with an enchanting elegance. I want to disappear into these soundworlds, drifting through unknown universes sparkling with curiosity and wonder.
no. 5 is out now on Kranky. She can be reached via her website.
I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?
Records and cassette tapes around the house are a strong early memory. My parents love music and had a restaurant, so there was music at home and at their work. I’m a big Tina Turner fan. I’d play her music and dance around the living room. My dad snuck me into The Uptown for a Tina Turner concert at a very young age. I remember him convincing the bouncer to let me in by saying she’s my favorite artist on the planet. The atmosphere in the club was smoky and mystical. It was the sequined mini-dress era, and she did costume changes between songs. Her performance was incredible. It really blew my mind.
Recently, I remembered a Japanese puppet theater performance I saw as a kid on the island of Hydra. It had an intense atmosphere too. There was low lighting, a dark grey set, and dark costumes. It’s a fuzzy memory, but the atmosphere really impressed me.
My Greek family also deeply impacted my approach to music, but more subconsciously. My great-grandmother sang “Miroloi (Lament Song),” an ancient oral tradition that survived the ages in some parts of Greece.
Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?
Yes, but It took a very long time to realize it, to get to the point of composing. I started making records around age 30.
What was the first impetus to start playing music and creating your own sounds?
Recording and playing with sound started by way of a handheld recorder, very casually. I went to all ages shows every weekend in my teens and most of my 20s. Kansas City and Baltimore had pretty active scenes.
In the video department at MICA, I made rudimentary sound compositions for videos and animations. I played electric bass in a band for a hot second. After art school, I worked several jobs as a video editor. Sound editing is still a big part of what I do, so that period was formative too.
Next was 7 years with The Dead Texan. We joined Sparklehorse on a tour in 2007. I played vibraphonette, sang backing vocals, and played keyboards. The time spent around Mark Linkous was life changing. He’s modest and magical. I witnessed truly unexplainable incidents around him multiple times.
Before getting into your latest solo album, I wanted to briefly ask about Multi-Natural, as it’s an album I have returned to often in the last two years. Even with as much time as I’ve spent with it, it never feels settled, as though the music is constantly evolving or there are new details and feelings to always be found. I’m mainly just curious where the idea for this album first came from, and why did you decide to call it something different, i.e., not a numbered album?
Multi Natural is a favorite. It stems from an invitation by Lieven Martens to make an album for his imprint, Edições CN, loosely around the theme of travel and field recording. The invitation was really generous; it helped me listen more closely to the world around. It took some time to figure out how to approach that record. It came together through a lot of experimenting, playing around with simple instrument parts and field recordings, plus adding some JV-1080.
It’s really nice to hear you feel the movement and shifts that way.
I’ve been thinking about those words lately, “settled” and “unsettled.”
In classical music, often, the goal is to settle, be rigid, and arrive at a state of perfection and completion through virtuosity.
In my experience, music is really far from that; it’s felt, shared, it’s really malleable. Sound is absorbed by bodies. I love working with musicians, working with simple arrangements, and working by feel and by ear. Commonplace sounds, musicality in speech, the sound of an airplane engine, the wind, they’re all musical.
OnI, I was inspired by moments when a distant sound, like a faint radio signal, mixes with the wind, or traffic, or a neighbor talking on the phone. It can be really sensual, these haphazard orchestrations.
The title comes from multiple places. It was floating around the dance community in Brussels and a good friend, Ezra Fieremans, said it out loud at a dinner party. It stuck in my mind and eventually felt like a good fit for this research.
Is that a world, or a compositional space, you think you’ll ever return to?
Yes. Multi Natural has been so positive in so many ways. The contributions from Minna Choi, John Also Bennett, Marilu Donovan, and Adam Markievicz (from LEYA) were really generous. The composing took a long time, but the logistics of that record felt really supported.
So let’s talk a little about No. 5. I love your description of a place of “soft borders,” and for me, this sort of aqueous, amorphous feeling of being in between worlds permeates the record. Of all your records, this one prompted the strongest emotional response for me. What were some of the differences with this record when you were making it that led to it being something more vulnerable and autobiographical?
Ready but incomplete.
Soft borders, aqueous, amorphous – I love those words. In the process of making No. 5, I dwelled a lot on the idea of softening, safe passage through borders, or tensions softening.
In the part of Greece where my family comes from, there’s a rich folk music tradition. It’s commonplace to think about sound in relation to its effects on the body. Christopher King, who writes about Greek mountain folk in English, refers to the villagers saying the music “gets into them.” A musician might play really close to the body or ear of someone in the audience to help the music ‘get in’ and produce a healing effect.
On coastal drives in Greece, my father used to say, ‘nobody owns the sea.’ Even if there’s a house with private access to a beach via a private path, he liked to point out that the private ownership doesn’t extend into the sea. And frequently, in Greece, a privately constructed path becomes shared. I thought about those shared pathways a lot.
Another instance in Greece that impacted the record stems from a visit to a natural hot spring in the North. While soaking, I noticed the sides of the rock basin were soft, like flesh. That softness, not quite hard and not liquid, more like plasma, gave off a feeling that stuck with me.
Generally speaking, I wanted the album to feel like a space for the listener to walk through. The track titles describe a trajectory – Enter, Greeting, Distance, Reclining Figures, Red Eel Dream. Each track is storied. The record contains a set of ideas shaped in the oral tradition. It’s ambiguously autobiographical and personal. In terms of construction, I thought a lot about molds and casts. The sculpture on the album cover, from roughly 200 BC, is made from modular molds. This construction style felt similar to the way the music was assembled.
The record starts with the sound of drips in a cave and gets more liquidy towards the middle, in “Red Eel Dream.”
“Kimona I” is a tribute to bank tellers. I love the tradition of paying tribute through song. One day in Brooklyn, I visited a bunch of banks in search of funds, and throughout the day, I wrote down the names of the bank tellers: Kimona, Aleidy, Genesis, Laetitia, Edwin. I carried these names around for some time. Some months passed, and during the No. 5 residency, I asked opera singer Lieselot De Wilde to sing the names. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, a feature film about a worker’s revolt, is the video for “Kimona I.” Themes of labor, inequality, and revolution were/are very much in mind.
“Memory of Future Melody” combines cello, played by Vincent Werbrouck, with synthesizers performed by John Also Bennett. We discussed a palace location, a lake, another time, hundreds of years ago – a giant open air gathering with a strange duo serenading the visitors.
The last track, “Surreal Presence,” is dedicated to Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, whose work I greatly admire and whose books, poetry, and lectures have made a big impact. Many things I was contemplating found their way on the record, like little sound altars.
What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome in making No. 5? Was there any part of the process with this album that really surprised you?
No. 5 was rough and tough at many points. I feel strongly about ensemble work, about musicians and visual artists getting together to exchange. The group part of the numbered records, especially with 4 & 5, was planned with sharedness in mind. But there are entanglements, and there can be troubles and tensions. Sometimes an individual desire comes into conflict with the sharedness, and in these tensions can be a lot of pain, and that pain can stay in the body for a very long time.
There are some contradictions to deal with when making records with an ensemble. It’s a long-term endeavor with many moving parts. In the case of No. 5, a lot of time was spent on funding and preparing for the group time. The full scope of No. 5 was 4 years, with the recording sessions right in the middle. Leaving space, reducing control, and considering what the record is transmitting means there’s a lot of invisible work going on. Clear communication and trust are at play, and they become key aspects of the work.
I find that most appreciate this approach and get inspired by the time spent being creative together. In the worst cases, control is assumed, conversations are bypassed, and an individual desire, or frustration, or conviction takes over this sharedness.
It’s strange to witness this when there’s so much group magic going on. It’s difficult to express all this in words, but it starts to be obvious that we play differently depending on who is around. The space and the spatial filters we’re using play their role, and the idea of being in tribute plays a role. Some of the emergent qualities of the sound stem from this group magic. Christine Verschorren, the sound engineer who recorded No. 4 & 5, has a distinct philosophy about band magic. She believes magic can occur at any time, so she records continuously.
A recent surprise, and a really positive one, has been the performance. Together with Lieselot De Wilde, John Also Bennett, Ben Bertrand, and soon with Holland Andrews, and some friends who’ve jumped in to support the work, the album keeps growing and changing. It’s like a continuous blossoming. It’s cool to witness the work getting stronger, getting ready to enter into the body of future audiences in that soft way.
One thing that has often struck me about your work is how it transports listeners through shifting, interconnected moods and rich sound worlds. What are your thoughts on the transportive aspect of sound and how it, as a medium, can create spaces for shared experience?
Listening to traffic, acoustic instruments, field recordings, bugs, electronic sounds, frequencies… They can all be kind of like swimming. The whole body transforms. With field recordings, we can send information from a specific place, maybe together with a memory and/or a moment of intense imagination. That we can send information to the whole body via distributing music is really exciting to me.
The oral tradition, by definition, is a form of communication between generations, and it’s a way to pass down wisdom. When there’s awareness of music as a shared experience, it’s possible to be more free. Dreaming, imagining, experimenting, or simply believing in the potential of sound – all those things have a powerful presence.
Lastly, I want to briefly ask about field recordings and natural sounds because you have a beautiful way of incorporating these sounds into your work. Especially sounds related to water often have strong connotations and connections for people (at least, it does for me!). So two questions – how do you try to use these kinds of sounds as part of your work? Are there certain emotions or sonic textures you hope to achieve with them, or is it less specific?
Water is full of metaphor. In my lifetime, the Aegean Sea has been a strong, positive influence. Humans, animals, and plants need water, and all cultures around the planet have water deities. Visually, the movement of water has musical connotations. I don’t have a specific aim, but like many composers, I’m drawn to water, its qualities, and its ability to change states.
And what are some of your favorite sounds in the world?
Seafoam and soda bubbles, large gongs, sine waves, birdsong. I recently downloaded a lot of open source sounds of shaving cream.
To close, since the year is almost done now… What were some of 2022’s highlights for you, and what are you looking forward to, or worried about, in 2023?
Watching Morocco get to the semi-finals of the World Cup was a recent highlight. The whole situation around the World Cup is a mess, in my opinion, but watching the spirit of that team was really something. When the Moroccan players dropped in prayer at the end of one of their early matches, I cried.
Music-wise, it’s been great to meet so many artists/producers this year. My partner JAB and I were fortunate to play in a few countries, including Tasmania and Cyprus. It feels like there’s a wave of composers and records coming out with common philosophies – sharing an interesting approach to sound, to the possibilities of mixing acoustic instruments with everyday sounds from a personal, healing place.
More dreaming, more tribute, more mutual aid, more time in common, more sharedness, more common sense, more nature, less time constraints, more earth consciousness