Mysterious Narratives: An Interview with Christina Vantzou

February 6, 2012
By Rachel Evans

Photo by Julie Calbert

Christina Vantzou is a Kansas City-born, Brussels-based artist, composer and musician, who recently made her solo debut, No1, on Kranky in late 2011.  The sounds on No1 are hauntingly beautiful; you can read my review of the album here. But sounds aren’t all this mysterious artist has been up to. Christina, who studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore until 2001, is also a composer of the moving image. This may come as no surprise to those of you who are familiar with The Dead Texan, the duo of Christina and Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid). Her most recent work in video is a visual counterpart to No1, and deserves just as much attention as the album itself, if not more. Although the finished LP features recordings of a seven piece orchestral score version of the album, the initial incarnation of the music was a single 45 minute long piece composed of synthesizers, samples, and Christina’s voice. Through a serendipitous collaboration with Mina Choi, No1 was transformed into the opus that it is today, realized through the sounds of the Magik*Magik Orchestra. And while listening to Christina’s album is quite an experience all on it’s own, it is more than complemented by the visuals… a whole new experience.

You can now purchase the DVD of No1, featuring the full 47-minute film, plus remixes of the album here, and watch the film’s trailer and excerpts here. I recently had the chance to chat with Christina via email. Stay tuned in as she discusses her earliest memories of creating music and art, the link between her moving images and sounds, the story of how she went from Kansas to Brussels, and the collaborations she’s had along the way:

1. What is your earliest memory of recording sound?

Photo by Julie Calbert.

I made mixed tapes from the radio with my little stereo when i was small. Later I had a hand held voice recorder and took it everywhere for a while.

2. What was it like growing up in the midwest?

I grew up in the contrasting environments of the mid-west and the Mediterranean because I spent every childhood summer in Greece- June through August.  One year in high school we didn’t go to Greece for some reason and I was so happy to finally experience a summer in KC.  Turns out I wasn’t missing ANYTHING. I went to all ages shows from a very young age- there was a place called the Rhumba box in downtown KC and subsequent all ages clubs came and went. I grew up in an exceptional art community which is still evolving in KC.  My mom and most of her friends graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute and then had kids who ran around in wild packs at their parents’ art openings, block parties, and barbecues.  As a youngster, I completely took this lifestyle for granted.  I thought every city was like this.

3. I know you studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in the late 90′s. How did you end up there? How have your studies influence your music, or does it work the other way around?

I went to an visual and performing arts magnet highschool in Kansas City.  It was like the tv show Fame only super ghetto.  I applied to a few art schools and MICA gave me a full ride so I went there.  I learned a lot of problem solving and self-amusement skills.  I also got into video at MICA.  I entered art school thinking I would be a painting major and left focusing on video and animation.  I did some letterpress and screen printing too.  I learned how to use Pro Tools and also analag and digital video editing.  I was exposed to a lot of music that I didn’t know existed before…I went to a lot of shows and met some people who greatly influenced my taste in music.

Drawing by Christina.

4. Brussels is a long way from Kansas… How did you end up in there?

I was on my way to Greece one summer- nothing new there..but this one summer the flight was unexpectedly re-routed through Brussels.  And there was a 24 hour layover.  This was not supposed to happen and I remember being annoyed and in a hurry to get to Greece.  But I met Adam Wiltzie in those 24 hours.  He had been living in Brussels a few years already. We chatted like we knew eachother all our lives.  He got a chance to see my videos and declared that we should start a new project together. That became The Dead Texan.  About a year after we met I moved to Brussels.  We worked on The Dead Texan full time, released it in 2004, and started playing shows.

5. What are the differences between creating music and art in the states, versus in Brussels? Do you think your album have turned out about the same, or drastically different, if your preliminary recordings/arrangements had been done in the states instead?

The main difference, for me anyways, is $$$.  There’s a lot of funding here to help artists focus on their work full time. For example I received a grant which paid for the Magik*Magik orchestra recordings.  Anyone living in Belgium and working on an album can apply for some money to help pay for studio time, engineers, mixing, mastering, the whole enchilada.

6. While composing No1, I’ve read that you spent much of your time in isolation with synthesizers, samplers and your voice. How big of a role would you say your isolation played into the final product of the album? Was your choice of instrumentation during the composing process more by choice, or out of necessity?

I worked discreetly, that’s true.  I didn’t make a declaration to all my friends and family  saying not to contact me, that would be in isolation to compose an album.  My life in Brussels in that period just happened to be very isolated.  I zoned everything out and worked on sounds.   I did everything intuitively.

7. I’ve also read that you used Reason and midi a great deal. How did you get started working with programs things like Reason and using midi? Have samples always played a big role in your music/art?

The Dead Texan tour introduced me to Reason and midi.  Adam put together the set up for me because it was so easy and portable.  I really took to Reason and started exploring it on my own.  As a non-musician / visual artist working with samples just made perfect sense.

8. No1 has many exquisite moments which remind me of a variety of composers on the more classical end of the sound-spectrum. Can you tell us your biggest musical influences?

My elementary school teacher Juan Lamana was a good influence.  Juan took us to the KC symphony a few times.  He was so enthusiastic about it.  I listen to all kinds of music.  Like a lot of people, rap and hiphop are big influences.  I’m also big into film scores- I made a playlist for Fluid Radio recently with some favorites: http://www.fluid-radio.co.uk/2012/01/film-scores-vol-i-christina-vantzou-soundtrax/

Photo by Julie Calbert.

9. Many people know you best via The Dead Texan, and your association with Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid). What are the differences in your approach to recording your solo album versus your approach when collaborating with Adam?

For The Dead Texan I started out making the videos.  We worked separately and he recorded and arranged everything behind closed doors. On stage I was completely under his direction until I got to be comfortable enough with Reason.  Little by little I became more present in the live sound and then I started having strong ideas about how I wanted to tweak things.  I learned a lot from Adam, he included me in his methodology and Nº 1 certainly has a familial sound because he was like a mentor.  But working on Nº1 was completely different.  It was my first solo attempt at composing, recording, mixing, mastering, everything was new to me.

10. What was it like collaborating with Minna Choi and the Magik*Magik Orchestra? How did that partnership come to fruition?

Minna’s a genius plain and simple  She’s one of those people that’s just nice to be around.  And she does her job with this mystical, transcendent grace. She’s a total bad-ass at managing, directing, and conducting magik*magik.

11. In addition to being a musician and composer, you’re also an artist. What is your earliest memory of creating art?

My art education started from day one.  I don’t remember ever not drawing and making pictures of some kind.  I was always thoughful and thorough and a slow starter in art classes.  I remember making a ceramic bunny that I was very proud of.

Drawing by Christina.

12. An an artist who has worked in the mediums of video, animation, and drawing, do you draw any parallels in your approaches to creating visual or multi-media art and the recorded sound?

The creative process is almost the same for me in a mediums.  It’s a matter of sitting down doing the thing, focusing and following through.  I start putting pieces together, assembling, sequencing, layering, editing, adding, scraping off the residue, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting.

13. Who have been your biggest artistic influences on your style and process of video art, including artists, filmmakers and directors?

I was big into cinema verite in art school.  I loved watching Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and the Maysles Brothers blew me away.  I watched everything by Chantal Akerman, who incidentlally is from Brussels, and I was equally into works by Norman McLaren and the Whitney Brothers.

14. Another recent interview with you spoke of the 47 minute-long film that is meant to accompany the album. Can you shed a little light on the connection between the visuals in the film and the sounds on your album, No1?

There’s an uncanny sedative effect when you put the 2 together.

15. I know two excerpts of the film have been released as “music videos” so far. Will the full film be available in some way in the near future?

It’s on DVD- I’m self-releasing it together with remixes of Nº1.  The official release date was Jan 23, 2012.

http://www.christinavantzou.com/SHOP.html

16. Even before listening to No1, I was completely taken with the album’s art, it’s particularly nice! Is there a story behind the cover image?

My friend Julie Calbert took that photo.  We got together a 2 or 3 times and just went walking around Brussels looking for strange spots.  I wasn’t thinking we were shooting the cover but after some reflection the photos seemed right.  It hints at some kind of mysterious narrative, like the videos do.

17. I’ve heard that No2 is already underway… What else can we expect from you in the coming years?

Nº3, Nº4, Nº5, Nº6, Nº7, and Nº8.  I’m determined to get to 8.  Then we’ll see.

You can watch the trailer for No1 below:

No1 Trailer

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