Christina Vantzou on taking Daft Punk to church and pioneering the “visual album”

On a mission to bring “breathing space” into her orchestral-meets-electronic soundscapes, Kranky artist Christina Vantzou tells Chal Ravens how she’s adapting her new album, No. 3 for her next show at Semibreve festival in Portugal – and why she’s added the robots to her repertoire.

Prepare yourself for a bombshell: Beyoncé didn’t invent the “visual album”. It would be extravagant to suggest that Christina Vantzou’s musical movies were a key inspiration for Bey’s surprise self-titled drop, but credit where it’s due: the Greek-born director-composer has been steadily building up her own catalogue of visual albums since making her name as one half of the Dead Texan, a 2004 audiovisual project with Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie. Since then, Vantzou has expanded her directorial vision into three solo records, pairing her glacial orchestral soundscapes with surreal, slow-motion footage arranged by “dream logic”, as she describes it.

Following the dense, shimmering ambient of her first two albums, this year’s No. 3 signalled a subtle shift in Vantzou’s methods, both in terms of instrumentation, with the introduction of bolder synth sounds and more varied compositions, and in her increased dedication to breaking down the rigidity of the performances, bringing her music off the manuscript page and into more fluid and unpredictable directions.

“I’m getting more comfortable with letting things evolve off-paper. On No. 1 and No. 2, all the arrangements were transcribed and performed from sheets. But when I did No. 3 it became important for me to not use sheets with the classical instruments as much as before, so No. 3 kind of drifted more, feeling it out with the musicians. For all the touring that was done for No. 3 there were no sheets – we worked everything out in rehearsal. So as I move towards No. 4 I’m going more in that direction. The type of composition keeps pretty much consistent, but the way they’re interpreted keeps loosening and there’s more breathing space.”

That breathing space has always been integral to Vantzou’s approach, both as composer and performer. Her live shows are always different, the combination of electronics and strings tailored to the venue and the ensemble she’s working with at the time.

“Every concert is a one-off. The music is not rigid and the classical ensembles vary in size depending on the situation,” she explains. “So it’s different every time, because every ensemble has its own personality.”

Her next performance takes place inside a stunning modern chapel in Braga, Portugal, as part of the city’s Semibreve festival of experimental music (Kara-Lis Coverdale, Andy Stott and Laurel Halo are among the other artists on the bill). The ensemble she’s performing with – a quartet comprising viola, violin, cello and harp – has allowed her to add a piece from outside her album catalogue: her interpretation of Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack.

“I listened to that soundtrack a great deal when I was working on No. 2 and it was a big influence on my composing process. When I finished the record I had one of the pieces from Tron transcribed for string trio and harp. I performed it a few times, once in New York with [New York ensemble] ACME, and I haven’t played it since then,” she explains. “The way that it’s played live is a little bit stripped down – I play a synth part together with the strings. Daft Punk did a really beautiful job on the soundtrack. But I never saw the movie actually!”

Photograph by: Adriano Ferreira Borges

“I’m interested in music that helps produce trance-like states, which have been a part of spiritual practices going back as far as we know”

Performing with a changing cast of musicians forces Vantzou to keep her repertoire fresh, and also encourages mutations in the work as her players explore that vital breathing space. “Even classically trained musicians still have their own particular internal rhythms, things that are natural to them, so I’m really interested in finding that and working with that. It comes across completely different than if I’ve instilled in them my rigid structure,” she says. “Things like exact rhythm and exact changes, very precise things, I throw out the window altogether.”

Unusually, the Semibreve performance won’t be backed by Vantzou’s visuals, as the sun will be too bright during the late afternoon performance for her projections to be clearly visible. Instead, the chapel’s striking concrete and wood interior will be the backdrop for her quartet.

With experimental music increasingly finding a stage in churches (a mutually beneficial relationship, seemingly, in the face of venue closures and dwindling congregations), it’s fitting that Vantzou is concerned with bringing a spiritual element into her work. “I’m interested in things that help produce trance-like states, which have been a part of spiritual practices going back as far as we know. Sound has been used throughout history, and prehistory, in a spiritual sense. We don’t have a lot of good documentation about that, but I find myself reading about those things as much as I can and thinking about the spiritual aspect of sound and image and performance.”

Performing in a church can expand that experience, she believes, regardless of your religious beliefs. “A friend of mine actually goes and visits churches all over Europe [to explore them] from an energy standpoint. If you visit older churches, they took really good care of where they were placed – maybe the altar was right above a spring because it gave a feeling of cleansing and rebirthing, all the stuff that is energetically important for people gathering in a spiritual space.”

As part of a growing constellation of experimental music festivals worldwide, events like Semibreve are becoming important incubators for artists whose ambitions may need a financial or logistical boost.

“It’s quite a lot of organising on the festival’s part to make it so easy for me to come in and do what I do, with a beautiful space and audience,” Vantzou points out. “These individual festivals are a huge support for artists and build a community for likeminded people to share ideas – even without necessarily talking to each other, just going to each others’ concerts.”

“When theres a public audience, with everybody gathering together, it inevitably pushes what you’re doing further.”

Semibreve takes place in Braga, Portugal on October 28-30



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