“Math Became An Obsession”: Christina Vantzou on the Making of “No. 4”


Christina Vantzou‘s solo work ventures into stunning, complex ambient passages. Her latest album, No. 4, is perhaps her most musically varied work yet, summoning up an array of haunting emotions while instilling a sense of bliss through the density and melodic qualities heard throughout. In advance of her show in Brooklyn on April 7th as part of the Ambient Church series, I talked with her about the making of the album and some of the literary influences on her music.

One of the pieces on No. 4 takes its title from a Jorge Luis Borges short story. What led to that decision, and how did you convey the mood and imagery of that story in music?

It started by John Also Bennett lending me a copy of Everything and Nothing. It was my first read and I connected to the concepts— like the idea that 2 identical texts can be totally different because of context alone, and the philosophical deconstruction of language and perception. On each of the records the titles get added at the very end. I keep a list going during the process and sometimes the list phase goes on for a couple years. There end up being a lot of terrible titles on the list but by the end some themes emerge. This time there were 3 tracks that I struggled with in terms of title. Nothing worked from the list so I turned to Borges. I opened the Borges short stories to random pages 3 times. First time my eyes stopped on the word “doorway.” 2nd time, “Some Limited and Waning Memory” and the 3rd time, “Garden of Forking Paths.”

There was a longer gap between No. 3 and No. 4 than there was between No. 2 and No. 3. When do you generally know when a new album is complete? Do you ever find yourself with compositions that you know will fit a future album better than whatever’s next for you?

There are a lot of times finished tracks that don’t get released. On No. 4, roughly 30-35 pieces were finished and 11 made it on the album. Even if some of these tracks have things that are interesting about them, they don’t get shelved for future albums. They serve some kind of purpose, and their purpose isn’t release-fated. An album is complete when the mastering process is over. Tweaks occur until the very end. I’ll often change final mixes during the mastering process.

This time math became an obsession. Extended endings were added to a couple tracks and Jason Ward, the mastering engineer, varied the silences between tracks so that the entire album would be exactly 44min. Each track is exactly 4min on average.

I was particularly curious about the artwork for No. 4 – of your albums, it seems like the most abstract. What was the effect you were seeking for this particular work?

A very good friend of mine, Julie Calbert, shot all the album covers. Each cover is an obscured portrait. This time around some of Julie’s negatives were damaged from being left out on the kitchen table. A few liquids spilled and she was curious what kind of effect it would have. When the negatives were scanned out came some abstract swirling forms and also a portrait that was barely recognizable—this became the cover image.

Both “Percussion in Nonspace” and “Some Limited and Waning Memory” have particularly memorable titles. At what point in the recording process do titles enter the fray?

I like titles. They can make you pause and reflect on a few words. It’s like poetry. It can also be a way to get messages through. “Some Limited and Waning Memory” is from Borges and “Percussion in Nonspace” was picked for a few reasons. The track is a recording of acoustic percussive instruments. Because of live processing and filters added, it’s impossible to tell what kind of acoustic space the recording happened in. ‘Nonspace’ is a term that I picked up from friends in the contemporary dance and performance worlds. ‘Non’ meaning the absence of something – in this case ‘space’ – which for me represents an acoustic space being erased and replaced by a virtual one. It also represents the nonspace I inhabit as a composer. The creative process for making all the records has involved a partial withdrawal from and refusal of traditional, inherited systems and structures. Radical thinkers Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman have been a big inspiration lately.

No. 3 featured Loscil on one track, whereas Steve Hauschildt makes an appearance on the final piece on No. 4. Do you generally know from the outset that you’ll be collaborating with other artists for these pieces?

The remixes have at times been unplanned testing ground for future collaboration. Intuitively, and based on Steve’s remix for No. 3, it was clear that there was more to explore. It’s a step by step kind of thing to know if someone is going to work well as a collaborator. People pop up in mind or I meet someone by chance, and either way I try to set aside time to talk to the person. Steve and I worked long distance sharing files back and forth. With Scott (Loscil) we talked about doing a study of sub bass pulses, and he sent me a variety of files that eventually turned into the track “Stereoscope.” In the case of Angel Deradoorian, I reached out to her by email and we met in New York. When we met in person we didn’t talk about the album at all and it was crystal clear we would work well together.

Each of your albums has had a remix collection accompany it. Do you think hearing what other musicians have done with your compositions has led you to new musical places that you might not have thought about otherwise?

Yeah, a commitment of sorts is made when audio is mastered and a record is pressed. I see it as one stage of an otherwise opened ended process that could have many multiple outcomes.

The remixes are an endless reminder of what happens when raw material is shared. How much liberty one takes and whether things are added or subtracted are all interesting in and of themselves. There’s never 2 remixes alike, it’s a multi-dimensional thing.

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