Composer / Visual artist
Without any music background Christina VANTZOU released tree albums on Kranky records and established herself as a self-taught composer and visual artist. She is now acclaimed by the music field both for the audio and visuals she created for her ambient music.
How would you describe you work ?
I usually say that I make ambiance music with classical instruments.
I read you have developed a form of graphic musical notation influenced by abstract minimalists. Why did you decide to rethink the traditional notations system ?
I didn’t go to a conservatory. Not using traditional notation is considered extremely experimental because it doesn’t follow the typical rules. I had to rethink the notation system because I never learned the traditional one. In the beginning this was quite intimidating, but I thought: this is what I want to do so I have to do it. I cannot say that I am in the contemporary-classical music field because it is a genre that exists in a world where there are particular rules, venues, festivals, programs... I feel that the classical world is so strict and this puts huge limits on the potential of these amazing instruments by dictating who can use them, who can create music for them, and where it is played.
You don’t play any instrument ?
I play keyboards but I never had any formal piano training. When I was little I had a music class in my school where I got a little bit of experience. It gave me a base that actually helped me a lot.
How do you plan your work to do this kind of job ?
Since I didn’t study music I do things really intuitively. I use intuition for composing the music, for making business decisions... Everything.
You work and live in Brussels. Why did you come to Belgium ?
I grew up in the US with one American parent and one Greek. We visited Greece a lot and I learned Greek from my grandmother. So I always had a connection to Greece. And even though I grew up and studied in the US, I always thought I would try living in Europe at some point. I didn’t have a specific country in mind and never thought about Belgium honestly. It’s kind of a big accident that I ended up here. After moving to Brussels, I saw that Belgium had a great music and art scene in general. Early on I looked for jobs as a video editor. I found a job as a video editor for the National Lottery and I worked for them for a couple years. Friends I met when I first arrived told me about the artist statute. The idea of the artist statute was totally new for me—it’s something that doesn’t exist in the US. I ended up working here and there and getting the artist statute.
How did you get you artist statute ?
I was involved in a project for a few years called « The dead texan » — an audiovisual project. There was an album released and some touring. It was also my first experience playing music on stage.
Were you doing video editing in parallel with your own art ?
Yes. I had a lot of part time jobs. And in my free time I explored sound. My situation in Belgium was perfect because I could work freelance here and there and supplemented by the art statute, I could spend time exploring a new direction in my work. My background being in visual art and video, I was trying to become an illustrator, a visual artist, or some kind of motion graphics / video artist. I tried all these things and looked for jobs and opportunities and it just wasn’t happening.
I never considered being a musician or a composer. I made several videos and animations for different music projects. These collaborations taught me a lot about different approaches to composing music. I can get obsessed when I get interested in something, and so I started to obsessively explore all the possibilities of the composing tools that I had been exposed to. Extremely slowly (and without taking it seriously at first as a possible future) I let myself spend time developing what would become a first album. It took me a long time to realize that it could be an album which I could release. A lot of things at that time in my life weren’t working out, but one thing I had plenty of was time. So, I continued working with sound without putting pressure on myself. The structure of my life right now is that I just do this because I enjoy it.
When you started working in the music field was it hard to promote yourself as composer ?
Yes and No. It was all new and I had zero outside pressure on me because I didn't have a history as a composer. I was lucky to be affiliated with a great label, Kranky. They did a lot of the work promoting the first album. I also released an experimental film and a collection of remixes with the first record.
Was it difficult to finish your first album? Did you have good reactions from the music world?
Because of my experience touring I had a few really close and very talented musician friends. I often asked them for advice. When I finished composing the first album on the computer, (with virtual instruments) I had a decision to make : leave it like this or try recording the actual instruments. This was a difficult, slow decision for me. It’s hard to convince yourself to do something that you don’t know anything about. But I asked advice from a good friend, Dustin O’HALLORAN. He introduced me to Minna CHOI. She was in San Fransisco and had started her own business : an orchestra called « Magik*Magik Orchestra » They collaborate with musicians and projects of all kinds to add string ensembles or full orchestrations or any classical arrangement. I sent to her the work I had just finished (the electronic version of Nº1) and told her I was thinking about recording the orchestral parts with real instruments. She responded really positively. We worked together long distance. She worked by ear and wrote the partitions out. That was a really exciting step for me and we worked very well together. She later told me I was one of the first women to contact her with this kind of request.
Are there still more men than women in your musical field ?
Yes still. This field has an extremely low percentage of women. To make this kind of work more available to young women, it is really important that changes are made now and more jobs are given to women.
Which skill so you think ismost important to your work ?
Which kind of advice would you give to anyone that wants to follow your path and work freelance in the same field ?
Be ready to put time in, be patient and keep thing as light as possible. Developing what you do can come from an inner drive. There are a lot of external factors that want to steer you an it's okay to have doubts (I do all the time) but somewhere inside you have to be bold to do this work.
You told me about your collaboration on Lumière album of Dustin O’HALLORAN. Do you still work on illustration and motion graphics right now ?
It's been a while since I did illustration or motion graphics, but I still work visually on each [of my] albums.
Interview : Diane LEMBA
Photos : Gilles BUYCK