Christina Vantzou: No. 2

No. 2 is in all probability the only album ever to have been wholly funded by someone working part-time as a SAT university entrance exam Mathematics tutor. That's hardly the only thing Christina Vantzou's latest album has going for it, however. Developed over a four-year span, the thirty-five-minute collection also boasts an unusual production backstory, with Vantzou first having composed the material using samples (altered beyond recognition) and synthesizers and then collaborating with Minna Choi of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra to create arrangements for the fifteen-member ensemble to play. Vantzou's follow-up to—what else?—No. 1 carries on the chamber-styled approach of its predecessor but with bassoon, oboe, and an enhanced string section added.

With shimmering swaths of strings accompanied by piano, woodwinds, harp, and synthesizers, the pieces present themselves as pensive chamber ensemble settings in the kind of understated, meditative style that one associates with a composer like Arvo Part. It's also noteworthy that Adam Wiltzie, renowned for his work in the Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen projects, engineered the final mixes at his studio in Brussels, Belgium, given that Vantzou's material exudes an elegiac character much like that often heard in Wiltzie's own productions. In fact, the meditative sequences within “VHS” and “Little Darlin' Seize the Sun” suggest such a close affinity between the two that the material could as easily pass for Stars of the Lid pieces as ones by Vantzou.

Melancholy and ponderous in tone, her pieces unfurl at a slow and stately pace, their evocative qualities bolstered by suggestive track titles such as “Brain Fog” and “Going Backwards to Recover That Which Was Left Behind.” One of the standouts is assuredly “Vancouver Island,” which opens with a haunting vocal passage reminiscent of Giya Kancheli before blossoming into a dramatic strings-based setting enriched by clarinet, while “Sister” likewise impresses, especially during its stirring strings-and-woodwinds episodes. The artful interplay between the oboe and clarinet at the beginning of “VHS” also clearly speaks strongly on behalf of Vantzou's gifts.

If there's a downside to No. 2, it's that some of its pieces are so short (e.g., “Strange Symptoms”) they begin to seem more like vignettes that could have been elaborated upon further as opposed to fully developed compositions. In a thoroughly realized setting such as “Vancouver Island,” on the other hand, there's more than enough going on to captivate the listener and lure him/her into Vantzou's mystical soundworld. And that she's able to cast such a spell in little more than three minutes is certainly an accomplishment in itself.

April 2014