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Two Musicians Turned Minimal Wall Drawings Into Otherworldly Ambient Music

Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett interpret Zin Taylor’s line work as a graphical score on ‘Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface.’

Colin Joyce

Photo by Kai Eric Schwichtenberg 

Christina Vantzou says her first first full-length musical collaboration with John Also Bennett begins with “a dot near a rock.” And if that sounds a bit abstract, well, it is and it isn’t. The duo’s new LP Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface is a loose, shaggy collection of shimmery oscillations, thickets of abstract string swells, distant gasps, and field recordings bound together with a hallucinatory logic that moves seamlessly between memorable themes and foggy improvisation. But it also has a concrete background—or it might be more accurate to say plaster. Vantzou and Bennett based their performances on a 90-meter-long wall drawing by the Paris-based artist Zin Taylor, interpreting minimal drawings of potted cacti, tensile clouds, and more surreal shapes as a graphical score for their sound performance, interpreting its curls, wisps, and staccato strokes as musical gestures.

The project first came about when Taylor saw Vantzou do a similar conceptual performance based on the drawings by the artist Sol LeWitt back in 2012. He says via email that he was taken by the role she performed as a “translator,” turning the art into pieces for cello. “The performance focused attention on the individual author and their ability to generate something entirely new through inquiry,” Taylor says. “This process of translation and composition is completely subjective and invisible, yet the result comes close to proposing what abstraction and thinking can sound like in a way that is open and accessible.“

An excerpt from Taylor's drawings, courtesy of the artist.

Taylor says he finds this approach similar to what he was doing with the drawings themselves, “using an illustrative language to describe what space and time can look like.” Along with Kristina Scepanski, the curator at Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster, Germany, he invited Vantzou to interpret his work. She, in turn, called upon Bennett, who she’d worked with on her 2015 album N°3 in order to perform this translation.

Vantzou describes the process of interpreting the art as if it were almost instinctual. They had only an afternoon to work on their performance, during which the gallery was open to the public. “We decided when to use piano, flute and synths in a methodical way that made sense in the moment,” she says. “There wasn't a lot of time to doubt ourselves.” She says that some of the record’s more droney, abstract passages resulted directly from the structure of Taylor’s drawings, but that the basic structure came from breaking the four walls into two distinct passages, each of which was to take 20 minutes. “The result sounds complete but not overworked,” she says of the time-constraints. “A refreshing contrast to my usual process, which can take like one to five years.”

An excerpt from Taylor's drawings/Courtesy of the artist.

The resulting album, which was recorded live when Vantzou and Bennett performed in the gallery the following day, is illustrative both of this feverish energy and the implicit space in Taylor’s work. Chattery samples make their way across the audio field and synthesizer lines trace graceful arcs, but they never feel overcrowded, a collection of thoughtful marks rather than anxious scribbles. Taylor, over email, suggests that his work “propose a description of what thinking can look like,” and in this, Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface proposes its most salient echo. So much ambient music is concerned with the passage of time, drawing attention to the ways moments are connected to one another and how one thought is linked to the last. This record, by the very nature of its conception, highlights this slow morphing, drawing attention to the in between steps between larger ideas. If you zone out for a moment, and wonder how exactly you got here, you can trace your way back along the dot’s long trail.

On Thursday, February 15, the always-great experimental imprint Shelter Press will issue an LP of Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface. It comes with a reproduction of the drawings that formed the score, which allows for a pretty unique listening experience, trying to follow along with the pieces many elliptical twists.

Vantzou also just released another new tape called Folded Galaxy in collaboration with Shelter Press co-founder Félicia Atkinson as part of a new initiative by the lovely New York record store Commend, and it's equally deep so it's worth seeking that out too. For now though, you can stream Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface up above.

Colin Joyce is thinking of dots, over on Twitter.