Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett – Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface (2018)
Gazing back over a century of remarkable productivity, the worlds of avant-garde and experimental sound practice display an almost unparalleled diversity of ideas – some sympathetic, others intent, as a mater of principle, on pulling the rug. When formed as a cohesive and semi-linear body, core hopes, ideas, and sympathetic, arching themes are often lost in the web, perpetuating an obscurity which has haunted it since birth. Marginalized, neglected, and often under attack, lines in the sand are easily drawn – a move inward to defend hard fought ground. These territories of practice can be thankless, frustrating, insular, factional, pretentious, snobbish, defensive, and marked by infighting, but, despite those inevitabilities, consequences, or faults, remain among the most remarkable and rewarding creative cultures to grace the globe.
Within the snarl of history, truth and guidance can be found, but this discovery is best achieved within the raw material – the work and first hand account, rather than the distillations created by those ever present voices trying to tell us what this thing is – very often perpetrating the myth of artistic singularity and cults of personality. No artist is an island, nor are their works. The products of avant-garde and experimental practice are remarkable, not for their discrete moments or individual achievements, but for the discourses and bonds of community that reside within – the path traveled, rather than where it ends.
The origins of the avant-garde – a product of High-Modernist idealism, are rooted in a hope for the greater good – art as a means to establish something resembling collective understanding and interaction. In its physicality, and within the metaphor of its creation, it is a tool intent on bettering the world. Every successive generation has built on the achievements of those who have proceeded them, as equally the support and ground gained by their peers. In a society that has increasingly pays homage to individualism, this truth can be easily lost. Occasionally something reminds you of what drew many of us into the fold – openness, togetherness, and collaboration, joined by the simple joy of sound. One such case is Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett’s new LP, issued by the French imprint Shelter Press, Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface – a conceptual collaboration with the visual artist Zin Taylor.
As individuals and artists, Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett have deep links to the spirit of community and collaboration at the heart of avant-garde and experimental sound practice. It is not an idiom or aesthetic territory, but rather a way of existing, as much participating with, and contributing to, the world beyond themselves. Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface, as both an object and organizations of sound, is a kind of culmination and emblem of the best aspects of our current context, managing to balance remarkable creative and intellectual ambition, while being accessible and inclusive – a distillation of a century of avant-garde accomplishment returning to the root intentions, themes, and hopes – a multilayered conversation – two artists with each other and a third – Zin Taylor, speaking outward into the world.
Vantzou and Bennett have been members of the experimental music community for years, belonging to a generation of peers and practitioners – artists like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Gregg Kowalsky, Felicia Atkinson, and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who, rather than embracing formalism or standardized orthodoxy, pursue composition with a sense of open-eared curiosity adventure – experimentation as social and intellectual proximity – counter-cultural music, imbued with an unmistakable sense of possibility and joy. Over the last decade Vantzou has issued a series of noted solo works on Kranky, while Bennett has primarily worked within Forma, a trio with George Bennett and Mark Dwinell, producing LPs for Spectrum Spools and Kranky. Despite the accolades they have respectively gathered, what’s striking about Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface is that it represents a substantial creative leap for both – as though something in their relationship activated a form liberation and release, propelling them away from the grip of comfort, into the vast unknown.
Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface, particularity when placed against Vantzou and Bennett’s respective bodies of previous work, illustrates one of those strange paradoxes of experimental music. It is an incredibly ambitious, abstract, and challenging body of work, which, through its intimacy and ever present sense of risk and honesty, manages to be remarkably inviting. Its challenges transcend the associations and signifiers its base elements – sonorities, structures, and sources, to become something far more – its displacement and unfamiliarity, becoming the comfortable and familiar.
The album, recorded live at Westfälischer Kunstverein in Munster, Germany, in May of 2017, is the outcome of those wonders which come from interdisciplinary collaboration. It is response to 90-meter panoramic wall drawing created by Paris-based artist Zin Taylor. Drawn in black-and-white, Taylor describes the project as a psychological backdrop – associative form of visual storytelling – haze collecting along the surface of the wall. Following the work’s completion, the artist invited Vantzou and Bennett to interpret the work as a graphic score. The result was a forty minute live performance in two parts, subsequently becoming the two sides of the album. Each discrete piece and title – ten in total, corresponds to a specific section or object in Taylor’s drawing.
The album, which is largely constructed from modular synthesis, flute, and field recordings, consistently provokes a single word – liberation. Taylor providing a tool which liberated Vantzou and Bennett from the shackles of inner self, Vantzou and Bennett liberating Taylor’s work from the limitations of two dimensionality, Vantzou liberating Bennett trajectory of his own practice, Bennett liberating Vantzou from hers. It is the sum of its voices and parts, none of which could have been without the next. It is collectivism realized through sound.
A writhing, engaging, immersive sonic landscape – nodes assembled in an expanse of space, Thoughts Of A Dot As It Travels A Surface is one the most exciting efforts in contemporary electroacoustic music I’ve heard in years. It is an emblem of all which is great in our world – a reminder of our roots, spirit, ambitions, and hopes, which, despite all that it is and does, is simply stunningly beautiful. My hats go off to the trio of collaborators and Shelter Press for bringing into the world. I’ll let the music speak for itself. You can check it out below and pick it up from Shelter, or from a record store near you.