Interview: Stephen Vitiello

vitiello_photo_s.jpgStephen Vitiello creates sound installations that often feature pristine recordings of natural environments and phenomena – the Amazon rain forest or flapping moth wings for example– sonically magnified to expose their internal detail and beauty. His installation work also focuses heavily on the use and implications of space as a compositional parameter. Vitiello has released several CDs and his work has been performed at The Tate Modern, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Kitchen, NYC. His work was also featured in the 2006 Biennale of Sydney and the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He is currently Assistant Professor of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University.

On September 21, 2007, Vitiello visited the University of Virginia. We sat and discussed his work for an hour in the university’s Jefferson Rotunda. The recording and transcript of that interview is presented below.

Listen to the full interview. Approximately 52 minutes.

Peter Traub: Welcome Stephen Vitiello. This is an interview that we’re doing for the Networked_Music_Review blog. To start us out, could you tell us a little bit about your musical background and where your interest in electronic music came from?

Stephen Vitiello: My background, it really went from being in punk rock bands and rock bands and sorta noise rock to kinda gravitating toward sound track and starting to collaborate with visual artists in the late 80s and being exposed to other ways of making things, other processes, and realizing that I didn’t have to play guitar straight pick down, and that there were other ways to approach a guitar. Through that being introduced to someone like Fred Frith and then from Fred Frith understanding John Cage – different ways of manipulating instruments and the prepared guitar then exposing me to the prepared piano. A lot of what happened was, as I would collaborate with different artists I would really start to try to think ‘what’s a kind of process that would work with their process?’ Different people work so differently and their colors are different or their thought is different, and so just through that I really learned more about experimental music than I did, rather than coming at it from a point of studying classical art or experimental music, it was really that exposure to image making that taught me about sound making. Eventually I went through about ten, twelve years of doing that and got to a point where I felt really luck to have done all I had done, but felt that I was tired being the support team and that it was time ideally I would make a CD that was my own music, or something that started as a CD without being a CD of soundtracks for example, which lead to the World Trade Center residency and a four night event in Cologne called per->Son with Frances-Marie Uitti, Pauline Oliveros and Scanner, and then also being put into a world of improvising and collaborating with sound makers rather than visual art makers. From that I’ve just moved step by step but more and more in a solo career and more and more invested in site so that I tend to think less about making music than I do about making installations, even if a musical installation is present in the sound.

Peter: In ‘site’ you mean as in place, location?

Stephen: Yeah, exactly, yeah this place that we’re sitting in is so overwhelming it’s hard to imagine just making something here that would not be a dialog with the space. I think too that a lot of what happened is that I learned to create these participating dialogs with visual artists and somehow that moved into being a dialog with spaces rather than people.

Peter: When did that happen, because actually my next question was, when did you start making sound installations and what got you moving in that direction?

Stephen: In 1998 there was this series of concerts in Cologne called per->Son, and what was incredible about them was that they were in a church, but it was a church rigged with a 64 channel sound system. It was amazing. Andres Bosshard is a Swiss sound artist who also creates these structures that other people perform in. That was the first time I was really in a space where they’re performing to space, both the acoustics but also this incredible electronic possibility, and I remember really really distinctly that I tried to study the people who I was going to be working with. I had heard Pauline Oliveros on NPR and thought ‘oh, I guess this is interesting’, and when I walked in and she was sound checking and moving her sound through that space and the way that she listens to space, I got chills and thought ‘what have I been missing?

Peter: Was this an old Gothic cathedral?

Stephen: No, it’s fairly modern.

Peter: I guess what I meant was, why does this cathedral have a 64 channel sound system?

Stephen: Well, it was right near the media academy. The media academy, the KHM, made the arrangement to have this performance at the church, and then they brought in the speaker system just for the event. I think with someone like Pauline, she would’ve been doing something similar if it was a purely acoustic thing in the way that she would listen to the church, but in this case, we were really working with somebody who you could say, ‘ok, start with this bird sound, and I would love for it to spiral and then start moving really fast and then zip and disappear and then explode into all the speakers’. He had each speaker connected to a fader on the mixing board and he was performing the mixing board and that definitely made me more aware of space.

And then the following year being invited to do this residency at the World Trade Center where I had six months. That was my transition from being a musician to being a sound artist and being really given the opportunity to experience the sound of the building and the sound of my studio and both technologically finding ways to do it, and also just tuning myself to listening to the place. A lot of what I did was, I was kind of ripping off – I had read an article about Maryanne Amacher, and how she had this residency in the New England Fisheries and she had microphones mounted out to the water that always ran to a feed to her mixing board so that whatever she was working on she had this environment – so I though ‘ok, i’ll do that but I’ll do it with the World Trade Center’. Really what I found was that the sound of the building was the best sound – there was nothing I could do to add to it that was better than the sound itself. Also career-wise at the end of the residency there was an open studio where all the different studios in the World Trade Center – there were about sixteen artists – were opened and about a thousand people came through in two days. That was the point where I started to get invited to make installations and to be in exhibitions. Also, that show the year before in Cologne was the first time I was invited – Jack De Kuiper approached me, he had this label JDK. That was the first time I was invited to do a CD that was my own rather than a CD of compiled soundtracks. Those two years gave me incredible opportunities and encounters and kind of a chance to learn through these opportunities.

WTC RecordingContact microphones on the windows of the World Trade Center.

Peter: In terms of the World Trade Center piece, obviously there’s this aspect about it because a very horrible event suddenly brought new resonance to the piece afterward. Did people come and discover it again? How did that affect the work to you. I mean, it sort of cast an entirely different light on it, one that was obviously unexpected at the time that you were making it such that people will always view it in this way now.

Stephen: It’s been a big part of my career. Nam June Paik said I had a karmic debt to the World Trade Center, which is the last thing I wanted to hear. After I did it, it wasn’t such a well-known thing, but just some people came to know me through it. But the way that I represented myself up until September 10th, 2001 was always in relation to that residency. That night of September 10th I gave a talk at Brooklyn College and talked about listening and my sense of vulnerability through listening to the building and how hearing made me feel the distance and height of the building much more than seeing. Then the next day when that happened it just seemed minor and so irrelevant compared to people’s life and death, and my own vulnerability seemed kind of silly compared to that. But then I did start to get these calls and these interests in making it public, and there was a publicist who wanted to include it in his public interest stories and I just didn’t return phone calls. I was living really close to the World Trade Center with my wife and daughter, and so I thought, I don’t want to imply that I had something to do with that. Then there was a night at The Kitchen where artists who had been part of the residency presented their works and talked about their experiences about three weeks later. I talked about how I felt like I should shelve the project, but I felt very fortunate to have done it. But the response was across the board that I can’t do that. I had to find a way to share it in a way that didn’t exploit the situation but gave people the opportunity to hear something that they’ll never hear again. So I did my best. There was a Peabody Award-winning program that was incredible, called A Sonic Memorial, and they interviewed me and included some of the sounds. Then I made a piece out of it that was at the sound gallery Diapason, and then it was at the Whitney Museum. But I tried to keep it outside of things that were about the destruction where even the sonic memorial was about the memory of the building rather than about more images of the towers falling. So I guess the quick answer is that it is something that has weighed upon me and something that I feel sort of happy to have captured but I try to keep in perspective that it’s my experience in relation to something that is far more horrific.

Peter: To change gears a little bit, we talked about this a few minutes ago [prior to the interview], you have this new installation “Smallest of Wings”. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Stephen: It’s actually a piece I did in 2005 at the gallery that I work with in New York called The Project. It used hummingbird wings that I accidentally captured in the Amazon and moth wings that were recorded. There’s a really interesting artist named Joseph Scheer who does these scans, these very very high definition scans, of moths that he captures in upstate New York with his colleague Mark Klingensmith. There was an NPR piece about the work, and they had done some really nice low frequency recordings of moth wings to go with the radio piece, and I asked if I could use them and they said sure. Somehow in the gallery it was a small piece and it sounded good, and then when United Technologies Corporation and Creative Time approached me about doing that piece in a large environment, I went back and listened to it and I thought ‘god, this sounds terrible’. The moths sound kind of flatulent. The idea of the piece was something that I loved and I wanted to go back to, so I gathered a lot more recordings and went back to the moth recordings and found I had used two minutes out of thirty minutes, and I found other elements that I liked.

I was asked to do it in Broadgate Arena, which is an ice skating rink in London, which off-season is used for all sorts of public events and high end rentals. So I worked with a man named Alban Bassuet from Arup Acoustics, and worked with him to recompose the sounds for a much more intensely spatialized space. It was 18 discreet channels plus four subwoofers. I asked for grass and they gave me grass and I asked for this sorta large structure and they ended up renting part of a geodesic dome, but we’re gonna recreate it in New York and build a new structure for it. It was about giving it this intensified experience of these birding wings and moth wings and a kind of magical explosion of these very minute elements. What I found in London especially that I really enjoyed was the fact that putting it in a public arena and using natural sounds that are kind of familiar to people, even if not on that scale, it allowed for it to be enjoyed by a diverse public that might not have been so if I had done one of my more electronic pieces that some people knew or said ‘Stephen Vitiello does this kind of work and we’re here to listen to this kind of work’. Some people saw it as a nature show. They approached it from all different backgrounds, and the piece wasn’t didactic enough to tell them ‘you can’t appreciate it if you just want to hear this as National Geographic’ or ‘you can appreciate it if you want to consider this as sound art with a history based in this and this and this’. It was wonderful to do it. It was by far the largest project I’ve ever done, and it was only up for four-and-a-half days. But it was on 24 hours a day so that you did have people through the night and the day. It’s a place that gets such an incredible movement of public. The corporate sponsor knew that it was a very high-visibility site, so potentially 500,000 people go through there in a week. What portion of the those people stopped, lay down, sat, listened was hard to know, but what was interesting was that during the week the crowd got larger each day. Some of the people I saw day to day who worked in the area would sort of skeptically look at it, and on the second day they would skeptically stick their head in, and by the end they were laying on the grass drinking beer and having a good time. I had sort of seduced a certain public into something that might have felt alien but I was able to kind of cross that threshold.

Smallest of Wings“Smallest of Wings'” at London’s Broadgate Arena.

Peter: What was your approach to the sounds in the piece? How much did you treat them electronically, if at all?

Stephen: I manipulated them in time and in structure, but I didn’t manipulate them heavily – everything is rooted in the sound that it was but it might be intensified. So there was a bird that was kind of going [knocks several times on the table] on the birdfeeder and I used that and I would put that in spaces but I didn’t slow it down and didn’t speed it up. Just by isolating it and maybe playing with EQ a bit, that just became sort of a space structure that happened every once in a while. The biggest sound that happens continuously is this ‘ssshhhhewp’.

There’s two sections – the first section is loosely called ‘America’, the second section is loosely called ‘Amazon’, and most of the sounds in the first section came from upstate New York and were very much edited as a multichannel thing where they were really placed ‘this over here, this over here, this over here’. Then when it moves into ‘Amazon’, it was such a dense – the recording was a stereo recording – but there was so much information going on in that recording that primarily what we did was just spatialize that stereo recording over the 18 channels. It was definitely two ways of working where one was more compositional in terms of organization of sound, and the other was more spatial and compositional in just terms of what’s the beginning and what’s the end, but also how it’s treated over the space. Being in the Amazon was the densest sound I’ve ever been in. It’s the only place I’ve ever been in where you don’t hear man-made machines except twice in the week when a little Cessna plane came in. But it’s just between the cicadas and the birds and the Yanomami people that I was with, although they walked more quietly than you can imagine. When certain things were going on there were probably 125 tracks of information in terms of what you were hearing just through a stereo microphone and a DAT recorder.

Excerpt from “Smallest of Wings”.

Peter: Just an incredible stratification frequency-wise? Like everything sort of occupies its own space?

Stephen: Yeah, it does really – and differently during the day, because if you put a graph on it, there’s a peak in cicadas in the late afternoon, but in the morning when the howler monkeys wake up and the bats fly home there’s a very classical, interesting shape that you can treat over the 24 hours. So I’ve tried to take segments of that whole 24 hour cycle and put them into about a 46 minute composition. Then I also did binaural recordings that were more just discovery-based, just a real-time 15 minute walk-through from one place to another.

Peter: I guess that brings me to the next question: you talk about the Amazon and upstate New York and these are obviously very specific sound environments, and my impression of your work to-date is that you take a lot of these sounds and then you put them into a gallery space, and I’m wondering, how do you think about site in your work? Do you consider your gallery pieces site-specific? Are their varying levels of portability in the work, and how does the site of the gallery where these installations end up relate to the environments from where the sounds come? There seems to be sort of an inherent tension there that you obviously are aware of, and do you consider yourself playing with that?

Stephen: I definitely try to play with it. I don’t know what portion of the pieces live in galleries versus museums or public spaces or non-traditional spaces, but it’s definitely true that the least exciting is to be given the white box gallery. And yet the gallery I work with and it’s the gallery I love – it’s in Manhattan on 57th street – it used to be in Harlem in a house that had really odd sound corners that I could play with and now they’re in an absolutely standard white box. So I absolutely try to… there’s works that are site-specific that are meant to be heard within the site or within the area, and then there are these questions about how do you transfer them or how do you carry them? I also try to treat the site of where they’ll be re-presented, whether it’s a white box gallery or a corridor of a museum or something, as another level of site-specificity, in terms of the quality and placement of sounds, in terms of the access points for the audience. Sometimes I really want you to be aware of where the sounds came from, sometimes I don’t.

I had this crazy thing happen, I had this piece in Paris at a museum – I was co-existing with another artist – and it was using solar-cells to amplify light frequencies and then a microphone outside running through a Max patch that would come in at random bursts, and there was just a two sentence description of the process on the wall, and the assistant to the other artist in a fury ripped it down and said ‘this is not how art should be represented’, and I thought ‘maybe your art’, but I kind of felt like, there are times you want people to understand, and if I’m using solar cells that transfer light frequencies into audio, I think it might be interesting for people to understand that’s a source of sound as they move through the space – and that their shadow is changing the sound. It’s not that I want it to be a science experiment or just an experiment with technology, but hopefully a piece that explores a technology. I guess I re-conceive that with every different opportunity. And even CDs, being on compilations, I tend to kind of think in site-specific projects. You get all these requests to be on compilations that have these very specific themes, and someone writes ‘we’re doing a CD about the death of Maurice Blanchot’ – well if I’m gonna have to think about Maurice Blanchot and invest myself in his writing, that’s very different than if someone says ‘we’re gonna a do a piece re-conceiving of a Stockhausen composition’. So just to really treat every situation as new and fresh as possible and try to find my point that I might connect to a listener.

Peter: Going back to the environmental recordings, what drew you toward eco-acoustics and environmental sound – it’s kind of a far way to come from playing guitar…

Stephen: But I have to say there’s a large population of people who follow that path for some reason – and it’s time and it’s technologies available, but going from guitar to prepared guitar to environment – something maybe the resonance of the guitar cavity breaking out. I feel like I stumbled upon it – the recordings I did at the World Trade Center were kind of field recording, although I didn’t think of it at the time, using contact microphones outside the building and hearing the building through the building. Then that led to being in this exhibition at the Cartier Foundation where I was doing the piece with the solar cells, and then they said to me ‘we really like working with you, the next show is sending five different artists separately into the Amazon to work with the Yanomami’, and I was suddenly going ‘wow, that’s interesting’, but I suggested that they either take David Toop or Chris Watson – David Toop being a writer but also a composer having worked with the Yanomami in the 70s, and Chris Watson being this brilliant master of environmental and field recordings. But they said ‘we like you and we know you already and it’s gotta go quick’. I immediately had to start learning about the technologies, and in some ways I got it incredibly wrong. I ended up calling Royer Microphones, who make these beautiful ribbon microphones and they told me that it would be fine to take a stereo ribbon mic out into the Amazon, and so I did that but when I came back and I called them, I talked to somebody else who said ‘that’s the most insane thing possible – you don’t want wind or breath or anything to hit the ribbon’ – and I thought ‘hmmm, that’s weird, but it worked’.

A radio piece on NPR’s ‘The Savvy Traveler’ about Vitiello’s Yanomami recordings. Produced by Michael Raphael.

I think that experience had a great effect on me as a new way of composing and listening through technology. It was the first time I really thought outside of a city. I had always been such a New York person and in kind of urban, dense noise – that it was a different rural dense, if you can even call it rural – Amazon-dense noise. From there I just started investigating, listening more, getting some more of the so-called useful field recording gear. Then when I moved from New York to Virginia, I started this whole long three year project that really began with listening to the sound in my back yard, and this crazy thing with having 12 hunting beagles on one side of the yard and three pit bulls on the other, and fireworks and gunshots…

Peter: These are your dogs, or a neighbors?

Stephen: No, a neighbor’s. It was at first just thinking ‘God, what am I doing here’, and then thinking ‘boy, this is a really curious intersection of noise and city noise and forest noise – or country noise – and suburban noise and hillbillies and rednecks and art people and hunting people. From there I got a grant from Creative Capital that allowed me to buy this beautiful Schoeps Microphone, which sort of really upped the quality of my portable rig and encouraged me to go through the state and do field recordings. The more I’ve done that the more I’ve moved away from playing bass and guitar and the things that I used to do, or even using a sampler in terms of a keyboard-based way, to just other ways of manipulating either sounds in real-time or just capturing other environments.

Excerpt from Vitiello’s “Dogs in the Yard, Birds Overhead”

Peter: That actually brings me to a question I was going to ask a little later but you brought it up so we’ll talk about it a bit – the question of gear and technology. Because it’ s something we often don’t discuss in masterclasses, and people think it’s boring or they don’t want to discuss it, and I think it’s actually really important for students to hear about that stuff. So you go out now and you do environmental recording – what do you bring? What kind of mics do you find work best? Why do you use the gear that you use? What advantages does it have?

Stephen: Part of it always has to do with economy and what you can afford, and then what you can carry. I think there are these certain developments in how people [unintelligible] in the late 40s, early 50s the portable tape recorder becoming available – there’s other steps – but then the laptop just exploded how people could have access to technology. And now at the moment these portable recorders like you’re using which really can do very nice quality stereo recordings potentially in 5.1 with this this new Zoom recorder and under $500. There’s a part where I travel with whatever I can carry or whatever I can afford, but I’ve tried to build up an arsenal from high tech to low tech. The recorder I use is a Sound Devices recorder that comes more through the film industry, but that a lot of people feel has been the next step in great sound after the Nagra, which is still far more expensive, but it has really good preamps, it’s quiet, it can record at a high fidelity, and it’s like the size of a hardcover book…

Peter: And this is a hard disk recording system?

Yeah. And it’s about a $2,400 recorder, and then they also make a four channel one which is more like $4,000. And then the Schoeps microphone, which I really could never have afforded without this grant, but it’s about a $5,000 gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous stereo microphone, and it’s one that a lot of people in the film industry will use for foley sound or sort of capturing sounds. It’s not great for humidity…

Peter: You notice that difference, when you use it in a humid environment?
Vitiello making a field recording in Varina, VA.
Vitiello making a field recording in Varina,  Virginia. Photo by Katy McDaniel

Stephen: Yeah, it’ll crap out sometimes, if it’s real humid. So a lot of people at that level will buy the Sennheiser MKH series, which are a little less expensive. They’re really durable, really clean sounding. But I just love the character of the Schoeps. It’s more magical than any microphone I’ve ever heard. I had bought a really good Sennheiser shotgun mic too, but ended up trading it in and getting another Schoeps hypercardioid mono microphone. But at the same time there’s something to be said for carrying around a $3 homemade contact microphone. For people who are doing gorgeous recordings using old Sony Walkman Pro cassette players, every machine has its own character. I would love to have a multichannel – there are a couple of companies now coming out with very reasonably affordable four channel little mics that are tiny and look interesting. So I guess the point is to never overwhelm yourself with the technology, because it’s easy to say ‘oh, I can’t record that because I don’t have the right microphone’. If it’s a great sound you’re gonna get something interesting whether it’s with a $300 Zoom recorder or a $2,400 Sound Devices recorder. I think whatever you have, try to get to know that technology as well as possible, and really use it like an instrument. Which is why I think it does have a place in the classroom, because in the classroom you may be talking about a particular instrument or the quality of a certain cello built in a certain place, and in truth each microphone has its sound, each has its limitations. You can remarkably record now very inexpensively, and something like a contact mic will pick up a surface sound that my Schoeps will not pick up. So I think the main thing is to do the research, see what you can afford, and then enjoy what you’ve got.

Peter: To continue on this thread for a little bit – so gear obviously can add its own coloration to sound and to your environmental recordings, as can external sounds like planes flying overhead and dogs barking and humans and so forth. How important is ‘purity’ to you? You were talking earlier about and you describe on your website this recently discovered forest in Virginia that you went and did – I assume you did – a good several days of recording there?

Excerpt of one of Vitiello’s Virginia field recordings

Stephen: Yes, several different visits, yeah…

Peter: And was this place free of man made noises?

Stephen: Not at all, no

Peter: How do you think about that in terms of the recording? Is that a part of it, or if a plane flies overhead does that ruin it aesthetically for you, or does that make it more interesting?

Stephen: Well, it depends. In general, what’s interesting to me more is capturing experience, and so a sense of purity seems to me only one sort of experience, and maybe an almost impossibly privileged sort of experience. And I know there are definitely schools of thought in terms of the acoustic ecology movement to retain that purity of the forest. So sometimes the sounds I feel like I want to work with might be devoid of a plane flying overhead, but in ‘Smallest of Wings’ there’s a really deep plane that flies overhead and what I love in that piece, because the piece is outdoors in the dome, but you see through to the sky, is you really don’t know at certain times where the plane you’re hearing is in the recording or if it’s outside, or whether the birds that you’re hearing may actually be outside the installation. I think I try to look for unique experiences and would never want to claim that purity is something to be demanded, it just might be encountered sometimes. It really is the case that it’s just not two magical microphones that are floating in space. They’re clipped to my glasses, I’m moving through, I’m breathing – you don’t want to hear too much of that, but enough of it just to understand that there is this human presence and a human encounter with a place.

Peter: Just to change gears a little bit again, this goes back to the environmental recording thing, but specifically I’ve got a question about one of your installation pieces, “Hedera”. You take samples of George Bush and Tony Blair, and especially I think there was that mistaken open mic that they had at that one conference where they left it open where you heard them say some things that I think they rather didn’t want to have public. And you take that and – on your site you say – you convert them into the sounds of bells and rain. And is that convert as in convolve?

Stephen: It was convolving…

Peter: And I guess my question is, and this is to get at understanding you compositionally, what do you see as the connection between these seemingly very disparate sound worlds? Why choose to connect their voices in animal sounds or bells?

Stephen: I was working – as I was doing these Virginia recordings – I was reading this book called ‘Chatter’ which was a really really interesting book on U.S. surveillance systems and the way that this idea of chatter and the voices in the aether that we’re capturing and listening into them and listening from all these different bases all over the world with these gigantic ears that are pointed towards the cell phones of terrorists but also the chewing sounds of George Bush. I was doing recordings in this state park in Virginia and just loving to listen to the interplay of the different insects and animals and the frogs in particular, and thinking that we still don’t classify that as a spoken language even though it’s very much like this idea of voices in the aether. From what I understand, the people who destroyed the World Trade Center, they actually were recorded in the days leading up, but they were recorded in a dialect that they didn’t yet have a translator for, until the day after. So just because we don’t understand it, it’s kind of foolish to think that the way when you listen to the frogs and the way that they interact, it’s kind of silly to me to think that’s not a language. So I was thinking about the state and Virginia also having a large military presence and just this idea of chatter and then I kind of stumbled upon that recording of Bush and Blair being recorded – two people who probably have hundreds of people listening in for them, suddenly themselves caught, and wanted to integrate that and wanted to keep it sometimes audible but just keep it as source material for my own folly, and I put their voices into these little speakers that were in ivy that was growing through the gallery through the month as the exhibition went on. So the speakers were getting slightly more covered and slightly more tinted with the actual foliage. I know I had a reason at the time and I’m trying to remember why I transferred them into bowls and bells and rain, but maybe it was just this idea of the way that we don’t classify nature as having a voice. It was then taking this voice and transferring it back into some voice of nature.
Closeup of a speaker in Vitiello’s “Hedera”

Peter: How loud were the voices played out of the Ivy?

Stephen: Really quiet…

Peter: With the intention of sort of drawing people in? Is there voyeurism aspect to it with their conversation?

Stephen: There’s definitely a voyeurism aspect of it. There’s also a ‘wall have ears’ kind of feeling. As you move into the architecture you start to hear these whispers and whispers that maybe weren’t meant to be heard. There were these little three inch speakers that I actually kind of inherited. I was in this exhibition called ‘Treble’, where I did my first large suspended speaker piece, and Steve Roden had a piece in the basement with I think 80 three-inch speakers. And when the exhibition was over they said ‘Steve doesn’t want them, do you want them?’, I thought ‘great’, and I ended up making all these quiet little pieces that spoke to these little three-inch speakers. But also Steve Roden does these gorgeous little quiet pieces, and I think I was also influenced by the hand that touched the object that came to me. It was definitely about drawing people in and finding just that threshold where you just hear and you just understand that voice and then maybe it dips and becomes something else. A non-linear narrative in which things go in and out of recognition.

Excerpt from Vitiello’s “Hedera”

Peter: Going back to your suspended speaker pieces. You’ve done a number of those, and several of them were collaborative with Julie Mehretu. Could you just describe a little bit about that collaborative process. Also, with these pieces, they all use the same principle, which is very low frequency waves that are driving the speakers that are inaudible, but you see the speakers move. Obviously this is something that you have to go there to experience, you can’t really get it online…

Stephen: And the videos don’t really do it either…

Is there an audible component to the pieces? Do you hear the speakers cracking or making some sort of noise?

Stephen: You don’t. You sometimes hear a cracking or sometimes a distortion or something a little high will just push the speaker. What’s interesting is, it was part of Bumbershoot, this rock and roll festival in Seattle, and some of the phonography people from Seattle came and did these audio pieces based on the whole exhibition. One person put his headphones on and pointed a mic, and as soon as you pointed a mic you actually heard the low frequency, but with your naked ear you didn’t. In the pieces with Julie, there’s both the inaudible speakers that are very architecturally designed, but then there’s also separate speakers that have an audio element, but that audio element is taking the waveforms that moved the low frequency and processing at an audible frequency other field recordings. So there’s a kind of interaction even though it’s not synchronized. But those pieces, they really came out of being in all these sound shows and starting to realize that all these drones from different rooms weren’t necessarily complementary. I thought maybe it would be interesting to make a silent piece. One of my favorite people in the history of contemporary sound art is Terry Fox. He had this piece at the Capp Street Project that was silent but implied sound. It was a big wrecking ball that was suspended back in front of glass, and the idea was that if there was a earthquake it would shake and smash it. I guess I started thinking, ‘what could I do that would be about sound without having to produce sound?’. I’m by no means the first artist to work with those low frequencies and the moving surfaces, but I just tried to find my own use for them, and very much got involved in responding to the architecture of each site. So the first site was at a sculpture center which has a 40 foot ceiling. So that 40 foot drop and then a little 12 inch speaker, it was a really interesting thing to work with. For that, Vito Acconci, also one of my favorite artists, gave me a studio visit and helped me tweak the shape of that. It seemed successful and I got a number of opportunities to do more, and people wanted their own version, and I just hit a point where I felt like I shouldn’t do any more because, for a long time I didn’t want to become just the World Trade Center guy – you mine an idea as far as you can push it to the point where you don’t just end up repeating yourself, and I think I’ve hit that point. It’s taught me a lot about working with physical space as much as anything. It seemed to give people pleasure, in the way the speakers moved, the strangeness of it, the way it felt – organic, even though intellectually you know it’s purely synthetic.

Vitiello’s “Untitled” with Julie Mehretu

Vitiellos “Untitled” with Julie Mehretu

Peter: What are your thoughts on interactivity as it relates to your work? Is your audience typically passive in experiencing your pieces? Can they influence the outcome? Is it something that’s important to you?

Stephen: It’s funny, with the suspended speaker pieces – all the time people think that they are interactive, and you see people going ‘ha, i made that change’. I had another piece in 2001 at PS1 with this rotating speaker, and again people thought it was interactive, so there’s an expectation that the audience brings. In truth I’ve experienced very very very little interactive work that was really interesting. There’s some great work that was done in the 60s through experiments in art and technology where they absolutely activated spaces. People like John Cage and David Tudor working with engineers were far more adventurous than we’ve been in the forty years that have come since then. So the only form of interactivity that I think is really interesting is just in giving people an environment in which they can move freely and maybe hear things differently – sitting, leaning, talking – in a sense that’s interactive. Just having a room where things are always changing with the speaker relationship. I think I’ve encountered a lot of interactive work and heard a lot of the talk where people say that interactive work – that all other work is irrelevant now that it’s in the hands of the viewer, but I actually think that that’s silly propaganda. I’m sure there is good work, but I’ve heard so much work and seen so much work where it’s so much more about the technology and so little about the content.

Peter: It’s interesting, because it seems to be something that we take, especially in academia, we take it as a given that interactivity is so important or working with controllers is so important. I recently finished this interview with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and he had this interesting quote at the end of the interview, he said ‘interactivity sometimes seems to me like you’re too lazy to write a script’. Because their pieces are all very scripted, and he said “ok, maybe I’m overreacting, but I went to school where it couldn’t be good unless it was interactive.” And I wrote in my question here, “it made me wonder if all our focus on interactivity somehow diminishes or discourages work on pieces that are more scripted and as such are very effective in their own way” and then I said “what do you think of the current emphasis on interactivity in electronic music and sound installations?” So is it something that you just have no interest in going there in your work?

Stephen: Not so much. There was definitely a point where in order to get a grant or a project you had to put interactivity into it. I think what happened was that it got way too much hype too early, so as a series of art forms developed, there was all this attention on it immediately and it was still in its infancy. It wasn’t allowed to grow to the point where it deserved audiences. Because it was so expensive to do, then there was that high expectation. At least for me I’m not interested in it. It may change, I may encounter new ways of thinking or new technologies that make it interesting, but I’m much more interested, for myself, in creating these immersive environments that give people a place to experience sound and not so much – I just fear I’d fall into the gadgetry too quickly. Early on I did two commissions of web projects and by nature they were meant to be interactive and also a six year project for a CD-ROM, which by the time it ended the media was obsolete. When it started we were in the New York Times and people were saying ‘this is one of the first great uses – CD-ROM as an interactive medium’, but it was at a point where to put three-second sound clips on the web, it was pretty unlikely that anybody was going to hear them. I didn’t have the internet at home and it was great to explore, and I did it because it was an opportunity and I enjoyed the process, but it didn’t give me the future of where I wanted to go. I would love to know more work that’s being done, but I think there are more good examples in the past than we’ve brought into the present. Even Leon Theremin’s early instrument for dancers to move through an environment and activate sounds, seems so much more provocative than things that I’ve encountered recently.

Peter: We have time for one last question, and this is actually from something we talked about a little bit earlier and I promised you I was going to ask you about it. Today you’re visiting us at the University of Virginia and you’re going to be giving a lecture in a little bit at the Art School, and you mentioned that most of the time when you go out and lecture and talk about your work, you talk to art school audiences, much more so than music department audiences. I think that’s really interesting: it’s telling about the work and about the background, and I’m just wondering what you make of that? Why you think that is?

Stephen: My fulltime teaching position at VCU is in the School of the Arts. Even though I think of the arts as audio-visual, there’s still an expectation it’s a visual arts medium, and we’re set in different ways of working, whether painting or sculpture, but the more that we move into the present and into the future, the more that we work with sculpture that is audible or that has audible content. It’s impossible to think of video art, except, for example, without sound. It’s never surprised me, I’ve had two or three commissions ever – one through the Univ. of Richmond – but rarely through music programs. I think that if you look at the history of sound in the arts, or even a lot of modern, contemporary composers – and I don’t think of myself so much as a composer – but if you think of someone like Philip Glass, a lot of his audience and his support and funding for the longest time came through the art world. Maybe it’s changing, but it seemed like he wasn’t considered a true composer within the academies. I don’t know if I have the answer, but I definitely feel like where the work that we’re doing lies, it seems to be that there’s a different audience that expects interdisciplinary play more within the visual arts world and less in the kind of strict music world. Maybe that will change. For me, always getting funding, for example, was nearly impossible because I couldn’t get funding as a composer or musician and I couldn’t get funding as a visual artists. Then these interesting cracks in the wall started to open up. Creative Capital, for example, having this emerging fields category that they fund, was really valuable because it allowed for a whole number of art forms, primarily digital art, and other art forms that fall in-between. I think inevitably things will change as the audiences change and as our concept what composition is changes, but I don’t know that we’ve really still fully considered what John Cage was talking about in ‘The Future of Music: Credo’ in 1937. Even though that feels absolutely contemporary, I think the academies and the concert halls still have not quite accepted that that might be the future or the present.

That’s my thing about it. It’s almost to me, sort of representative of kind of a deficiency in music departments. They don’t recognize this expanding field and this area, and for them site specificity is the concert hall, and it’s gotta be there and if it’s not there then ‘well, we have a harder time considering it music’. It seems like so many people are working in that area right now that it begs more attention. I think the other thing – part of it – is the ability for people to actually experience the work. It’s one thing to have a piece that can be played around by performers and travel and gets performed in front of a large audience in concert halls, it’s another thing to have a very specific piece that can only be heard by a couple of people at a gallery, so if only a few people hear it it doesn’t get written about or talked about in classrooms as much.

That’s a problem in the art world, even important visual artists who make pieces that are pushing certain edges, but then just go to the home of some rich people and their friends come over. I do think a lot of people have been smart enough to make CD versions of what they do, and that places on the internet such as are incredible because you actually now can go and hear such a wealth of concrete poetry, sound art, experimental music, free texts, lectures that were given. That is one way that the internet is making things so much more available. You may not hear it in the bandwidth that you wish, you may not hear it in 24 channels, but it means that you can hear the thing and get a sense of the thing and get a sense of it to the point that you might want to seek it out on a larger scale.

Well, I think that is all the time that we have, so thank you very much for talking with us and for visiting, and we look forward to hearing more from you.

Stephen: Me too. Thanks.

Mar 16, 2008
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  1.» Blog Archive » Networked Music Review:

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    […] 2007 interview with sound artist Stephen Vitiello ( One of my favorite people in the history of contemporary sound art is Terry Fox. He had this […]

  3. Imagine That….! » Blog Archive » Hear Here:

    […] but the visual to support it as well. He develops unique installation environments, made to both hear and experience this […]

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