Posted by: Tony – Jun 15, 2010
The work of Stephen Vitiello is not easily characterized. His recorded material tends to be classified as sound art, which, while an apt term in the most literal sense, often fails to capture the nuance and imagination which permeates the albums he has released and the sound installations he has created for exhibitions around the world. Many of Vitiello’s better-known works have been based on field recordings from sources as disparate as the Amazon rain forest, sculptor Donald Judd’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, and the 91st floor of the World Trade Center (in which he was a resident artist in the late ‘90s). On the other hand, albums such as Gorilla Variations, a collaboration with Molly Berg of Fuzzy Baby, feature a delicate interplay of digitally-manipulated acoustic instruments which provide a strong contrast to the stark sonic austerity of his manipulations of field recordings.
SMTG Recordings has just released Soundtracks, a DVD of Vitiello’s collaborations with six different video artists. His contributions range from the warm ambient improvisations of his collaborations with Molly Berg to sparser, more unsettling dark electronics. It is an excellent example both of his range as a composer and his ability to create music which neither overwhelms nor is subsumed by the visual components. He was kind enough to take a few minutes from a busy schedule as artist and professor of Kinetic Imaging at VCU and answer a few questions about his most recent release.
RVA: I read a feature on you from some years back which mentioned a frustration with being pegged as a composer for soundtrack projects, yet you seem to have been involved with several recently. Was there a specific draw for this type of work again?
Stephen: I’m really happy to have had so many experiences creating soundtracks for video artists. Since 1989, I’ve probably created more than 100 soundtracks. For me, the issue is that I got to a point where I wanted to do more than just that. I made a concerted effort from 1998-1999 to the present to emerge as a solo artist and to give more time to my own exhibitions (of sound installations) and CDs (both solo and duets with various other sound artists and electronic musicians). I never really stopped wanting to collaborate, I just didn’t want only to be the person who was always in a support role.
RVA: To what extent do you collaborate with the visual artists on these? Are you presented a finished work for which you supply music independently, or do you work more closely with the person providing the visuals?
Stephen: Each piece is different. The first video that was made for this compilation was Nic DeSantis’ piece. Molly Berg and I made a fairly long track and Nic used that as the basis for gathering images and editing. In the case of Matt Flowers, there was some back and forth as to what the sound would be and what the images would be. I asked Matt to make something for the compilation and provided him with music (again, with Molly). He came up with the video of the snails but found the music we had given him didn’t work so Molly and I then composed for his snail images. I don’t generally work to picture but will look at something briefly and then go and make a sound piece for the memory of those images. After that, there can be some tweaking of sound and image in post-production but I don’t want to make sounds that just illustrate images and that’s what I find happens if I’m working directly to picture.
RVA: Along those lines, the piece on the Soundtracks DVD by Éder Santos is the only work included which credits you as a collaborator. Did your involvement with that extend beyond a purely musical contribution?
Stephen: Éder and I have made a lot of work together over the years. In many cases, I’ve made soundtracks for his videos and installations but he’s also created images for my early CD covers, as well as visuals for concerts I’ve done (in Brazil, NY & in Montreal). In this case, I sent him the music and Éder found it inspired the images. I didn’t work on the images but in this case, I think Éder was acknowledging that images are not always more important the sounds. It’s a piece he made in response to my work as much as to his own ideas.
RVA: Is the process of composing for soundtracks different from your other compositional work? I noticed that much of what you have released possesses an overarching theme – is working within those boundaries comparable to working with another artist’s vision?
Stephen: I just find that creating soundtracks requires leaving more space – for the images. When I work with some of the artists who I have collaborated with many times, such as Éder and Seoungho Cho, I often create blocks of sound that I allow them to re-edit. So, Éder may take a piece of music that I give him that is 6 minutes long and he’ll take a loop from the beginning that he likes and repeat it several times before bringing in the next section of my original composition. In my own work, it is often site-specific or driven by field recordings. In those cases, I’m responding to a specific location or to the sounds that I’ve gathered. In the case of soundtracks, I’m responding to images or a theme that may have been suggested by an artist. Sometimes, I’m just responding to my relationship with that person and past works and allowing them to draw the connections.
RVA: The process of field recording has a certain documentary quality, and even when manipulated after the fact, still possesses a sense of the initial subject matter. Much of your previous work is very site-specific, whether that takes the form of contact microphones on the World Trade Center or the recordings from the Amazon. Is it a difficult transition between utilizing a physical space as an integral part of a composition and creating work for something less tangible like a video?
Stephen: It’s not difficult for me. Somehow, when I started working on my own projects, such as the World Trade Center recordings, I was using a lot of what I had learned from working with video artists. I observed how certain film and video makers, such as Jem Cohen or Éder or Tony Oursler, gathered images and then constructed the work in post-projection. Jem would carry a super 8 camera around NY and gather images and then find the piece once he started to look at the footage. Often, my approach to field recording is similar. I’ll go out to a place and record and try to discover the narrative once I get home. I also learned from Éder’s forms of image manipulations. Whereas Jem’s work retains a verité feeling, Éder’s can be layered, slowed down, sped up, colors played with, textures changed.
RVA: Several of the works on Soundtracks – Seoungho Cho’s and Matt Flowers’s pieces for instance – featured heavy emphasis on the deconstruction and reconfiguration of natural images. Likewise, most of the music you provided features a dualistic approach which combines acoustic instruments and vocals with electronic elements. Was this an intentional analog, a similarity in creative approach between you and the visual artist, or some combination of the two?
Stephen: I didn’t make any master plan, except to invite a number of artists whose work I like and who I thought would be willing to contribute to this project (without any funding or honorarium but just because we like working together).
RVA: Jonathan from SMTG had told me you are working on a new album, your first non-soundtrack solo work in several years. What sort of direction are you taking with that?
Stephen: I’ve released a number of CDs in recent years but they’ve all been collaborative with other musicians -- with Machinefabriek, Andrew Deutsch, Molly Berg and one with Lawrence English that comes out this summer). The last solo CD was Listening to Donald Judd, which was released by the Belgian label, Sub Rosa. This one is still to be determined but it will no doubt have a mixture of field recordings and instruments. I recently re-discovered this beautiful glass marimba, that was made for me by a member of the Brazilian group, Uakti. For many years, I avoided some of the more melodic and musical connections of my past. When Molly and I made The Gorilla Variations for 12k, I started to play guitar again and to think of instruments such as that marimba and ways to bring the musical side back along with the denser noisier textures as well as the field recordings.
By Graham Scala