MISTAKE HOUSE: Many people remain oblivious to the seemingly insignificant vibrations around them, yet you’ve developed a creative practice from these daily sounds. When did you first realize that the act of intentionally perceiving and interacting with vibrations was conducive to the act of creating?
STEPHEN VITIELLO: I wish I could point to some childhood memory and there probably is one buried, but I will say that the time when my interests became far more focused was during the 6-month residency I had in the World Trade Center in 1999. I had always loved music and starting in 1989 I had been investigating different ways to make sound and to create collage-based pieces, soundscapes, soundtracks…but then in 1999, I had a studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center (through the WorldViews program administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) and found that the windows didn’t open and the only way to hear the sounds from outside was to put contact microphones on the window. I had been asking a friend who is an audio engineer about how to get sound in and he told me to press my ear to the window. He said, if you can hear anything, you’ll be able to pick that up and more with a contact microphone. Putting my ear to the window then became a physical act and also a way that I felt the sound in my ear but also through my body. The contact mic became a device to pick up sound through surface vibration and to share it with others. I’ve said this in previous interviews but it felt like putting a stethoscope to a body and suddenly hearing a heartbeat and blood flow.
MH: Home, one of the spaces most familiar to us, is filled with sounds. How do you think about home as an auditory space, a space which informs our growing up and our adult lives? Does your work try to interrogate or expand your sense of home?
SV: So much of my work happens elsewhere. I don’t have a proper studio, so a lot of my work probably has underlying themes of being away and exploring…which is a kind of freedom but also going to spaces that are not mine, not real in some ways. When I do work at home, I sit at a desk 5 feet away from my wife and daughter and try to cram bursts of ideas and work into brief moments. I’ll be on headphones and trying to get something done and it could be that that sense of speed and urgency fuels creativity. Back to the idea of home, the only other thing that occurs to me is that I’m drawn to intimate spaces for listening in the exhibitions I create…and creating sounds that pull you in and hope you’ll get wrapped up in the details. As I say that (write that) it does make me think of the intimacy of living in a small space with the people I’m closest to and perhaps trying to capture something of it. I’m not sure. Feels like a rambling answer.
MH: You noticed a certain listener at your public art installation in London, which featured recordings of the motion of bird wings, who returned repeatedly because it reminded him of his childhood in Brazil. How do you think experience with sound during childhood influences one’s perceptions as an adult—not only one’s adult awareness of sound but of awareness, in general?
SV: I have to believe that growing up in New York influenced the way that I hear—the intensity of traffic, the drones of subways and machines, the hum of people in crowded resonant spaces. Also, growing up in a creaky house that always felt a bit haunted must play a role. It wasn’t until I went on recording trips away from New York that I started to understand other ways of listening and maybe understand how conditioned I was to a kind of listening. I remember going to Death Valley with Brazilian video artist Eder Santos in the early 90s and trying to record but it was just so quiet. There were ridiculously beautiful moments too like watching the full moon rise over sand dunes and feeling small and hushed. And then going to the Amazon in early 2003 to record in a Yanomami village and the surrounding forest and realizing how loud and dense the forest was. I kept thinking I was hearing machines but the sounds would turn out to be insects or howler monkeys. We didn’t hear planes and certainly no traffic.
MH: Peters Mountain—Spring 2018 features the buzzing silence of a mountainous, expansive forest. The video includes aerial shots of Peters Mountain and an unscripted conversation between two sisters reminiscing about their father and the mountain, as the landscape is a part of their cultural heritage. Clearly, specific animate and inanimate sounds arise within the ecology of place, but Peters Mountain—Spring 2018 suggests that human discourse is also mediated by place. What has this project (and possibly other projects) revealed about the relation of conversation to location? That is, do you find that the sounds of a given location affect the content and direction of the dialogue?
SV: The Peters Mountain video you mention is part of an ongoing project investigating a rare wind phenomenon that is heard on and around Peters Mountain, bordering Virginia and West Virginia. I was interested in hearing the wind that I’d read about in scarce bits of literature. There was a meteorologist, William J. Humphreys who wrote about the winds in the early 20th century. Then, I found one book on Appalachian culture and landscape with one paragraph in which a woman named Amy is interviewed and she talks about the sound of Peters Mountain and how she’s worried that the threat of a pipeline and other industry will alter the landscape and take away that sound. My friend Matt Flowers (who shot the drone footage) was helping me find a place to record. He booked a cabin at the base of Peters Mountain. When we got there, the owner turned out to be the very same Amy who had been in that book! Amy and her sister Cookie were a bit wary at first of our true interests and intentions. Once they came to believe that we really were there to listen to the mountain, they opened up to us and offered stories and road trips and other kinds of support. The project is now about the sound of the mountain but it’s also about the people who live with it and how they’ve listened to it and been affected by the sound and come to identify home as not just the area on and around the mountain but also the sound that is unique to their landscape.
MH: In the clip, one of the sisters speaks over the other. Will you talk about the competition between sounds that coexist in the same space? Are certain sounds subordinate? Dominant? How do you choose how to give voice to certain sounds? It seems to us that this is one way in which your work approaches music: a necessary embrace of harmonics, rhythm, song structures, the weaving of different lines of sound. How do you approach these sonic relations, as you find, receive, and respond to them?
SV: In terms of the two speaking over each other, I had microphones set up in the cabin when they came over to talk to us. Very luckily, I was rolling before they walked in the door. So much of the best material happened before we asked them to be interviewed. That’s their way, to talk over each other and tell the same stories differently at the same time. In a different situation, that might be a problem for a recording—where you want each separately and to have ultimate control. In that situation, I loved their back and forth verbal sparring, and also the comfort (intimacy) of how they interact. I’d say I look for layering in field recordings too—not just a recording of one thing but the way it interacts with another sound—and then, in the electronic music and other compositions I make. I love interweaving melodies, whether it’s in Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd playing guitars in the band, Television. With the layers, ideally, each leaves space for the other and each compliments the other without muddying anything up.
MH: Your time as a media archivist has contributed to the extensive documentation of the sounds you collect for your sound installations. These sound files carry with them markers specific to the time and place in which they were recorded. Much like people, these files are representatives of where they came from. In an interview with Katie Geha for Glasstire, you said that “the sounds that [you] made came out of a response to the space,” and you added, “sometimes the actual sounds are not that different, but how time and space are treated is different.” How has your perception of sound variance within the diverse contexts in which you’ve worked impacted your method of determining which sounds are distinct enough to define a place? Are some sounds more idiosyncratic and some more generic than others? Or, is every sound a representative of its distinct context?
SV: It’s hard to answer that as I try to start every project with a fresh set of expectations. Once something affects me in the space or in thinking about what I want to bring into the space, a kind of unwritten set of rules are written. So, something that is striking in one place and pushes a creative concept or approach may not be as important or interesting to me in another context.
MH: You recall a nun ringing The Bell of Hope outside of St. John’s Chapel, mentioning that the greatest gift she gave you was time. For a listener to become fully enveloped in a work, they must be patient. At Mistake House, we believe in the importance of enjoying process as it unfolds. How much time do you allow yourself to listen to your environment, or to the things you decide to record, before capturing them? Is it enough time? What is the value in the act of merely listening? Are there distinct roles for “merely listening,” for active listening, and for responding to sound? If so, how do such distinct actions translate into creative process?
SV: This is probably different every time but I can say that often if I arrive somewhere, it’ll take me a day before I start recording, or before I capture anything of use. This is all specific to field recording but for example, arriving at Peters Mountain the first time, we were in a cabin at the base of the mountain. I needed time to relax and to start to hear where the wind might be coming through the trees or the grass or vibrating wires. The impulse is there to start “work” immediately, which is to say recording but I’d rather get a sense of the landscape (soundscape) and how it changes through the day and night so that I’m focused and ready when I do start recording. Generally, I’ll leave the recorder going for an hour or more at a time, hoping to capture something and hoping that it doesn’t overlap with planes or trains or distant barking dogs. Your question about the value of “merely listening” is so much bigger and opens so many avenues. For those who are able to hear, listening is a great gift. It’s a way to connect what is around us, to sometimes hear something beautiful…it can also be a way to survive. Every time I see someone riding their bicycle or driving with earbuds in I wonder how much their sense of traffic, people and other obstacles are being tuned out.
MH: Listening is a necessary skill for awareness and the creative practice, as you noted in a 2008 Art Education interview, “the more you listen, the more you are aware of your surroundings and the more aware you are of the power you have to interact with your surroundings.” How might your sound installations, which require active listening, empower your listeners to respond effectively to their surroundings, especially in moments of conflict?
SV: I hope that my installations—and the work of so many of my peers and those who came before us in this field—do encourage a wider awareness and appreciation for focused listening. Just by asking someone to pay more attention can increase their ability to start hearing with heightened awareness and hopefully with pleasure. I’ve had the feedback a number of times that someone left a sound installation and was suddenly listening to the rhythms of traffic or really paying attention to the bells on their street or bird calls with greater focus. I don’t generally make pieces where I hope that the visitor will have any one experience or any one idea come through. Hopefully art can open individual creative channels for the listener/viewer that are unique to that individual. (Hearing their own ears rather than just hearing what I want them to hear or see or feel).
MH: In addition to the act of listening leading to awareness, you’ve written that listening can be a completely private experience, describing “a sound moving through space…that you notice when everyone else seems focused elsewhere, unaware of that quiet buzzing presence and its fascinating, even musical, quality.” Those intimate experiences are isolated, shared only between the sound and the listener. If listening can be a personal, isolated experience, yet it can also be an experience that awakens us to our surroundings, then do you see listening as an inward or an outward exploration of the self—or both?
SV: I’d say it is both and different in any given encounter. At the moment, I’m thinking of it as inward but then without being fully thought through, that idea of outward exploration makes me think of Alvin Lucier putting echolocation devices in the hands of performers so that they can explore their surroundings through the way sounds reflect back them.
MH: Do you see listening as a necessary task or as something playful and entertaining? Is one approach more important than the other—or does each approach have a unique necessity?
SV: For me, and I imagine many others it is both necessary but also playful and entertaining. Sometimes when I feel I’ve been thinking too technically, trying to record something “perfectly” with the right microphone at the right resolution, I start to critique my own methods and realize that I’m not allowing myself to be as playful or creative as I ought to be. Going back to that moment of pressing my face to the window of the WTC studio and trying to hear in a somewhat unconventional way opened up endless pathways that standing in the middle of the room with a $4000 Ambisonic microphone wouldn’t have done (that would have just given me an immersive recording of HVAC units of no particular quality).
MH: The soundtrack you created for the 2018 documentary The Washing Society operates as something of an alternate soundscape to each of the scenes it complements. Does your process in scoring a film involve the same discovery that your work as a sound-artist entails? What’s the difference between tailoring your music to visuals and exploring sound or sound-installations as an art form?
SV: I’ve done a lot of soundtracks for experimental film, video and contemporary dance. In some ways, speaking to a filmmaker, thinking about what they are doing has connections to a site visit to a space where I’m making an installation—in that I’m given a context to listen, and find a creative response that finds its place. On the other hand, if it is a soundtrack, I am also beholden to the filmmaker’s ideas and the fact that their imagery, maybe characters, perhaps text are likely to be dominant and my sound has to be a secondary element. With the installations, I am taking creative ownership over concept and treatment. The majority of my installations aim to have sound read as the dominant element.
MH: Roland Barthes’ essay, “Death of the Author,” is concerned with text as a multi-dimensional space in which meaning is created at a point of origin and at a point of reception (the “scriptor” reading the work as it is written and the “reader” writing the work as it is read). Similarly, you reveal in your Ted Talk, “Listen Well” that others’ impressions of your work, and their experience, is more important and more rewarding to you than your own initial perception of the work. Rather than viewing yourself as the single authority, you perhaps recognize the art as distinct from yourself and recognize that each person’s experience with the art is also distinct. Will you talk about this flow of meaning in your work, from various points of origin to various points of reception and back again?
SV: A lot of what you’re talking about, regarding the importance of the listener and their role in each piece is something that I’ve just come to understand and appreciate project by project. When I’m working towards an exhibition, I’m focused on trying to make it as effective as possible. Part of that consideration is the space for the listener, a kind of comfortable space, a thought to how loud the piece should be, where are the sounds coming from, how are they existing in time and in space. There’s also the goal of bringing people in and hopefully people who are familiar with sound art but also those who are not. The feedback that has come from certain projects has been a gift and often an unexpected gift—the person who noticed a reference to synaesthesia in the title of a piece and wants to offer feedback on their own sense of sound and color, or the child who hears the voices of creatures in what I never thought of as creature voices…
MH: What challenges come up in your creative practice? How do you preserve a deep engagement and satisfaction in your own professional practice, despite aspects of repetition or other challenges that may come along with it?
SV: There’s a million challenges at every turn. Where possible, I embrace the problems. If a space has poor acoustics, I try to make use of what is unusual or maybe interesting. Some problems that come to mind though are that people often producing and installing a sound installation will be cheaper than other art forms, which it really isn’t. I’ve consistently been offered spaces that a museum or gallery thinks they can’t offer a painter or sculptor but that someone working with sound would take (staircases, elevators, hallways, bathrooms). Art spaces are not meant for sound and do consistently have problems with acoustics and sound bleed. Most contemporary art curators are not schooled in presenting sound works or the history of artists working with sound and then the ones who do are coming from video most likely which has some connections but not fully. The art world still has trouble collecting sound works. The reproducible nature and the ephemerality of the technologies cause problems. I’ve had a handful of pieces put into lasting museum collections, but it still feels like an artform at the bottom of the food chain. Earlier in my career, I did have some pieces that were successful that both opened doors and created another sort of limitations. Fear of High Places…for example ended up giving a number of places that idea to invite me to do similar but site-specific pieces with suspended speakers and very low frequency sounds. The good thing is I could make pieces in New York, Rome, Paris and Sydney, Australia. The bad thing was when I started to feel like it was work for hire…and me just carrying out what others wanted me to do rather than coming from my own impulses and instincts. At first you get to do that a lot and then suddenly there’s also a response from a curator or critic or friend too of, when are you going to move on from all those hanging speaker pieces?
MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
SV: I truthfully very rarely have time to play hooky. The closest I can think of is going to the movies and seeing the dumbest, mind numbing action film. Or, a few steps up, reading a well-written, environmentally rich mystery novel, seeing and hearing the landscapes that James Lee Burke or John Connelly or Tana French describe and leave me enough room to imagine what’s there.