Stephen Vitiello
Featured Artist

As an artist whose primary focus is listening, field recording has been a central part of my own practice since the late 1990s. As a sound artist, I am interested in what is and what is not heard. This can include making sounds audible that we would never hear without specialized technologies. These are sounds that vibrate at frequencies below or above the threshold of human hearing.  

 In 1999, I had a six-month artists’ residency in the World Trade Center (WTC) as part of the World Views program organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in New York City. I recorded sounds through the vibration of the sealed windows from my 91st floor studio. Initially, the idea was to integrate those recordings into musical compositionssuch as a dance work I was commissioned to scorein collaboration with the great cellist, Frances-Marie Uitti for a performance featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ultimately, the sounds of the WTC building (and the world beyond) as filtered by the glass and steel construction interested me most. At the beginning of the residency, I would have called myself a composer of electronic music. By the end, I thought of myself as a sound artist with a primary interest in site-specific investigations.  

 After participating in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, curated by Paul Virilio, the director of the Cartier Foundation invited me to produce a new work for an exhibition related to the Yanomami Indians in Brazil. I was flown to a small remote village in the Amazon and given time and resources to record in order to produce a work for another exhibition at the Cartier Foundation. 

 With the WTC and the Amazon recordings, I experimented with small, sometimes home-built technologies in order to capture larger environments. The recordings were used in primarily sonic installations. Both projects turned out to be far more significant than I could have realized at the time. The WTC project opened doors for me in the art world including future residencies, exhibitions and gallery representation. After the buildings were destroyed, there was a heightened interest in these recordings. They were featured in the 2002 Whitney BiennialThey were written about in books by the critic Arthur Danto, philosopher Paul Virilio, and writer/composer David Toop (as well as others) and featured in the Peabody Award winning documentary, The Sonic Memorial. The Yanomami recordings were featured in exhibitions at the Cartier Foundation and elsewhere. They became an important source of research material for Dr. Bruce Albert, a noted anthropologist who has worked with the Yanomami since the 1970s.  

 Dr. Albert’s recent essay “The Polyglot Forest,” published in Le Grand Orchestre des AnimauxThe Great Animal Orchestra (Thames and Hudson, 2017), cites my encounters and recordings several times, as my questions about sound and listening opened a new area of research not previously known or documented. A Yanomami shaman spoke to me about what he called “heã,” which details prophetic significance assigned to certain sounds. For example, a woodpecker in the late afternoon will tell him that a woman in the village will become pregnant with her second child. He spoke of many examples in which the sounds of the forest are telling him what will happen. These two projects, the WTC Recordings, and the Yanomami Recordings, established ways of working that guide me to this day and inform my teaching. There are elements of what I do that are musical, but the interests are grounded in art more than purely in music.  

 Throughout my career, collaboration has been a critical part of how (and even why) I make the work that I do. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with incredible musicians, artists, poets, choreographers, novelists and, most recently, scientists. I have collaborated with number and caliber of extraordinary artists and musicians including Tony Oursler, Pauline Oliveros, Julie Mehretu, Scanner, Steve Roden, Taylor Deupree and Ryuichi Sakamoto as well as poets, writers and scientists including Claudia Rankine, Paul Park and Kasey Fowler-Finn PhD. These projects create dialogues across disciplines. They offer me opportunities to learn and to find new audiences beyond my field (sound art). In the past two years, I have begun working with a scientist, Dr. Kasey Fowler-Finn from St. Louis University. I initially invited Dr. Fowler-Finn to work with me on an installation presented at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (iCAT). We produced many hours of recordings at Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS) in Pembroke, VA. I then created a spatial composition, based on many of the sounds that we captured. In a public lecture, Dr. Butch Brodie (the director of the MLBS residency) said that our project proved to him that not only could artists benefit from working with scientists but that scientists could also benefit from working with artists. Dr. Fowler-Finn subsequently asked me to work with her on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project.  

 Collaboration can be defined in many ways. In each of these projects, I have had extensive creative freedom. Sometimes I am more in service to a collaborator; sometimes they are more in service to me. In the case of working with the world-class painter, Julie Mehretu, when she asked me to work with her on a piece for the 2006 Sydney Biennial, I asked her what she wanted me to do for her. She made it clear that we were working as equals and each of us should and would have a voice in what we made as a wholewhich turned out to be a large environmental installation featuring a 6-channel sound piece, a wall drawing, and a sound sculpture. 

 Currently, I am working on a number of projects. I’m finishing a permanent sound work for Seattle’s new waterfront development. The piece for Seattle is a kinetic sculpture played by the rise and fall of the sea. I’ve also been investigating a rare wind phenomenon in the region around Peters Mountainbordering Virginia and West Virginia. I’ve met people there who have grown up with the sound of the wind and are sharing oral histories, as well as holding onto one of my field recording setups so that they can record the winds for me when I’m not there. I continue to work with Kasey Fowler-Finn and find that we hear new sounds every time we are out in the fieldsounds that I never imagined existed in nature and are no doubt speaking a language that I’m just trying to catch up to understand.