Stephen Vitiello’s musical history has quite some depth to it, and an immediately noticeable characteristic of his discography is the collaborative nature of his work. Aside from a number of solo releases on a number of labels, a number of and’s, +’s and &’s appear on his Discogs page.
After being lucky enough to speak to the man about his recent releases, it soon becomes apparent why; Vitiello views his artistic talent in a very rational and intelligent way, and recognizes the value of growing his musical muscle by exercising the parts he normally can’t reach without the help of another.
Hard to know where to begin cataloguing his work – the audio exhibitions in Paris, Sydney and New York, his residency in the 91st storey of the World Trade Centre in 1999 recording the building’s structural noises after Hurricane Floyd, performances in Germany, San Francisco and London, his compositions for dance used by Mikhail Baryshnikov, his production work, media curatorship or video direction. Suffice it to say that his works are many, and are characterized with the sure hand often seen in the prolific.
When discussing the role of others in his work, Vitiello is circumspect.
How does collaboration shape your work?
SV: Collaboration is a really big part of my work. Not so much the installations, but definitely the CDs and performances. I spent about 10 years making soundtracks for video artists and choreographers (1989-1999). This taught me a lot about communication and looking/listening.
In 1998, I was invited by Anthony Moore in Cologne to participate in a series of concerts. There were four featured composers. Each had their own night but were encouraged to collaborate with the other composers. There was Pauline Oliveros, Scanner, Frances-Marie Uitti and myself. I was definitely the new kid and also very new to improvisation. In the end, all three became friends, and in some ways mentors. I ended up making records with all three of them. I’m still close with Robin (Scanner) and stay in touch with Pauline whenever possible. Pauline taught me a lot through example.
The lesson was always to listen first and foremost. For me, collaboration is a way to communicate with musicians I really admire. It’s also a way to expand on idea and sounds. It’s also social.
Particularly, since I moved from NY to Virginia, I miss being part of a group of like-minded musicians and sound artists. Collaborating – whether through the exchange of files, or performing or recording together allows me to feel connected and forced to listen, and hopefully, to grow.
What prompted the move to Virginia from New York?
SV: I grew up in New York and for most of my life, never thought I’d leave. I moved to Virginia 7 years ago to take a teaching job – Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Kinetic Imaging. It was really about survival. I have a wife and daughter and just couldn’t support us on the various jobs I had. Also, post 9-11, grants were fewer and fewer. My various means of income were all affected and I just needed to find some stability.
Has the new location affected the tone of your output?
SV: Since being here, my interest in field recording has definitely increased. Richmond is pretty urban. I’m just a few minutes outside the center and don’t know if I’d call it urban or suburban but you can get to nature very quickly. When I first moved here, I was overwhelmed by my neighbor’s 14 hunting beagles who howled through the day and night. I found recording them was a more positive response than wanting to lose my mind from the noisy chaos of it all.
Unfortunately for the listener, these beagle recordings never made it to a CD (ending up instead as a presumably therapeutic media installation). However, this year sees a number of other recorded projects put out on a number of labels, all of them landing within a short release time of other – “MOSS”, a collaborative CD with Molly Berg, Olivia Block and Steve Roden out on 12k, “Acute Inbetweens” a collaborative CD with Lawrence English out on Cronica, “Birds in a Box” – a collaborative CD with Machinefabriek in an edition of 200 on Nuun and in May a collaborative CD with Mem1 on Dragon’s Eye.
“MOSS”, reviewed HERE recently, is a 20-plus minute work of restraint and space with a tactile and organic edge. The sound of the room in the recording is evocative, and is an intelligent addition to the 12k schedule for the year. Fans of recent 12k release “Tasogare” would no doubt find this to their liking –
Vitiello is understandably happy with the results of the recording, and with his involvement in the project.
How did it come to be, and have you worked with the other performers before?
SV: I curated 3 nights of concerts for the 01SJ Biennial – a contemporary art/art and technology biennial in San Jose, CA. It was a series of midnight concerts held in a beautiful church. The church was built by a ship-builder. It’s deep, dark wood and curved inside. The acoustics were clean and very dry. The first night was Olivia Block. The second night was Steve Roden. The third night was meant to be me and Molly Berg. Molly and I have worked together for a while, on and off.
We made a CD for 12k called The Gorilla Variations. Steve and I have been friends for several years. We collaborated on an installation and a concert in Marfa, TX in 2008. Marfa is a really special desert town in Western Texas which has an exhibition center of permanent installations by Donal Judd, Dan Flavin and a small handful of other artists. I’ve been a fan of Olivia’s for several years and gotten to know her a little bit. On the night that Molly and I were to play, we asked Steve and Olivia to join us. The concert started with Molly up in near the bell tower, playing the carillon. I was down in the church, processing the bell sounds and adding others.
After that, Olivia and Steve joined us for one long 28-minute improvisation. The piece starts with me on guitar and Molly on clarinet, so we set the tone but otherwise, everyone was free. There was a really nice level of listening and interplay I thought.
How did the location shape the sound?
SV: The church definitely affected the performance. The acoustics were so clean and we could really hear ourselves, and each other. Being midnight, with a small, hushed audience, also added to the quiet nature of our performance.
How was the church miked up? Did you record the performance any differently to allow for the space, if the performers were located in different places?
SV: The setup was really simple – a small Mackie board on a table. Steve and I were going direct into the board, no guitar amps. Molly had a single mic for her voice and clarinet but a lot of what you hear on the CD is the acoustic signal from the clarinet. Olivia was sitting behind us in the dark with small battery powered amplifiers. There was a mix-engineer but for the most part, we were mixing ourselves.
I put a really nice set of (Schoeps) microphones a few feet of us and recorded the piece. The recorded is all from the mics. There isn’t any multi-channel material at all.
The 12K site mentioned some noisy passers by that were respectfully quietened – did this affect the performance?
SV: Just before the concert started, these guys – drunken revelers, were singing and shouting in the alley outside the church. One of the staff members went out and politely asked them to be quiet or to move on. They did! After the concert a homeless man came in to get warm so I got the feeling the church had a comfortable relationship with the local community, some of which looked pretty dusty.
Another recent release (reviewed by Fluid HERE) is “Acute Inbetweens”, an internet collaboration between America and Australia involving Stephen and Room40’s Lawrence English. The collaboration grew out of a shared interest in things technical, and grew from there:
The approach to working in tandem to English and the etiquette involved was obviously given some consideration, and Vitiello speaks highly of his involvement with Room40 and also 12k:
Travel seems to be a constant in the narrative. A number of continents pop up on his CV, and a recent trip to the send+receive festival in Winnipeg and Montreal for performances with Machinefabriek also yielded a live CD, “Birds In A Box” being a live recreation of the spirit of 2009’s 12k release “Box Music”. Again, both artists compiled a box for the other contained non musical (or non functioning musical) objects. The boxes were presented at the start of the concert. Without knowing what would be inside, they improvised with the surprises found in the boxes. The recording of these concerts were edited for release, with an added remix by Ezekiel Honig.
A few myths have sprung up around the original release:
In the couple of weeks I was in contact with Stephen, his schedule appeared to be regularly punctuated with trips around the country. He appears to have considerable energy, despite being unwell when I spoke to him on Skype.
Your schedule seems to be pretty demanding, do you travel for music a lot?
SV: I travel a lot for exhibitions – sound installations, as well as lectures. On occasions, I travel to perform but most of my invitations come from the art world, or art departments in universities. I don’t tour but in the last year, I was in Australia in May and then again in August. This year, I performed in Cork, Ireland in January and I go back in a few weeks to present an installation and a lecture. I like traveling but it’s hard on my family and hard on my job.
The Australian trip was documented for posterity (an extract appears above) – two voyages to record and create an audio installation for the Kaldor Public Art Projects in Sydney. While speaking warmly about the trip, he was also open about the challenges he faced in recording in a harsh environment, and how a documentary team focusing on the social interplay of his trip was presented. As any person that watches any television will know, personal interactions are sometimes mined for drama and conflict, and this is sometimes the case in that short. Or that’s my impression, anyway.
A vital artist. All those interested would be well advised to have a good look over his website, as there’s a fair volume on there not covered here, including links to a free compilation download from Dragon’s Eye, “Wood”.