December 05 2008
Interview with Stephen Vitiello
When Stephen Vitiello released his collaboration with romantic Dutch experimentalist Rutger Zuydervelt (aka machinefabriek) earlier this year, it wasn't just yet another fine work between the worlds of drone and sound art for him. Defying the typical impersonal exchange of files, the duo instead sent each other boxes with various objects which were to serve as sonic materials for building compositions. The outcome was aptly called "Box Music" (released on 12k Records) and not only demonstrated how lyrical "Bells, Book, Tin Foil and Buttons" or "Chocolate Sprinkles, Tape, Egg Cutter, Rice and a Plastic Bag" could be, but also marked the return of an element which seemed to have been lost on the scene for years: Playfulness. For anyone who merely knew Vitiello from his plentiful co-operative albums (with applauded colleagues such as Michael J. Schumacher and Andrew Deutsch among others), installation work and his pre-9/11 recording project on the World Trade Center, the sweet hummings and naive charme of this album must have seemed like the efforts of a completely different person. For insiders, however, his oeuvre has always had a child-like inquisitiveness about it. And isn't finding out what the world around us means what we liked best when we were young? With this in mind, Vitiello, who currently holds a position as assistant professor of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, has always considered the journey the reward without thinking too much of delivering a marketable product: "If you take a great risk and learn from it", as he puts it, "it's way more interesting that just getting the thing done in some sort of perfectly schooled way".
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
All's well. At the moment, I'm in Virginia, in an airport on my to Williamstown, MA.
What's on your schedule at the moment?
I just had an exhibition open at a gallery in Los Angeles called MC. There are 3 sound installations and a series of photographs. One of the installations is a collaboration with the painter Julie Mehretu. I've had a few CDs come out this summer. You already know about Box Music. Another one is called Stephen Vitiello with eighth blackbird (a new music ensemble from Chicago) and there's a 12″ record coming out in a week or so, documenting an installation that I presented at DiverseWorks in Houston, TX. In September I'll do a collaborative installation and collaborative performance with Steve Roden in Marfa, TX. Marfa is one of my favourite places. It's a beautiful, very quiet desert town, pretty close to Mexico. Steve and I are designing an outdoor listening space and creating a 4-channel piece to play inside it.
Your recent collaboration with Machinefabriek started with a CD order. How did you get to know about Rutger music in the first place? And: Had the thought of working with him crossed your mind prior to this contact?
I didn't know Rutger's music before he contacted me but I had suddenly started seeing his name in all sorts of reviews and "best of" lists. I remember on the Art of Memory site ( they listed an impossible number of his new CDs on their best of 2007. Just when I thought I should order some of his CDs he sent me an e-mail and said he was trying to get some of my CDs and couldn't get a reply from an online distributor he had contacted. I believe I suggested a trade of CDs. After getting his package of discs, I suggested we do something together someday. He replied that he'd love to but he was very busy for a few months and couldn't think about it. He was packing up his house to move and had some deadlines. The next day he wrote and said he'd been thinking a lot about it and we should start immediately.
"Box Music" was realised by sending objects between the two of you. How did the idea come up?
It was Rutger's idea. I don't remember exactly how the discussion developed but I'm guessing we started discussing exchanging sound files and field recordings and then Rutger suggested the idea of a box of stuff. He said we should "dare" each other to make something with the objects. I thought it was a great idea. It felt more Fluxus than the expected electronic music formula of long distance collaboration. I've done a lot of that too and enjoy it but this was a new way to interact.
In previous interviews, you've maintained that sound is your primary area of interest and that it should be "clear with the sound work that that is the core content of the work rather than being a response to the visual". Was the process behind "Box Music" possibly a subconscious experiment in reversing this hierarchy?
I don't think it's a flip since our ultimate goal was still to produce sounds and hopefully to make interesting ones. The issue of visual hierarchy is much more related to my gallery life. I have been making more photographs and drawings lately and some of those have been exhibited but the photos and drawings too come out of the process of listening and/or recording. It's just an issue for me that what I feel closest to is sound and I try not to make work (at least for the most part) in which sound is secondary to image. With Box Music, sound and idea are closely linked but I don't think anyone needs to see the objects.
How did you go about selecting the objects for the collaboration?
I just started paying attention to off things that might be resonant in one way or another. I went to the hardware store, went to a thrift shop, dug through the bottoms of old boxes. I think my daughter (she's 7) may have contributed a toy or two. I also sent Rutger some field recordings from Virginia where I live (a nice rain storm, some crazy frogs), some synthesizer drones and a paperback book called, The Mute Stone Speaks. I think there may be a moment where you hear someone reading from that book and laughing. I had a gallery exhibition once and someone wrote in the gallery book "beautiful show but why is sound art never funny?" I think this CD has some humor in it for sure.
After unwrapping the boxes, did you ever come across a moment that you thought: "I will never be able to produce a track with this"?
Not really. Everything has potential. The only thing I can think of is the cassette he sent me of pretty terrible accordion music but then I became determined to make it work along with a cracked 45 of choral music he included. He also sent me a box of chocolate sprinkles. I knew I could do something with that. I like borrowing techniques from Foley (film sound). I read that Foley artists create the sound of rain in movies by dropping dry grains of rice on tin foil. Chocolate sprinkles are just the next in line after rice I'd say. I think my daughter ended up eating what was left after I did my recordings.
How important was it to you that the objects used for a track were still recognisable after the phase of processing and editing?
I like working with sounds that are recognizable at times and beyond recognition at other times. I don't think I ever thought about it but it can be fun if you do recognize a sound. On the other hand, just knowing that Rutger used a cheese grater on one track may be enough even if you're never sure which sound it made. I made a CD with one of the greatest guitarists ever, David Tronzo. Tronzo would use an Austrian cheese grater against the strings of his guitar. That one rolled along the strings. The one I sent Rutger was different, more like a little harp. Someone told me once that the musician Hugh Davies was also a fan of cheese graters, similar to the one I sent to Rutger.
While the press release talks about two solo tracks and one collaborative track (also indicated as such in the track list), the liner notes read "All recording and processing by Rutger Zuydervelt and Stephen Vitiello". Could you clarify this? How, in general, did you go about evaluating the material the other had created?
For the most part, we just accepted eachother's solo tracks. With my first one (track 2) I sent Rutger 2 versions and asked which one he preferred. The final track, began with something I sent to Rutger and he made some twists and changes and sent it back to me and we called it done. I don't even think of them as "solo" tracks either. You can hear some of the prepared sounds I sent to Rutger (a synth drone, a bit of rain) and certainly "my" pieces are influenced by what he sent to me and even by our e-mail exchanges. Everything becomes a factor.
Despite the very different materials used in the compositional process, "Box Music" has turned out an extremely homogenuous album. How would you explain this?
I don't think it's so surprising. I don't think you'd ever confuse one of my CDs for one of Rutger's or vice versa but there's certainly a compatibility with our sounds and how we both work. Maybe if one of us had made a track that really sounded too different from the rest we might have suggested taking it out (if I made some super fancy disco track maybe Rutger would have suggested I keep it for something elseŠ)
Did this participative work teach you something about the personality of your musical partner – even though you've never met him?
Definitely. I learned about him from listening to his CDs but also from the quirky choices of the objects he sent to me. We both work pretty quickly and take a spark of enthusiasm for an idea that keeps us from sleeping until we're done. It could be confusing to say I work quickly – sometimes I won't have an idea of what I want to do for weeks or months but once the idea comes, I tend to work quickly. It's like those days of not knowing or not making something were really days of some sort of mental preparation. I was really happy when Rutger wrote the next day to say "let's get started." I was probably too busy too but on the other hand, it seemed more fun than the things I was meant to be busy with.
Another recent release you've been involved in is "Voice Coil" by the Carrier Band. The recording of that album dates back to 2003. How do you look back to those sessions now?
There's actually a mistake in the credits for Voice Coil. I'm on track 3, not track 2. I'm on that short track at the end. Even saying that, I think I made those sounds 6 or 7 years ago and Andrew (Deutsch) put them into the mix more recently. Andrew's a great friend and long time supporter. Pauline Oliveros is someone I've known for 10 years and admired incredibly. Andrew and I have made a lot of projects together. Sometimes he'll just have sounds of mine and send me a mix out of the blue and say "what do you think?" He also has a label, Magic If and just put out my CD with eighth blackbird.
One of the albums was to find insights on the "integration of analog systems and new digital tools between performers both living and deceased". In which way, do you feel, did the sessions to "Voice Coil" contribute to this question?
The sounds I contributed to that CD were made with a small photocell device that amplifies the audible frequencies of light. I made the tracks at Alfred University (where Andrew teaches), running the photocell device into some vintage analog processors (built by Harald Bode in the 60s I believe). The session was analog based but then digitally captured. I actually don't know how Andrew created the mix but I think that like me, he tends to create a lot of his work with analog sources and then does the final editing and polish in the computer.
Pauline Oliveros has been a longtime collaborator, both in the Carrier Band and for your upcoming performance at the New Albion Fest. How would you describe your musical relationship with her?
I met Pauline 10 years ago in a festival in Koln, Germany. I played in her concert and she played in my concert. I asked her on the way home if I could study with her and she said no but I could do a gig with her and Joe McPhee the next week. Soon after that I asked her to play on my first real CD (Light of Falling Cars) and my next one (Bright and Dusty Things). She has always said yes and always been generous. Secretly, I do always feel like a student when I work with her. I think she is so important to the history of electronic music but also uniquely generous in her support of younger composers and musicians. I just wrote a book review on the book, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterulture and the Avant-Garde. It's a great book and Pauline is a major part of that book and the history of the Tape Music Center.
You are currently Assistant Professor of Kinetic Imaging. In how far are you using your own work as part of the curriculum?
In many ways, I think my teaching has been influenced by my experience with Pauline and with the artist, Nam June Paik. In both cases, they taught me through example and collaboration. I don't have much of an academic background yet I'm teaching graduate and Ph.D candidates. I've come to realize that even if I haven't read much theory and don't always have the art historical references I do come to the room with a lot of unique experience and what I think is a focused ear. I do my best to treat classes as an environment to experiment. I remember telling a younger student that I though his project had failed but it was a really interesting thing to have tried. He looked crushed and probably thought he would fail the class. I explained that he'd definitely get an A. In my opionion, too many people fear taking risks and spend way too much time trying to please the system. If you take a great risk and learn from it, it's way more interesting that just getting the thing done in some sort of perfectly schooled way.
By Tobias Fischer