It’s much easier to imagine Stephen Vitiello as a walking, talking recording studio with a beard. Just think of him as the “Six Million Dollar Man” designed by Sony and Bose.
Otherwise, you’ll get stuck trying to wrap your head around the fact that he makes art out of sound. You’ll have to grasp the idea that his work falls somewhere in that wide chasm between music and visual art.
Most people didn’t realize there was anything there in the first place.
There is, and in the small but growing field of sound art there is a shortlist. Look for Stephen Vitiello’s name somewhere near the top.
For the next two weeks, a piece by Vitiello joins work by 10 other international musicians and sound artists at the Cultural Olympics in Turin, Italy. “Echoes From the Mountains” is a collection of performances and installations in and around the ski resorts and villages hosting the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
Vitiello’s piece, “Whoosh,” debuted yesterday and will run through Feb. 26.
“In most of the work I’ve done, people give me a place to interact and a problem to solve,” said Vitiello, an assistant professor in the department of kinetic imaging in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts since August 2004.
He was commissioned to produce the new piece by curator Ombretta Agro Andruff.
Most of Vitiello’s past work has been about gathering sounds from outside and bringing them indoors to a gallery setting. He goes for long walks with big microphones in the rain, in the subway and in abandoned buildings. In 2003, Vitiello recorded the Yanomami tribe and environmental sounds of the Amazon rain forest.
Most notably, in 1999, he worked on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center for an artist-in-residency project. He attached contact microphones to the window and recorded sounds of the building creaking, the bluster of storm winds and the haunting roar of passing jets.
The installation in Turin will be his work’s first foray beyond the warm confines of a gallery.
“It’s my first time outside,” he said. “Public art is a whole other game.”
In Turin, his canvas will be a circular configuration of five speakers set up outside in the resort village of Bardonecchia. His recording will run every day for two weeks from morning until night.
Some people will walk past and miss it entirely. Others will stand in the snow and soak it in.
“Whoosh” is Vitiello’s attempt to capture the thrill of the speed and velocity of winter sports. The 20-minute sound piece includes the scrapes and slides of metal against ice, the rush of air from speeding athletes, the huff of heavy breath and the thud of a fall.
“I’m not much of a winter sports follower,” admitted Vitiello, who prefers weekly forays to the James River with his wife and 4- year-old daughter.
He may not know the difference between a bobsled and a luge, but the man can sculpt noise like he’s working with wet clay.
For “Whoosh,” he combined samples from sound-effects libraries, recordings he made and sounds that he commissioned foley artist Carrie Palk to produce. (Foley artists produce and record sound effects for films. In simplest terms, they are the artists who go “clip-clop” with coconuts when the scene calls for a horse walking on the sidewalk.)
Once he collected enough material, Vitiello went to work on his laptop. He manipulated sounds, layered tracks and remixed to take full advantage of the speaker layout.
The final product sounds like a race between sumo wrestlers on ice skates.
“Whoosh” captures the sense of speed and tosses in some audio hallucinations for good measure. Reverbs, clipped voices and an ominous rumbling add a sinister edge. The smallest sounds are amplified so that the twirl of a figure skater sounds more like an avalanche.
“Sound is very emotional,” Vitiello said. “When I work with it, I feel in control and excited.”
Vitiello started as a punk-rock guitarist and ended up as part of the New York art scene, where he worked closely with groundbreaking video artist Nam June Paik. Over the years he has collaborated with musicians, artists, dancers and choreographers such as David Tronzo, Pauline Oliveros and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
He’s become a sound artist with an international reputation and a rapidly filling datebook. So far this year, he’s scheduled for exhibitions in Norway, Australia and England. Yesterday, he planned to perform selections from his new album, “Scratchy Monsters, Laughing Ghosts,” with fellow musicians in Malaga, Spain.
Back home in Richmond, Vitiello rides the bus to VCU from his home in Montrose Heights. The 40-year-old Vitiello spent 38 of those years in New York City. He never learned how to drive.
So he uses the time to listen. Sometimes he’ll plug into music, and sometimes he just absorbs the sounds around him.
To Vitiello, things like the hum of the engine, the hiss of the brakes and the overlapping noise of a dozen conversations are no different than the notes of Mozart.
And as the bus makes its way to Vitiello’s Franklin Street classroom, the quiet guy with the beard and the backpack is rearranging the noise in his head.
Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 12, 2006