Stephen Vitiello Uses Stream to Transform Field Recordings
"I just find the world to be richer when I'm listening and finding the parts that are beautiful." — Stephen Vitiello
Stephen Vitiello is an American visual and sound artist who has a talent for transforming, as he puts it, "incidental atmospheric noises into mesmerizing soundscapes that alter our perception of the surrounding environment." We recently discovered that Stephen has been using the granular sampler plug-in Stream by Delta Sound Labs in his music and art.
Originally a punk guitarist, Vitiello has collaborated with Pauline Oliveros, Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, and Frances-Marie Uitti as well as visual artists Julie Mehretu, Tony Oursler and Joan Jonas. He now works in Academia, but doesn't think of himself as a traditional "academic":
"I teach but I've never thought like an academic. I've never learned technology properly, but I have so many years of experience."
Being a product of the punk era, Stephen has always had a DIY approach to things. Curious about his motivation and process, we wanted to witness a day in the life of Stephen as he captures and manipulates sound, so he suggested that we meet him at the historic Pump House in Richmond, Virginia to see his process in action.
"I've come here a couple times to do sound recordings, it's kind of like a steampunk palace. It's this beautiful space. It's closed off to the public and it once supplied water to the city of Richmond. I love the acoustics. I love the location. The first time I ever came here the person who opened up the building said, 'Listen to the water—people have always said that there's voices in the water.' It reverberates with a kind of history in a sense of stepping back in time. That's always moving."
"Stream allows me to start bringing that sound either into a new clarity or totally new distortion because of some ...often it's like a little accident."
Talk about a perfect place to capture recordings—streams of water flowing everywhere, large oddities of stone and steel scattered around, just waiting to sing the perfect sonic musing. One could easily spend days here recording its ambiance, but with only a few hours of sunlight, how does one decide what to capture?
Recording the Sounds of the World Trade Center
"Generally, there's an immediate feeling—an emotional feeling and then I start trying to apply thoughts on what the technical process will be. Like a photographer who brings various lenses, I'll bring different microphones. Kind of like film, I'll start from a distance and move in."
Emotion drives his art. Perhaps one of the most exciting experiences Stephen had was recording sounds from inside the World Trade Center just after Hurricane Floyd—a strong storm that rocked New York City in 1999. As a resident artist at WTC, he recorded sounds from the 91st floor using home-built contact microphones, as well as photocells, and used that material in his Bright and Dusty Things album (New Albion Records) as well as an installation environment, World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd.
"I had a space in the world Trade center for six months. I was there at all hours of the day, would listen through the windows. During Hurricane Floyd, which is the second strongest hurricane to hit New York in a decade, the morning after it peaked we could get in, and it was the first time I ever walked in and could hear the building without my microphones, where I could hear the sway, hear the creak and the crack, and it was beautiful and it was terrifying."
Back inside Pump House, Stephen takes a moment to dive thoughtfully into the sound of rippling water. The consistent inconsistency, the beautiful imperfections, often fuel his creativity and offer up some of his favorite "musical" moments. In fact, it's all about finding the special moments:
"When you listen to the rippling water, there is this, you know, there's a whole lot of room for imagination. I listen to see what I can hear and what I might make use of. And maybe it's coming out of punk rock that I learned to trust a kind of DIY aesthetic—the fact that what happens in the moment, what I feel in the moment, is hopefully the best I can offer. Hopefully it's authentic. It's not always good, but sometimes it's good."
"...I could hear the sway, hear the creak and the crack, and it was beautiful and it was terrifying."
"What's beautiful to me may not be to somebody else. Sounds that may not have been imagined even with great microphones, with great headphones. Stream allows me to start bringing that sound either into a new clarity or totally new distortion because of some ...often it's like a little accident. A mic drop, a nail dropping in the distance, and that's what I'll grab on to with Stream and create a rhythm from or create a texture."
Using Stream from Delta Sound Labs
Stream from Delta Sound Labs provides Stephen a way to interpret and find those "special moments" in his field recordings that he wouldn't normally have been able to find by careful listening. By chopping the audio into small bits (the essence of granular synthesis), Stream allows him to focus on one aspect of the audio, then loop, manipulate, and transform it into something completely different, or even highlight a certain part.
"I use field recordings in electronic music pieces, in ambient pieces, and collaborations with classical musicians. Sometimes there's there's just a moment where I need a little bit of grit or there's something historically about that sound that feels relevant to the composition or the concept. If I'm here (at Pump House), I'm really just gathering sound and then it's more how Stream becomes part of the process once I go into the studio."
"Stream is one of the many apps or plugins that I really love using. It can cut up sound into the smallest of pieces. I'll take a sound and I'll play it through various devices—hardware or software and listen to what the sound is and what can be manipulated. Stream may play a foregrounded role in a piece, or very very very subtle background. As I'm sending sounds through Stream, something will catch and I'll grab it in a loop and just focus in on it, tighter and tighter, start to move a little to the right, a little bit to the left, etc."
The process of granular synthesis involves dissecting audio and either highlighting parts or drowning them in a wash of "grains". For Stephen, Stream from Delta Sound Labs helps him listen—something he tells his students is the most important part of his classes.
"When we start to listen the world becomes more interesting and richer. When I teach, I tell students that the most important thing I'm asking them to do in this semester is to listen. Yes, we'll learn microphones. Yes, we'll learn software. But the most important thing that they'll walk away with is the fact that they listened more carefully."
"They never believe me, but it's always true."
Learn more about Stephen Vitiello and dive into some of his beautiful music at https://www.stephenvitiello.com/