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Stephen Vitiello - Listening to Donald Judd

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Artist: Stephen Vitiello

Album: Listening to Donald Judd

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: May. 30, 2007


The late sculptor and art critic Donald Judd was keenly attuned to the particularities of art and its context. An advocate for the permanent installation of artworks in environments appropriate to the specifics of the individual pieces, Judd is almost as well-known for his rejection of the exhibition practices of the New York art world and subsequent move to the remote town of Marfa, Texas in the early 1970s, as he is for his precisely geometrical, yet somehow sensuous sculptures of metal, plywood, and colored perspex. In Marfa and its surroundings, Judd bought up a number of different buildings from former army barracks to banks and created a series of spaces with installations of his own works, as well as those of other artists.

In 2002 Virginia-based sound artist Stephen Vitiello travelled to Marfa to make a series of field recordings in and around Judd's installations. Like Judd, Vitiello is keenly attuned to issues of architecture and space in his work, which is often built around site-specific field recordings. The most famous of these works is a series of installations based on contact-mic recordings of the World Trade Center made during a six-month artistic residency in a vacant office on the 91st floor or Tower One in 1999. These recordings capture a fascinating world of sound that includes the howl of the wind and the creaking of the building itself, as well as the street noise hundreds of feet below. The sounds on Listening to Donald Judd are also gathered using contact microphones, which Vitiello adhered directly to Judd's sculptures. These ultra-sensitive microphones captured not only the surface vibrations of Judd's carefully selected materials metal, plastic, concrete, and wood but also the sounds of the spaces themselves. In addition, Vitiello made recordings of the ambient noise in, around, and even above the town.

As Vitiello observes in his liner notes, Marfa is a very quiet place. The same is true of Vitiello's music, which is composed of shifting metallic hums, wavering sine tones, and ghostly, indeterminate metallic whistles. One of the few dramatic sonic events in the town is the periodic rumble of trains passing through, and it is the sound of a train that opens and closes Listening to Donald Judd. It is virtually the only fully recognizable sound source on the CD, beyond the faintly modified sounds of birds and crickets. Otherwise, Vitiello focuses on the textures of the recordings, abstracting the sounds and near-silences through processing, time-stretching, and the like into a finely textured array of hums, buzzes and chirps. There is no narrative thread running through these six, interrelated pieces, and yet the disc as a whole is quite thoroughly engrossing. Like Judd's sculptures, Vitiello's music is apparently simple; but its austerity belies great beauty and complexity.

By Susanna Bolle

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