Oct. 26, 2020
‘Exploring the sonic world that's around us’: A look at VCU faculty working in the world of sound
From art installations to podcasts to music, these profiles in audio provide a unique glimpse into a diverse field of study.
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Stephen Vitiello has built a career through sound. The chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Vitiello has gone from punk band guitarist to archivist to sound installation artist, balancing projects with other musicians and artists to create film scores and soundtrack compositions. As an artist-in-residence at the World Trade Center in 1999, he recorded the sound of the building groaning during extreme weather. An upcoming project garners the energy of the tides of Seattle’s Elliott Bay waterfront, where he will create audio in buoy or bowl-like objects on the waterfront’s floating marina.
Vitiello is one of over a dozen faculty at VCU using sound in creative ways through their installations, research, podcasts and music to entertain, tell stories and make sense of our world. VCU News spoke with them about their fields of study, their work in the classroom and their ongoing experiments in the world of audio.
Vitiello’s most noted projects are site-specific installations, though he’s also known for his soundtrack work, where he tries to respond to the physical environment.
“I'm trying to figure out how to haunt the space, give it a presence that's not overwhelming, that's not stronger than it’s meant to be, but then it's somehow becoming part of the landscape,” he said. “I want it to be heard by people who pay attention, but I don't want it to get in the way if people want to tune it out.”
That is similar to the approach he takes in his ongoing collaborations with experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs. Vitiello works with the director to figure out where to make space for himself in a film, and the kind of psychological approach to take. He asks if the music identifies with the filmmaker or a character. He searches out if there is a reason that the tone is sad or dreamy or nostalgic.
Vitiello, who also teaches classes in kinetic imaging, encourages his students — especially those in more traditional fields of study — to think creatively.
“Sometimes I get students from other departments who are doing traditional sound design for theater, but don't get to think poetically, creatively or playfully,” said Vitiello. “A class with me, it's liberating because I'm not treating them as a technician. I'm treating them as an artist, and giving people the permission to play.”
Before moving to the United States from his native Brazil, Leitão, Ph.D., an assistant professor of music, composed commercial popular music and film scores. He worked with rock bands on arrangements, always connected to technology and music.
“Film scoring is something that I love to do because it combines both the classical background I have, and also a more commercial approach, because we need to use music to communicate and evoke moods, to communicate something to the audience in a theme, for example, in animation, in a game,” said Leitão, who teaches and researches composition and sound design for cinema, games and motion media.
“If I'm doing a classical piece, I know it's thinking about how I can communicate that idea to the audience, what kind of mood I want to achieve.”
Leitão collaborates with other School of the Arts faculty and with musicians around the world. This fall, he is teaching courses on digital music production, film and media scoring, melding music and sound with images, and arranging.
“I teach students collaboration with other people, other artists,” Leitão said. “I teach students how they can learn by themselves.”
Yoon, an associate professor in the Department of Craft/Material Studies in the School of the Arts, explores the qualities of glass mixed with sound, light and air. Each project offers a unique challenge to come up with new methods to probe these qualities.
For one project, he filmed himself lighting a torch at the end of different sized glass tubes, creating various tones and notes, then edited the video to create an original composition. In another project, “Sound of Helmet Instrument,” people wear glass fishbowl-like helmets filled with water in the ring. When they tilt their heads, water pours from the spout onto the helmet of the next person. Yoon wants the viewer to feel unnerved as they watch the people tilt the heavy, breakable helmets.
“That one is a kind of interaction with the people and in keeping and receiving and meeting some sound. It's communicating and interacting. That's actually based on my real communication problems at the beginning of my life in the U.S.,” said Yoon, who is from Korea.
Yoon’s video “Ensemble” features people wearing the same glass helmets, and this time agitating the water to create a composition. In January, Yoon will be part of a group exhibition at the Latvian National Museum of Art.
“My fascination with weightless, intangible and ephemeral elements parallels the translucency that I feel represents a human’s life,” he said. “Focusing on how to represent that which is visible and that which is unseen, such as the relationship between self and others, is what awakened my interest in the field of glass.”
Rucker, a composer, musician and visual artist, is a TED senior fellow and iCubed research fellow who has presented talks about his visual art and performances. The multidisciplinary artist is currently working on a socially engaged project, "Banking While Black,” while taking on a new role as curator for creative collaboration in the School of the Arts, where he will implement research-based artistic programming.
“‘Banking While Black’ will bring light to systemic racism and economic disparities in the United States, past and present,” Rucker said. “Partnering with George Washington University, the Corcoran [School of the Arts & Design], Arizona State University, and B.A.S.E. [Black Art Student Empowerment] here at VCU, the culminating project will take place in the Spring of 2021.”
In the School of the Arts, Rucker mentors the B.A.S.E. student organization, helping members present a virtual art show and teaching workshops about making and presenting art. His audio work is varied. He creates film scores for movies and documentaries as well as interactive work that melds images, voice and music.
“I've always worked with sound as a composer playing in orchestras, playing in jazz bands, playing bluegrass, reggae,” Rucker said. “Later, I decided to get into visual art and cross disciplines. I was originally a composer musician who went into visual arts and brought the sound with him as a component.”
Rucker’s pieces are designed to provoke thought. Dark, layered cello accompanies “Proliferation,” an animated map he created of the U.S. prison system. With an Art for Justice Fund grant he recently received, Rucker will create new work that addresses the normalization of systemic racism through a socially engaged project.
The familiar voice of NPR underwriting, I'Anson, Ph.D., is an African American Studies professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences who looks at the structure of racist ideology. He is currently creating a pilot podcast with a radio station “about the subtle and not so subtle ways that racism affects city life.” In his Podcasting While Black course, students have created broadcasts on how Interstate 95 cut through a Black neighborhood and an investigation into African art at a variety of museums.
“[In that class] I'm trying to communicate the idea that good communication is often the result of a process of imitation, revision and innovation,” I’Anson said. “It is also a matter of understanding the particular medium of communication. We have to explore the tools of that medium, observe how others have mastered it, and then develop our own ways of being effective communicators. This always involves conceptual, technical and practical work.”
I’Anson is drawn to audio because it removes most people’s first source of judgment.
“We very often develop our assumptions about people immediately when we see them, but that option is gone when we hear them through a speaker,” I’Anson said. “That brief suspension is, I think, a space for empathy. Also, the listened word is the most powerful thing in humanity. We have ‘The Iliad’ and vast collections of African proverbs written down because they resided in the minds and voices of people long enough for the written word to catch up to them.”
This summer, I’Anson was named inaugural director of community podcasting at the ICA.
“My main goal is to bring more quality audio to the university, for the sake of learning outcomes and means of sharing research,” I’Anson said.
Mary Caton Lingold
Lingold’s study of literature focuses on sounds of the colonial Americas and the Caribbean in the context of the African Diaspora created by slavery. In the podcast “Tena, Too, Sings America: Listening to an Enslaved Woman's Musical Memories of Africa,” Lingold, Ph.D., traces a lullaby held over through generations of a Georgia slave-owning family.
“This approach to my research is important because not everyone was able to read and write,” said Lingold, an assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Enslaved people were forbidden to learn, [with threats of] being killed or severely punished. Reading and writing are domains that are very primary in the Western intellectual tradition. If we don't do sound, we're missing important voices.”
Her forthcoming book about music and its place in the Afro Atlantic from about 1600 to 1800 focuses on sonic knowledge, traditions of thought and ways of knowing through sound, as opposed to exclusively through text or image.
Lingold said thinking about how and what we hear and who makes noise opens up more diverse intellectual traditions. She explores a way to rectify the injustice of the underrepresentation of Black art, thought and literature, historically, especially under slavery. She finds clues in colonial travelogues that were written primarily by white men about their travels to Africa and the Caribbean, where they documented music they heard.
“Musicians, too, were able to transform global sounds in the context of slavery and the forced migration that enslaved people underwent,” Lingold said. “I've done projects that use digital media to bring sound into work that otherwise would be kind of silent on the page.”
Fine, Ph.D., a retired biologist, studied the anatomy and physiology of various sound-production mechanisms in animals while he was at VCU.
“Passive acoustics [the action of listening for sounds] has become a big thing because you can sample fish without harming them. People can learn a lot just by sticking a hydrophone in the water and listening at different times,” Fine said.
“The toadfish, and other fishes have some of the fastest muscles in the world,” he said. “So if the toadfish is making its courtship call, it can contract its muscles over 200 times a second. Catfish use their pectoral spines to rub up against bones to make stridulation sounds. They actually use a slip stick mechanism, which is like a violin."
Passive acoustics can also tell people when fish are spawning and notify listeners where commercial fishing should be avoided, Fine said.
Sicchio, Ph.D., a choreographer and assistant professor of dance and media technology, has a foot in both worlds. She teaches live coding — in which an artist’s “performance” consists of writing computer code to create beats or melodies while the audience looks at their screen, giving viewers a glimpse of how the music is made.
“My sound practice comes out of coding,” Sicchio said. “I mostly manipulate samples, but also program synthesizers to make noises. It’s improvised. I don't have set songs. I have go-to beats and samples, but I never know where I'm going to go when I'm coding.”
In some of Sicchio’s choreography, dancers wear sound-producing clothing to explore the interface between the body, technology and performance. Her video projections are a result of dancers manipulating and creating sound through movement or their clothing, rather than performing to a soundtrack.
“I'm drawn to this because it's a really interesting way of humanizing technology which is inherently performative,” Sicchio said.
She imparts the idea that movement can generate sound as much as sound can generate movement. Students in Sicchio’s classes learn screen dance, choreography and dance composition. In Sicchio’s composition in a recent faculty concert, her cast made a piece by loading thousands of photographs of students dancing into an algorithm, and then the algorithm gave them back a dance to learn.
“Music, sound in general, has always fascinated me, [and I explore] different and more obscure, abstract elements of sound,” he said. “It's exploring the sonic world that's around us as well as what we think of as traditional music.”
Ashby’s work is diverse and has expanded over time. He played guitar on a duet album recorded remotely with Australian clarinetist Vicki Hallett, who Ashby met at a residency in South Africa.
“I recorded myself improvising and sent her the recording, and we'd send back and forth and develop the composition that way,” Ashby said.
Ashby embraces technology. He also explores and experiments with how sound and visuals interact and how they amplify each other. This fall, he is teaching a new class, Survey of Sound Design, focusing on the way sound design is used in film, theater, dance and video as well as kinetic imaging.
Originally a woodworker, Rodenberg, a kinetic imaging instructor and facilities and equipment coordinator in the School of the Arts, is also a sound artist who produces music with visual work. Rodenberg teaches a number of courses including Sound Communications and Time Studio Research.
“It's an exploratory course that allows students to get a technical taste of conceptual [work] and come out the other side to have a vocabulary of the importance of sound and how it works as one of the parts and pieces of the vehicle they're driving,” Rodenberg said. “But we also spend a lot of time just listening.”
Rodenberg is interested in audio experiences that are bigger than music.
“Sound is extremely underrated. We take it for granted because it's just always been there. So I liked the idea of a sound as an experience more than just a happenstance, or like a byproduct of things,” Rodenberg said. “Sound is important because if it wasn't there, it would be extremely boring. I've always understood that on a guttural, almost instinctual, level.”
As the house engineer at the Altria Theater in Richmond, Vecchione sets up sound for Broadway shows, comedy performances, concerts, talks and graduations. Audio for live events as well as sound for church services are his expertise.
“It’s an area that's developing constantly. And it provides a new challenge every time that I do it because there's some new technology I have to learn,” Vecchione said. “I enjoy the challenge and the mixture of work that I get from folks doing live sound reinforcement. It's a mixture not only of mental stimulus, but also physical because sometimes I have to do a lot of physical labor to get a show ready. I enjoy that blend of a workday constantly changing in live sound.”
Vecchione teaches numerous classes including Introduction to Audio Mixing.
“By the end of the class people are developing their mixes to completion, but more importantly, they're able to hear different technical choices in the mix so that they can continue developing their own ear and their own ability to continue to grow in their mixing,” Vecchione said. “With theatrical sound design, we choose these sounds, styles of music that are appropriate, looking at all those in context. It's a collaborative art that is theater. We're all working together to create one artistic vision for a show.”
When COVID-19 hit and classes went remote, Vecchione pivoted to teaching his classes online, including a relatively new class teaching student actors to create audition tapes at home, and master the audio and equipment so the technology supports their art.
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