Stephen Vitiello and Marina Rosenfeld

Musical Concerns vs. Visual Concerns

STEPHEN VITIELLO: There’s a short video called Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful” where Marina Abramovic is brushing her hair. It’s performance art but there’s also such a musical quality to it.

MARINA ROSENFELD: On so many levels. Another thing that music is really about, or that sound is really about is repetition. You can’t get away from it. Especially now, more than any other generation, we all look at graphic representations of sound waves on ProTools all the time, or Peak, or whatever the software is. The idea of a vibration or just a sine wave is strangely present to any sound or audio person… I love the piece from 1980 Rest Energy with the bow and arrow. Ulay holds a taut bow and Marina points the tip of the arrow at her heart, and both of them in a kind of choreographed swoon are leaning away from each other in a perfect physical interprestation of potential energy, potential calamity. In the video, all you can hear are their amplified heart beats.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I know the still…

MARINA ROSENFELD: It is about an action that is not going to happen or which might happen. It’s like one half of a wave.


Rest Energy
Ulay/Marina Abramovic
Rest Energy, 1980
Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

STEPHEN VITIELLO: It makes me think of some Terry Fox pieces about silence that he did at Capp Street in San Francisco. There’s one about the potential of an earthquake to move a certain object, to create a collision or a crash, which would then become a sound. It’s a very beautiful work just about that moment, a frozen moment in time before that sound actually occurs or the potential of that action taking place.

MARINA ROSENFELD: I think that one way in which you are more closely aligned with visual art history rather than a music history is precisely that interest in archiving or activating those historical relationships. It’s something that I’m also interested in, maybe in a slightly different way, but that’s something that musicians for the most part haven’t been interested in. Maybe because the history has appeared to be, or at least the way it’s been institutionalized, has been linear and offshoots just aren’t considered. There is a linear history from Monteverdi to Boulez, let’s say. Whatever filtered off to the edges isn’t taken into consideration. Whereas the history of visual arts is so multi-branched. I look at the visual artists historically as having always been in a complex dialogue with this more three-dimensional history.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: Maybe with music coming out of conservatories, maybe it’s more closed to these deeper conversations.

MARINA ROSENFELD: Yeah, I think so.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: It’s funny. Being an archivist—I’m the archivist for The Kitchen—is one of the best idea/information-support systems to my work, though of course, I never feel like I have enough time or energy to be as creative as I wish once I finish the 9-5 day. My experience of working with audio archives really came about through Chrissie Iles at the Whitney who gave me the opportunity to curate the sound show for The American Century Part 2: 1950-2000, which suddenly gave me the reason to dig into collections and histories and learn a lot in a short period of time. I had done similar work with video archives, working at Electronic Arts Intermix for 12 years but this focus on audio histories, re-mastering and prolonged listening opportunities was new and very informative, as well as inspiring. I recently got second hand that someone said that they love my work and they thought that there was a distinct relationship between my archival interests and my creative work, that there was a response and interest there.

I was giving another talk, actually at Tony Conrad‘s class in Buffalo, and I said I did this piece in relation to Donald Judd and Tony threw up his hands and said, “You’re so obsessed with the past.” I froze because I respect him so greatly, but I also know he’s coming from a different place. I guess it’s the recent past that I’m at least interested in, if not obsessed with.

MARINA ROSENFELD: Well, Tony’s obsessed with the past.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I was just about to go on stage once and he gave me this long lecture about Pythagoras‘s father, and it was unbelievably fascinating, but I was also in that pre-panic of going out in front of a sold-out audience and sort of wanting to go into a cocoon and getting this amazing history lesson. So yeah, he’s got a hold on the past.

MARINA ROSENFELD: I just did this concert this weekend which I loved doing. I’m not a regular member of this project but I sit in sometimes with The Text of Light, which is this incredible Stan Brakhage abstract film with a group of musicians improvising, not a soundtrack but a parallel piece. One really nice thing about the staging this weekend, totally on the other side of the equation, is that at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis they have these huge screen so the film was just enormous, like you were going to see a Stephen Spielberg movie or something, and we were these darkened, barely visible five people below. There’s really some nice freedom in that; you’re not being looked at. It liberates you from one of the aspects of being a performing artist—you’re usually not allowed to bend over and be invisible. It was totally anti-staging, but there was staging in the sense that there was this beautiful visual object going on. It’s true that staging or costume or visual aspects to performance are really a genre-specific aspect of a performance. There are things that are acceptable for rock, or acceptable for music theater, in general I guess that’s true because the music is so bad…

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I used to do concerts for silent film or re-scored films and I was always very frustrated that there was something about it that was very performative that I was doing or that the people I was performing with were doing and that people wouldn’t see it. I was doing a concert at the Brooklyn Museum with projected films and someone who was actually a true rock star came up to me and said, “Where did you record that soundtrack?” In a way it was great because he must have enjoyed the music and he couldn’t see it. Andrea Parkins was playing accordion, Ursula Wiskoski was playing electric cello, I was playing mostly pedals and feedback but also guitar. We were moving all over the place to keep all our loops going and watching the film and watching the audience, and that element was sort of lost because the visual element dominated people’s minds. It’s tricky because there’s also something iconic about Stan Brakhage because of the body of his work and the beauty of it, maybe even more so at this moment because he just died, and to put it up that big… I don’t know the answer to how to balance this.


Marina Rosenfeld's Sheer Frost Orchestra
Marina Rosenfeld on turntables

MARINA ROSENFELD: Under the circumstance it was really right, I think to make this visual and this audio. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about for a long time to explore in my turntable installations with photographs is just this juxtaposition that creates…the human brain starts to beam these two things back and forth and make a connection with that. It’s not necessarily the job of the artist to tell you what those two relationships are or what that joint relationship is.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: Probably almost every time I’ve worked on a film or video soundtrack, people think, wow you’ve timed those edits so tightly. Very often, it doesn’t work like that. There’s a remarkable potential for synchronicity when the two artists are in some way in-tune, ideally, respectful of each other’s work and mediums. Even when there isn’t, the room for sound and image to inform each other is so great. Ideally, the sound is bringing out some emotional detail that the image holds or implies. The risk is always to tell too much with the sound. The greatest goal for me is to find a strong line where sound and image are weaving in and out of foreground and background. Each with it’s own moment to shine apart and then together.

MARINA ROSENFELD: And sometimes it’s uncanny that the first idea you come up with seems to be so much better than subsequent attempts to mastermind the process. I think it’s because the brain is wrapping itself around something fresh, and after that you just start tinkering. It may not be that the first was the best juxtaposition but you have this feeling about it like “I wish I remembered what that first thing I threw down there was…”

STEPHEN VITIELLO: That’s a vital part of so many histories. Every time I ever played in a band, it was best before we were really tight and formed. And as soon as someone outside the band got interested or we heard some producer was interested in us, then we became really bad! I think people’s 4-track demos are more often so much deeper and more emotional than the versions on records. And when you’re looking at visual artists, the first instinct is often where the depth of the idea is. How you keep that is a critical thing to what we make and what we hear and what we see… Trusting the core of the idea as being relevant and not “too simple.” When I was working on my residency in the World Trade Center, I had the microphones on the window and the sound coming through. I kept thinking, I had to make it “fuller” in order to be a real installation: add images, lighting, something. Beverly Semmes, an installation artist and friend at the time, came up for a studio visit and convinced me to take everything away but the microphones and the sound, which is all I had been after until I started feeling the “stage fright” of the upcoming Open Studio Exhibition.

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