Stephen Vitiello Listening to Donald Judd

[Sub Rosa; 2007]

Styles: ambient, found sound
Others: {Bright and Dusty Things}, Scanner, Pauline Oliveros, Frances-Marie Uitti

Donald Judd is an iconic figure from the minimalist art movement of the late 20th century. Take any art history text on the era and you’re likely to find at least one [image->] of his simple yet audacious series of sculptures consisting of a uniform stack of plastic boxes attached to a wall in a vertical column. Beyond these famous installations and scores of other related works, Judd is also known for his escape to -- or rather, colonization of -- Marfa, TX, where he built a house and workspace reflecting his industrial, hyper-minimalist aesthetic.

Stephen Vitiello started out as a punk guitarist, but since the '90s has invested himself more and more in sound installations and collaborations with artists such as Nam June Paik. He’s also gained notoriety for a sound project resulting from a residency in the World Trade Center in 1999. For this record, Vitiello traveled to Marfa to make field recordings of Judd’s space. The tracks that result are appropriately spare, but surprisingly engaging. At first, I expected these pieces to function similarly to Robert Rauschenberg’s [white painting->] or John Cage’s 4’33”, which force the audience to let ambient sound and light in the museum or concert space serve as the work. Vitiello takes a more active role in the production of these sounds than his predecessors did in the pieces just mentioned, but the presence he creates for himself as performer is nonetheless discreet. He evinces a real appreciation of “song” development and “arrangement.” Scare quotes because these pieces often top 10 minutes without changing much from start to finish, and the large majority of the sounds on the record appear to consist of raw sine waves. The arrival of Marfa’s local train and sweeps of cricket chirps add drama to the first and last tracks.

The choo-choo opens the action on the album’s first cut, whose remaining four minutes decay into acute, beguiling wisps of signal. Hold the fast-forward button for any length of time and you’re likely to fall upon another delicate coupling of field recording and machine-generated tone spackled with some supplemental cracks and clicks that soften the composition. Within these ascetic parameters, Vitiello achieves something special: a kind of musical journalism that responds attentively to Judd’s work (both physically and conceptually) while making a statement-in-sound that deserves listening to based on its own merits. More than a rote soundtrack to art theory, Listening to Donald Judd is lovely music.

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