Stephen Vitiello – Dowsing

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Farpoint Recordings
Vinyl

Stephen Vitiello is a Richmond, Virginia based composer (sound artist?). This handsomely produced, vinyl only release came out late last year on the Cork based Farpoint Recordings label. The disc couples Dowsing,  a stereo mixdown of a gallery installation work that Vitiello exhibited in Cork with three other pieces. I don’t really know Vitiello’s work very well, but have, partly based on the little I have heard, and part subconsciously, put him into a bracket of artists including the likes of Steve Roden- a vague genre of sculpted sound that uses field recordings and other elements to make music that is often quiet, pretty and restful.

I’m not far wrong. Dowsing’s four pieces each verge on that area of sound art that could quite easily be slid under a the heading ambient alongside Brian Eno’s later work, but it does also utilise a degree of field recordings and found sounds that do enough to provide at least a degree of interest for this particular listener, though I have to say that after a while the sheer prettiness of some of the material here begins to grate. However I rather like the title piece here. Presumably on an advance visit to Cork, Vitiello recorded sounds around the homes of three of the City’s residents, and used these sounds to form the work which was presented as part of the installation at the National Sculpture Factory. Whether a visual element to the installation was also present I am not sure, but given that the gallery’s name I would guess that there may have been. The piece utilises soft chiming sounds, presumably captured as metallic items were softly tapped, alongside unidentifiable gurgles, scraping sounds and other bits and pieces, plus spoken word parts, some of which sound like captures from a record, with the needle lifted up and down frequently. A single line, spoken in a gruff old Irish voice says, repeatedly; “it was many a long day since he’d seen anything at all” which may be a quote from a Beckett work, but if so I can’t identify which one. If all of this sounds like a bit of a jumbled mixture, well it isn’t really, and there may lay my problem with much of the music here. While the opening work draws in a nice mix of different elements, and their origin adds something nice to the piece, it all does tend to slip a little too easily together into a drifty, dreamy work, and perhaps with a little too much polish. I’d have preferred something slightly more jarring.

The second piece, titled GlassMarimbaFrogCaller seems to consist of two sounds, a melodically played marimba and some kind of vaguely percussive popping, clucking sound that could indeed be something to do with frogs. The presence of the second sound keeps the track from disappearing completely into new age nicety, but its still a close-run thing. The flipside of the album opens with a piece titled Shake, which was apparently recorded in a Wyoming log cabin with a semi-tuned piano. There’s not much left in here that is recogniseably still piano, just a few knocks and tinkles here and there. The title seems to come from the constant feel of light shuddering that flows through what is another vaguely drone, semi-ambient wash of a piece. Sounds are reverberated gently, so everything feels shaken and vibrating, but the sensation ends up more like an outtake from a marine biology documentary than much else. The shorter, closing Out then doesn’t really push anything much harder, mixing reversed sounds and more featureless blurs to create more of the same.

I’m undoubtably being a little cruel here simply because this area of music generally speaking isn’t my cup of tea these days, but Dowsing all just sounds a little too safe and cosy for my liking. The idea of sourcing local sounds at the homes of friends and then producing a work from them to be played nearby is a very nice one, but ultimately this disc all gets a bit too liquidised for me- the sounds all processed a little too far, the softly swaying rhythms and faint melody to it all would be better offset with a little more surprise and grit thrown into the mechanism. Other’s mileage will inevitably vary.

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