MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - I'm so glad this wild winter storm didn't come in over the weekend, as I was able to drive to the Salina Art Center on Sunday and take in Stephen Vitiello's exhibition, "Tall Grasses."
Stephen Vitiello is a composer, electronic musician, and "soundscape" artist. He is known for recording the sounds of a particular place and using those sounds in his compositions. One of his best known works is "The World Trade Center Recordings," made in 1999. Two years before the destruction of the World Trade Center, he recorded the sound of wind around the 91st story, with city traffic in the background. He has also used the sounds of bells, firecrackers, planes, insects, and barking dogs in other works.
For his Salina installation, Vitiello recorded sounds on a ranch west of Salina. Being a fan of the prairie, I was eager to hear what an artist of Vitiello's stature had done with Kansas's signature landscape.
One entire room was devoted to Vitiello's installation. There were four stereo speakers outlining a central area, where visitors could recline on surprisingly comfortable "Fat Boys," large inflated bags that resembled old-fashioned bean bags. There were also long benches in line with the speakers, with books sprinkled about on the subject of making sound recordings and composing electronically. From the speakers came a mélange of sounds, predominantly bird songs. Electronic music from neighboring rooms (where several of Vitiello's earlier works were running continuously) wafted into the "Tall Grasses" room and blended soothingly with the natural sounds. The rattling of a cicada could be heard, and the buzzing of bees. A Northern Bobwhite Quail called frequently, sometimes from the background, sometimes from the fore. I stretched out on one of the Fat Boys and let the mix of sounds wash over me. It was very pleasant.
As I listened, I mused on the fact that an avant garde musician like Vitiello had chosen to immortalize Kansas wildlife. True, music supposedly arose at the dawn of civilization in response to amphibian choruses, insect sounds, and bird songs. But soon music became abstract and portable, a language of its own in a world of its own. But now through artists such as Vitiello, music has come back to elevating the specific sounds of a particular place. It used to be that when big-name artists came to the hinterland, it was the hinterland that was honored. But now the honor is mutual--as indeed it should be, as our tall grass prairie is itself a masterpiece.
I don't think Vitiello spent a long time recording on the prairie, as the sounds he used seemed a narrow slice of life. His composition repeated a few bird songs over and over, but many of the key grassland birds were missing. At least during the hour I listened, I heard no Upland Sandpipers, Meadowlarks, Dickcissels, or Grasshopper Sparrows. I heard no wind in the grass, no bubbling springs, no cattle. But my caviling is no doubt the result of expectations raised by the installation's title, "Tall Grasses." What single work could live up to such a title?
And perhaps we Kansans should not expect Vitiello to do for us what we can do better for ourselves. Vitiello's thought-provoking installation has brought the idea of prairie soundscapes to our attention. Now it's up to Kansans to walk through the door he opened and, in more satisfying detail, describe the treasures that lie beyond.