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Stephen Vitiello's 'Tall Grasses': A Response

By Margy Stewart
Review | January 31, 2011

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.


Margy, was this a project promoted by the Kansas Art Commission?

I commented to Vicky's blog that I wasn't an arts fan. However, I am well aware of the beauty of nature, both visual & audio.

Even out here on the barren plains of NW KS we have distinctive music of nature. In bygone days, before irrigation motors, the only sounds in the early morning was birds calling to one another or the late evening cicadas making their raucus racket. Pheasants, an occassional turkey, doves cooing, coyote yapping, meadowlarks, the list goes on and the melody was sweet harmony letting us know there was life all around us. For the last 24 hours we have heard the rustling of the wind around the corners of buildings and thru the trees reminding us that nature rules and man must adapt. Even the snow sifting accross the open spaces creates a deceptively soothing lullaby that can be fatal to the unfortunate individual who challenged nature and left the safety of their stalled transportation conveyance. There is unmatched beauty in observing the tumbling thunder heads and flashing lightening as we watch storms approaching from 6o miles away, crossing the KS/CO border. Nearly 70 years ago, my brothers and I were so mesmerized by the awesome beauty of a rapidly approaching storm that we got caught a mile from home with a herd of cows and calves we were guiding along the right of way for pasture. We learned a lesson, not soon forgotten, that nature is more powerful in driving cattle than we were.

I guess there are distinctive sounds and sights in the city that my ears and eyes do not detect as having beauty. But, they are there and for some it is the welcoming sounds that prove there is life around them.

Ken, your comment is very powerful and significant. It reminds me of a passage in Donald Worster's classic history of the Dust Bowl, in which he talks about the beautiful sounds in western Kansas--before irrigation machinery drowned them out. There is such a tension between the driving force of industrialization in agriculture and the natural powers on which life depends. I love your use of detail as you stress the importance of having a sense of life around us.

Enjoy such events as long as you can. When Gov Sam cuts the Arts budget completely out of Kansas, as he is planning to do, there will be few such exhibits, plays, or other arts events anywhere in the state outside of KC, Lawrence and the Wichita vicinity. Too bad.

Margy and Ken,

Your ability to describe the natural wonder of Kansas continues to amaze me. I would be very interested to see this exhibit. Articles like these actually make me sad that it has been years since I walked the trails of the Konza Prairie. It has been too long since I marveled at the beauty of the Flint Hills. I remember once when I lived in Manhattan, I drove down highway 177 to Council Grove. I was meeting my parents for dinner at the Hays House. That 45 mins. along a weaving highway, in a spectacular part of the world, was something that made me understand the beauty of "going for a drive." Anyway, great article.

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