‘Exploring the sonic world that's around us’: A look at VCU faculty working in the world of sound
Stephen Vitiello has built a career through sound. The chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Vitiello has gone from punk band guitarist to archivist to sound installation artist, balancing projects with other musicians and artists to create film scores and soundtrack compositions. As an artist-in-residence at the World Trade Center in 1999, he recorded the sound of the building groaning during extreme weather. An upcoming project garners the energy of the tides of Seattle’s Elliott Bay waterfront, where he will create audio in buoy or bowl-like objects on the waterfront’s floating marina.
Vitiello is one of over a dozen faculty at VCU using sound in creative ways through their installations, research, podcasts and music to entertain, tell stories and make sense of our world. VCU News spoke with them about their fields of study, their work in the classroom and their ongoing experiments in the world of audio.
The familiar voice of NPR underwriting, I'Anson, Ph.D., is an African American Studies professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences who looks at the structure of racist ideology. He is currently creating a pilot podcast with a radio station “about the subtle and not so subtle ways that racism affects city life.” In his Podcasting While Black course, students have created broadcasts on how Interstate 95 cut through a Black neighborhood and an investigation into African art at a variety of museums.
“[In that class] I'm trying to communicate the idea that good communication is often the result of a process of imitation, revision and innovation,” I’Anson said. “It is also a matter of understanding the particular medium of communication. We have to explore the tools of that medium, observe how others have mastered it, and then develop our own ways of being effective communicators. This always involves conceptual, technical and practical work.”
I’Anson is drawn to audio because it removes most people’s first source of judgment.
“We very often develop our assumptions about people immediately when we see them, but that option is gone when we hear them through a speaker,” I’Anson said. “That brief suspension is, I think, a space for empathy. Also, the listened word is the most powerful thing in humanity. We have ‘The Iliad’ and vast collections of African proverbs written down because they resided in the minds and voices of people long enough for the written word to catch up to them.”
This summer, I’Anson was named inaugural director of community podcasting at the ICA.
“My main goal is to bring more quality audio to the university, for the sake of learning outcomes and means of sharing research,” I’Anson said.
Mary Caton Lingold
Lingold’s study of literature focuses on sounds of the colonial Americas and the Caribbean in the context of the African Diaspora created by slavery. In the podcast “Tena, Too, Sings America: Listening to an Enslaved Woman's Musical Memories of Africa,” Lingold, Ph.D., traces a lullaby held over through generations of a Georgia slave-owning family.
“This approach to my research is important because not everyone was able to read and write,” said Lingold, an assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Enslaved people were forbidden to learn, [with threats of] being killed or severely punished. Reading and writing are domains that are very primary in the Western intellectual tradition. If we don't do sound, we're missing important voices.”
Her forthcoming book about music and its place in the Afro Atlantic from about 1600 to 1800 focuses on sonic knowledge, traditions of thought and ways of knowing through sound, as opposed to exclusively through text or image.
Lingold said thinking about how and what we hear and who makes noise opens up more diverse intellectual traditions. She explores a way to rectify the injustice of the underrepresentation of Black art, thought and literature, historically, especially under slavery. She finds clues in colonial travelogues that were written primarily by white men about their travels to Africa and the Caribbean, where they documented music they heard.
“Musicians, too, were able to transform global sounds in the context of slavery and the forced migration that enslaved people underwent,” Lingold said. “I've done projects that use digital media to bring sound into work that otherwise would be kind of silent on the page.”
Fine, Ph.D., a retired biologist, studied the anatomy and physiology of various sound-production mechanisms in animals while he was at VCU.
“Passive acoustics [the action of listening for sounds] has become a big thing because you can sample fish without harming them. People can learn a lot just by sticking a hydrophone in the water and listening at different times,” Fine said.
“The toadfish, and other fishes have some of the fastest muscles in the world,” he said. “So if the toadfish is making its courtship call, it can contract its muscles over 200 times a second. Catfish use their pectoral spines to rub up against bones to make stridulation sounds. They actually use a slip stick mechanism, which is like a violin."
Passive acoustics can also tell people when fish are spawning and notify listeners where commercial fishing should be avoided, Fine said.
Read the full VCU News feature to learn more about faculty from other VCU units exploring the sonic world.