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The sounds of artistic expression

The hum from 13 harmonicas reverberates throughout a triangular room. The instruments, each in a different pitch, make notes spontaneously and without cohesion. But the lips that should be behind this symphony are absent, save for a scattered row of vacuum cleaners.

This is one of three pieces of AudioFiles, an exhibit that was on display in the Contemporary Art Museum until Friday.

On Thursday, collaborating artist Stephen Vitiello discussed the transformation of atmospheric noises into music.

Vitiello is an assistant professor of kinetic imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studies video, animation and sound as artistic media.

His main focus is on the physical aspect of sound and its potential to define the form and atmosphere of a spatial environment.

Vitiello grew up in New York and started his career selling experimental videotapes, which ultimately led him to make soundtracks for film and dance. Even though Vitiello enjoyed this work, he said that as it was becoming mundane, he began to think about branching out on his own.

“(It was) in the late ’90s,” Vitiello said. “I was getting tired of being the person who sits in shadows.”

He said he wanted something that could stand on its own and didn’t need film or dance to go along with it. In 1999, his opportunity came when he was awarded a residency at the World Trade Center.

Vitiello started working on site-specific sound installation, where he gathered sounds specific to the area around the WTC. This became a difficult task, he said, as the windows are made specifically to keep the sound out.

“It felt remarkable but also felt dead,” Vitiello said.

With the help of a friend, Vitiello planted piezo element microphones, which he compared to little stethoscopes, on the windows of the WTC and recorded the sounds of the howling city wind. This eventually led to more complicated technology and more sounds, from all the way across the Hudson River.

Vitiello’s work is not limited to sound art; it is also architecturally appealing. Some of his pieces are arranged in different series, allowing the spectator to not only hear the piece, but also see the process involved in making it.

“Some things become fashionable at times,” Vitiello said. “Right now, sound art is it.”

Vitiello’s work has been exhibited in cities such as New York and Paris, and he is becoming one of the most notable names in the field. He has won awards and fellowships for his work over the years, including the Penny McCall Award in 2001 and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 2003.