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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Listening in Absence with Stephen Vitiello

21 years after the fall of the Twin Towers

If you spent a lot of time in New York City, especially Manhattan, prior to September 11, 2001, the loss of the Twin Towers was literally disorienting, in a very basic way — beyond matters of global destabilization, war, the loss of human life, and impacts on society, it was disorienting at a simple, practical level. Streets are just far enough apart in Manhattan that you can’t quite make out the one above or below you from a given corner. When they were still standing, the Twin Towers meant that when you emerged from the subway, you often had a very clear sense of which way was south. In the hustle and bustle of that very busy city, knowing where you are offers a primal comfort.

Stephen Vitiello’s recordings of the creak and motion of Tower One were made in 1999 during an artist residency there. They contained very simple sounds that offered a primal discomfort, one that spoke to innate anxiety about vertiginousness and the fragility of human life.

His audio documented a different sort of critical moment from 9/11, recorded as it was amid the impact of Hurricane Floyd. Two years later, the sounds would take on a new meaning, as they provided an unforeseen, unintended homage to a suddenly imaginary quadrant of air — what was once a room 91 floors up from Wall Street was now just empty space. In the years since, Vitiello’s recording is often more associated with 9/11 than with Floyd.

I spoke with Vitiello in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the towers, and when the occasion occurs each year, I think to mention it here. The article is titled “In the Echo of No Towers,” a nod to Art Spiegelman’s comics.

Following the events of 9/11, Vitiello initially said he had no intention of ever playing the audio again. In our conversation, he explained how he was encouraged during a subsequent event at the Kitchen to reconsider: “The feedback I got from the audience was that I had to keep them accessible but just to be careful about how they were contextualized. I took that to heart.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

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