Every City Has A Voice by Sara Fetherolf
Every city, like every person, has a unique voice. Floating on top of the physical setting, there’s a landscape of sound. That’s what I try to catch in Stories on the Street. I want to capture not only the particular qualities of individual voices, but also the sound-texture of a place.
New York’s voice is gravelly, contralto, and androgynous. It can beatbox and sing Broadway show tunes. It speaks so many languages it has forgotten what its original accent sounded like.
For Stories on the Street, I take literary works that are in the public domain, and match them with locations that are somehow suited to the work being read. (Say, for example, Dante’s Inferno on a subway, or Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” in a bar the weekend before Valentine’s Day.) Then, I go to that location and ask people to read for me.
That’s the tricky part. I’ve never been afraid to talk to strangers, but it takes an extra dash of charm and skill to convince a stranger to read literature into a recording device. I wasn’t so good at that in the beginning. When I did my first piece—part of James Joyce’s “The Dead” on New Year’s Eve in Times Square—I walked up to the first person I saw and started breathlessly rattling off this long explanation of who I was and what the project was all about and how I really needed his help oh and by the way I have a voice recorder, is it okay if I turn it on? He must have thought I was crazy. For my part, I learned that even if I’m generally comfortable with approaching random strangers, it’s good to have a plan of action, since it can be very nerve-wracking to ask them for a favor.
Especially a favor that you have to carefully explain. At this point, I have developed a good version of my “elevator speech” for the Stories on the Street project. I try to confine my spiel to 30 seconds or less, so that they aren’t confused about what I’m asking them to do. I make sure to lead with the fact that I’m working with a literary magazine. This way they figure out right away that I don’t want money, and they don’t feel too confused about the fact that they’ve never heard of this organization before. Then, in a few careful sentences, I explain the project. Sometimes I’ll give them an extra quick lecture on literary history if they’ve never heard of, say, Emily Dickinson. (You’d be surprised.)
New York has a reputation for being an unfriendly place. I don’t think that’s true. I have found so many incredible people who are willing to play along and read aloud. Sometimes I get lucky and find someone extra special. An Italian man read a section of Dante for me and told me all about how the poem sounded in his native language. A guy in a bar began choking up with emotion at the words of Andrew Marvell. A group of people in Times Square laughed and applauded for each other as they took turns reading James Joyce on their first visit to New York City. I am working on a project now, recording a portion of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Coney Island. The first reader I found was a gentleman who has been taking photographs of the Cyclone roller coaster daily for the past 50 years. As he read the line, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on…” I got chills, sensing the material memories he had spent his life creating in a place that, like Prospero’s island, is built with seawater and ephemeral enchantments.
It seems to me that the longer someone has lived in New York City, the more willing they are to agree when I ask them to read for me. Though I’ve met some wonderfully cooperative out-of-towners, the majority of people who don’t want to read turn out to be tourists. (Often they seem to think I’m running some sort of slick scam.) New Yorkers, on the other hand, tend to love the idea of snatching up a piece of text and lending it their voices. Maybe it has something to do with the city. You listen to that big deep beatboxing Broadway-star voice for long enough and you want to contribute.
That’s my favorite part of Stories on the Street. It’s a demonstration of something I’ve always believed—that there are stories all over the place, and everyone is capable of performing them. You just have to ask.
Sara Fetherolf is The Drum's Stories on the Street intern. Based in New York, she writes in this post about her experiences capturing the voices of the city as they bring classic texts to life.