The soundwalk "Telettrofono," by poet Matthea Harvey and sound artist Justin Bennett is currently taking place on Staten Island for the next two weekends. Below Matthea and Justin write about working on the project.
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Poetry has led me to some strange places over the years, so perhaps I should not be surprised that writing poems for a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett resulted in a series of embroidered handkerchiefs.
The nineteenth century couple Antonio and Esterre Meucci are the subjects of our soundwalk. Antonio Meucci, a Staten Island resident of Italian birth, was the unacknowledged inventor of the first telephone (or telettrofono), conceived in 1849, when he accidentally discovered, while administering electrical shocks to a man suffering from rheumatism, that sound could travel along electrical wires. His wife, Esterre, was a seamstress, and later the head of the tailoring department at the Gran Teatro Tacon.
I imagined that Esterre (besides being a mermaid—another story) embroidered a handkerchief for Antonio every year on his birthday. When I started to write about this, I realized I knew nothing about embroidery, so I bought some thread and stitched Meucci's diagram of the telettrofono used in his Staten Island home onto an old handkerchief.
The first one came out a bit wonky (I hadn't discovered the embroidery hoop yet), but I blame that on Esterre's rheumatoid arthritis. And so it began... The lactometer is taken from his patent application and the two telephone diagrams appear in his notebooks. The remaining three handkerchiefs are inventions I imagined Antonio wanting to make for Esterre—a bone xylophone (made out of their creditors' bones), a wave metronome and a music box with a tiny rotating chandelier and real candles. In total, I wrote fourteen lines about Esterre's handiwork, so the stitches far outnumbered the words.
Preset Patent Mode
Patent No. 183,062 "Improvement in Hygrometers, for measuring humidity" (approved)
"I prefer for general use to give all the parts an ornamental appearance, imitating the person of a weather-prophet or some other significant device."
(Esterre thought it should have been a mermaid
and stitched a revision onto my handkerchief.
She did recommend the whalebone after all).
Preset Mermaid Monologue Mode (Esterre Meucci)
My fingers might as well be claws.
Yesterday, for a half an hour, I tried to
thread the wrong end of the needle.
I saved up for the handkerchief—
(even five cents is a hard sum to spare,
and I could afford only cotton, not linen),
wanting to embroider his other darling
—the telettrofono—onto it for his birthday.
But my stitches make me sick. They look
like the work of a drunkard or a child.
Handkerchief #4—Wave Metronome, click image to enlarge
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Stone Piano, click image to enlarge
When I'm working on sound pieces, I tend to make drawings too—sometimes they're sketches to keep track of my thoughts as they develop, but sometimes they develop into a parallel visual part of the project. With "Telettrofono," I started making drawings in order to develop some of the sounds for the piece. I was trying to imagine Antonio sketching his patents, and the ones that we'd invented. The stone piano for instance—obviously the stones themselves don't make so much sound so there would be resonators buried in the sand. And so that Esterre's sisters in the sea could hear it, they would be connected with tubes to horn emerging underwater. Then I tried to re-create the sound that it might make, hitting stones, resonating the sounds with objects and digital equipment until the right sound appeared. I like to make sounds that seem to emerge from materials in the real world —even if they are quite fantastic.