Mermaids in Staten Island: Matthea Harvey and Justin Bennett’s “Telettrofono”

14 Jul

photo of matthea by robert casper

So last year I interviewed the astonishing poetess Matthea Harvey after having comes across her gorgeous poem “The Straightforward Mermaid” in The New Yorker. I wondered if Matthea was a fan of mermaids or had just written this one poem, and it turned out she was, as she put it then, mad for them. So mad that she came along to the World Mermaid Awards last August in Las Vegas and read some of her poems for us there (she had written several mermaid poems, it turned out, after that first one), and so mad that when she was recently asked to participate in the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting nyc series (working with sound artist Justin Bennett), she quickly introduced a mermaid storyline into the project. Starting THIS VERY DAY, you can head to Staten Island to take Matthea and Justin’s soundwalk, Telettrofono, along the waterfront, where mermaids may or may not be looking out at you from the waves. Here’s a description of the walk from the Guggenheim website:

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. Many of his inventions—a marine telephone, a lactometer, flame-retardant paint and smokeless candles—went far beyond the imagination of his contemporaries.

For “Telettrofono,” Bennett and Harvey meld ambient sounds from the borough with invented noises such as pianos of stone and glass, or a bone-xylophone, with a poetic script for an audio walking tour that weaves Meucci’s tragic true-to-life story together with fantastical elements. Bennett and Harvey envision Meucci’s wife, Esterre—a mermaid who leaves the water for land because of her love for the sounds above ground.

Telettrofono is being offered in Staten Island’s St. George and New Brighton neighborhoods over the the next four weekends—July 14–15, July 21–22, July 28–29, and August 4–5—and begins at the stillspotting nyc kiosk by the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in St. George. For more info and to order tickets, click here. There’s also a snippet from the soundwalk itself.

In the meantime, I spoke with both Matthea and Justin about the project, about working together, and, of course, about those gorgeous fish-tailed creatures we all know and love and might possibly, secretly, be.


Since I last interviewed you, I know you’ve attended the World Mermaid Awards and have this new collaborative soundwalk project that involves mermaids. Have mermaids continued to inspire you? How have they inspired you in new or unexpected ways (if they have!)?
I wrote one more prose poem after attending the World Mermaid Awards. It was called “The Objectified Mermaid,” because I saw a lot of young female mermaids being photographed by older male photographers (I was trying to photograph the mermaids when they were less sexy and smiling, more bored, hungry or crabby—that’s when they seemed most real to me).

I thought that I was done with mermaids then, but clearly, mermaids dove deep down into my brain, because when I started working on the soundwalk, I very quickly came up with the idea of a mermaid who has a special relation to sound. At first, I thought she might eat sound, but then I quickly got excited about the idea of her loving the way things sound above water.

There were some strange coincidences. Antonio Meucci’s tomb has a bronze plaque on it showing Meucci listening to a woman who’s in the water, with what could be legs or could be a tail. Also, in the original little mermaid, the mermaid gets legs, but it hurts her terribly to walk. Esterre Meucci had rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to her second floor bedroom for much of her life, so it seems clear that she was my mermaid.

photo by justin bennett

What did you think of the World Mermaid Awards and being around all those real-life mermaids (and mermen)?
I loved it. It was perfectly surreal to be in Las Vegas surrounded by merfolk. I loved finding out the different reasons that these people don their tails—whether it’s because they’ve always loved mermaids, are passionate about ecology, or perform in daily mermaid shows. I do a lot of photography, but I’d never been that interested in photographing people until being at a mermaid pool party in Vegas. When I came back to NY, I have to admit that I googled “centaur conference,” but I sadly I couldn’t find one…

So how did this soundwalk project come about?
The soundwalk is part of “Stillspotting” organized by David van der Leer and Sarah Malaika from the department of architecture and urban studies at the Guggenheim museum. They asked Justin Bennett to create a soundwalk and then, luckily, he chose me to collaborate with him.

How did you go about creating the idea/story for the soundwalk?
We spent a week walking around Staten Island in January. Justin had started researching the island, and he suggested Antonio Meucci as a subject, since he lived there from 1850 until his death (he came from Florence by way of Havana). Meucci was one of the first inventors of the telphone—decades before Alexander Graham Bell. Once we started reading more about him, it seemed clear that he was our guy—an inventor who made a marine telephone, diverted a river underneath the Gran Teatro Tacon in Havana to improve its acoustics and tried to make a noise prevention system for elevated trains—he was obsessed with sound! The route of the walk really determined how the story progressed—things we saw along the way became key elements in the piece.

Why mermaids in Staten Island?
Doesn’t it seem like the obvious place? You’re close to the water, close to the land and people are crossing the water every half hour… There are even aquariums in the ferry terminal!

Can you tell me about working with Justin—did you have to come up with mermaid sounds? How did it work? What kind of sounds did your mermaid hear above the water?
Sarah Malaika and I recently recorded the mermaid chorus. We thought they should have female unearthly voices, so we chose a ten year old, fourteen year old, and two women—one who works in security at the museum and a poet I had just met while teaching a workshop, who have a lovely mermaidy voices. In the studio, our four mermaids read everything in unison without even practicing—it was uncanny and made me feel like I only want to write for mermaid choruses from now on! Before the mermaid chorus speaks, each time you hear this lovely mixture of bubbles and giggling that Justin created as the signal that you have entered “Marine Telephone Mode (mermaid chorus).” I’m also really fond of the sounds Justin made for when her tail turns into legs.

Initially, Esterre Meucci (the mermaid who turns human) loves all sound. Hand clapping. Footsteps. Babies wailing. Waves. Birds. It was easy to write about this, because after going on some recording sessions with Justin, I became really aware of sound in a way I hadn’t before. I would never, on my own, have stood still on a railroad track while listening to the buzz of electric wires above… Sadly, Esterre’s bones aren’t really up to handling all this sound and they start to crumble….

What can people expect from your soundwalk?
People from outside Staten Island will see some places they’ve never seen before and learn some of its history. Residents of Staten Island will hopefully look at and listen to some familiar things in new ways. And ideally, someone will spy a mermaid hiding behind a rock or diving in the ferry’s wake!


Can you tell me about your work?
I listen to cities, record their sounds and make things with them. I listen to nature too of course, but most of my work is to do with urban space, development, architecture and the stories of people who live in these spaces. I especially like to work with rumours. I have made quite a few soundwalk pieces where people walk a route along which a story unfolds. I think that walking and stories go together, and because it’s a form without any rules (yet!) you are very free to use sound in any way you like: voices, music, field recordings, sound effects can all be mixed together into something like a movie soundtrack. Except that the listener is the star, or at least the camera, in the film and all the film sets are real!

How did you come to be involved in this project?
The Stillspotting team from the Guggenheim invited me to develop a piece for Staten Island, I guess based on the works I’d made already concerning sound and silence. It was nice to make a piece for somewhere I’d never been before. You have to arrive and wander and search and get lost and dig around for stories. It was great working with Matthea—we both jumped onto the story of Antonio and Esterre Meucci and it took us with it.

Did you have any interest in/relationship with mermaids before this project?
As a rumour, yes—especially in their Siren form, but Matthea convinced me of their existence In Real Life.

How did you approach thinking about sound from a mermaid’s perspective and/or thinking about mermaid sounds?
If you put your head underwater you can still hear, but of course you don’t hear like an aquatic creature does. So the problem for me was how to make things sound like they are underwater but still be audible to mere humans. I made a lot of recordings with hydrophones (underwater microphones) of waves and boats and things around Staten Island, so you will hear the underwater environment as it really is. But the biggest problem is the mermaid voices. How can mermaids speak underwater? Maybe they don’t, but in my imagination they speak in bubbles. Bubbles of sound.

What can people expect from your soundwalk?
Like I said earlier, it’s a little like walking in your own film, meeting characters along the way, being guided to places where you would never normally go, piecing the story together, hopefully enjoying a poetic and musical experience. Staten Island is a very special place.

Has your feeling about mermaids changed since doing this project (and working with a mermaid aficionado like Matthea)?
Mermaids Rock! and, strangely enough since we discovered that Esterre Meucci was a mermaid, they keep popping up everywhere around me, in pictures, in stories…

One Response to “Mermaids in Staten Island: Matthea Harvey and Justin Bennett’s “Telettrofono””

  1. Brenda Peterson July 16, 2012 at 10:23 PM #

    What a wonderful interview and idea! I’ve sent a link to this to all of my friends on the island of Manhattan, where I lived long ago and told them to go listen and experience this for themselves and tell me about it.
    Is there a link to this soundscape that people outside of New York can visit?

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