Mouthing Off: The Art of Prairie Home Companion's Fred Newman

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Interviewers often fail to describe Fred Newman.

He’s been called a mimic, an actor, and a saboteur of modern communication. The collection of things he does for a living is somewhere between acting and music, spontaneous humor and carefully constructed art: As the chief sound effects man on the NPR radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, he is responsible for all the honks, whistles, drips, bubbles, typewriter clicks, dog barks, and helicopters that color the world of host Garrison Keillor’s storytelling. The magic of Newman’s performances, however, is that these sounds come not from digital files or hidden noisemaking gadgets, but straight from their creator’s mouth.

“[My mother] wants a couple of words for the bridge club, and I tell her, ‘just tell them I honk for a living,’” said Newman in an interview for Sacramento’s KXJZ Radio. He is one of the most successful living practitioners of the old American folk art called “mouth sounds,” in which the cheeks, tongue, teeth, windpipe, and fingers become a sounding board for everything from bulb horns to trumpeting elephants. Over his years on Prairie Home, his innovative ear, nose, and throat have been responsible for angry cats, cell phones, laser printers, Minnesota winter, whales, motorcycle crashes, and (my personal favorite) a California Condor being flushed down a toilet. No other NPR luminary alive can imitate the sinking of the Titanic in less than 30 seconds.

“My first ten or twelve years I was just on ‘record’” for sounds and stories, Newman remembers. He first discovered the magic of vocal storytelling growing up in rural LaGrange, Georgia, where he spent hours as a “snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced kid” of the 1960s mesmerized by stories told on the noisy porch of Jack Fling’s Cash-and-Carry Grocery.

Newman carried such gems as the saga of Knuckles the cat and the bicycle horn honk, taught to him by a blind man, through several years of Harvard Business School, a stint at Newsweek magazine, and a job as a blacksmith in Finland, before an audition for the David Letterman show landed him in his own brand of whimsical voice acting. He has also worked with Muppet master Jim Henson and recorded sound effects for shows like Nickelodeon’s Doug series and the PBS children’s reading show Between the Lions.

“It’s all about pretending,” Newman has said.  He can imagine and convey the exact thickness, age, and force behind a door creaking open with his voice. He mimes trumpet valves and violin fingerings with his hands whenever he mimics a musical instrument. For someone who must listen closely to the world in order to keep making his living—he even bikes to and from his home in Manhattan without a helmet so as not to miss any of the sounds around him—even silence has a sound. One of his favorite example stories is of a small brown rabbit popping its head out of a hole into a lush world of snowy silence that Newman creates with the breath in the back of his throat.

On the radio, this kind of imagination is doubly important—without a visual medium to flesh them out, Garrison Keillor’s characters and happenings in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon and elsewhere exist only in the teller’s words and Newman’s evocative grunts and whistles. Since fellow soundman Tom Keith passed away in 2011, he has been running the racket alone, but has lost none of the joy in the auditory landscape he creates.

In his how-to book of the craft, Mouthsounds, Newman writes that "sound-making, like life, requires a playful, fearless spirit; you have to be willing to look and sound like a moron and act in exactly the manner teachers told you not to." Direct from the perpetual kid who once drove his teachers to early retirement with trumpet fanfares and buzzing flies, the book includes directions for over 200 mouth sounds and the facial contortions that often accompany them. Effects range from 1 to 4 in difficulty, with one challenging five (a double nose whistle that would give R2D2 a headache.) All are suggested for party tricks, acting exercises, coded communication, and, above all, for public performance. The back cover, appropriately, promises that “elevator rides will never be the same.” If you follow the master’s advice to stuff a duck and a set of bagpipes up your vocal sleeve, nothing ever will be.

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June 12, 2013 - 1:00pm
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