Newman: We are defined by sound

Newman: We are defined by sound
Royce Engstrom, vice president for academic affairs at The University of South Dakota, asked the audience in Slagle Auditorium to turn off their cell phones Friday before he introduced Fred Newman, the featured speaker of the morning.

The first sound heard when Newman reached the podium at the center of the stage, however, was the annoying ring of a cell phone.

No one had run afoul of Engstrom's request, however. It was simply Newman doing what he does best.


People commonly collect things like stamps, or coins, or autographs, but Newman collects sounds, and stores them mentally so that, without hesitation, he can produce them time and time again.

His unique talents make him an integral part of Garrison Keillor's radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which was broadcast live Saturday from the DakotaDome on the University of South Dakota campus.

Newman didn't speak during his first minute on stage. He simply made noises � each one more elaborate than the one before: the sound of a WWII vintage airplane that one could swear was swooping through the auditorium, an imaginary gnat whose annoying buzz ended when Newman slapped the back of his neck, the electronic sounds of a sophisticated robot, the soothing tune of a violin, and, in contrast, the bombastic noise of a metal rock musician playing guitar.

"I blame a lot of this stuff on the South," he said. "I grew up in a small town in Georgia, and I was always getting into trouble with sounds."

Newman spent most of his childhood conducting sound experiments.

"It was a quieter time," he told his audience, made up primarily of local middle school and high school students. "Most of you don't realize that the sound level that you hear today did not exist 10 or 20 years ago."

Newman said electronic synthesizers, so common in music today, didn't exist when he was a child.

"We had all mechanical sounds; there were no electronic sounds," he said.

Young people carry around their own portable sound systems today. "That was unthinkable when I was a kid," Newman said. "Right now you've got so much sound � you've even got 3D sounds coming out of televisions that are 50 inches wide. We grew up with little speakers that were 3 inch ovals."

The result: many people often don't even notice the "little" sounds around them anymore.

"We really don't pay attention to sounds, we don't listen to the little sounds around us � things like dripping water or the popping of fragile soap bubbles."

Newman learned how to make sounds by hanging out in a small grocery store in his hometown owned by "a great big barrel of a guy" named Jack Bling.

"He would rare back in his chair, and he would unwind a story," Newman said.

His audience was diverse: an ugly, freckled-faced, bare-footed, snaggle-toothed kid wearing a pair of khaki shorts, Fred the Yard Man, several black guys, several white guys and Mrs. Helen Daniel, wearing a little wrap skirt.

"She was stuck in the doorway with her bag of groceries, listening to the story," Newman said.

The store, he said, would attract a mix of black and white folks who loved to tell stories, and they all embellished them with their own unique sound effects.

The ugly kid? That was Newman, who said he got hooked on making sounds when Bling told him a story about Knuckles the cat.

Newman said he had just taken his first lick out of a Popsicle when Bling started telling the story about one of the meanest stray cats that he had ever encountered.

"That was a squint-eyed yellow cat," Bling told Newman. "It's the meanest thing in the tri-county area. It's not really a cat. It doesn't even meow. It's something between a dog and a puma."

Within moments, the audience in Slagle Auditorium was transfixed as Newman repeated Bling's version of the story, complete with sounds of braying dogs running away, the sound of the family's Chrysler Desoto as it idled in the driveway, the creak of every door � even the tiny footsteps of roaches in the house that were frightened away by this monster of a cat.

After numerous twists and turns, this tale ended when Knuckles was eaten by a Bengal tiger at a circus that had visited town � and was spit out because of his foul taste.

The experience, according to Bling, made Knuckles a much more docile cat.

"Jack Bling turned to me and said, ?Fred, you don't believe that story, do you?' At that moment, I turned to my Popsicle, and I was holding two Popsicle sticks and there was a puddle of orange liquid at my feet.

"And I thought, ?Wow, that was magic,' " Newman said. "That man, with just his voice, took my mind off my Popsicle and I decided I wanted to be able to do that."

Throughout his career, Newman has worked as a writer, an actor and as a puppeteer for Jim Henson.

He hosted many shows for Nickelodeon and Disney over the years, including the Mickey Mouse Club and collaborated on sound design for films including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Men in Black and Gremlins.�

He has also created voices, music and sound effects for the long-running Nickelodeon and Disney series Doug and went on to win a myriad of awards including Aces, Emmys, Peabodys and Clios.

Despite his varied background, nothing, he said, can surpass his present-day experiences in working on a regular basis with Keillor.

"It's a wonderful show for a sound maker," Newman said. "It's virtually the only live sound effects gig in America that I know of."

His work, Newman said, is important simply because all sound is vital for survival.

"You do not have earlids. Your ears are too important," he said. "For our survival in this world, we needed our ears to evolve. Ears are our defense mechanism, and we organize ourselves with our ears."

Hearing, he said, is associated with emotion. That's why sound is so important in building the suspense in a horror film.

"Sound is so much a part of who we are that it defines who we are," Newman said. "We define ourselves tribally by the music that we listen to."

People interested in trying to master some of Newman's sound effects talents may purchase his book, Mouthsounds, an extensive manual for class clowns, story tellers or anyone who wants to make a splash in almost any social situation.

The book offers step-by-step instructions and illustrations on how to create a wide variety of sounds using only your voice and mouth. For example, you can learn to become a human beat box, impersonate an ice cream truck, a growling stomach or even an elephant stampede. Mouthsounds is now available for purchase at Barnes and Noble at USD.

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