In one of our classes, we studied Mavis Gallant’s stories as they were mediated through New Yorker podcasts, where a noted author would read one short story and then proceed to discuss the themes of that story with the New Yorker fiction editor and host Deborah Treisman.
I chose to present on Margaret Atwood’s reading of Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow” and was surprised that the majority of the class found her reading difficult to sit through. I had enjoyed Atwood’s reading (as spare and dry as it was) because she embodied the voice and tone of an imagined older, more jaded Linnet Muir reflecting back on her childhood.
But many of my classmates felt Atwood’s narration was too monotone and dry, resulting in tedious listening experience. With their critiques in mind, I set out to change the texture of Atwood’s reading in order to enliven it.
I chose a three-minute excerpt in the narration where there were several mood shifts in the story; it is the section where Linnet is describing for readers how her mother would order her not to do something while failing to provide an adequate rationale for why she should not carry out the specific action.
The sounds I added to the podcast fell under two categories: sound effects and musical backing.
When it came to sound effects, I tried to use them to convey the dry humour of Linnet (and therefore Gallant). For example, when Linnet repeated the affable greeting of “well, old cock”, that she had heard Archie McEwen addressing her father with, to Mr. Bainwood, I inserted a record scratch and then crickets for sound effects. One would imagine that shock and speechlessness would be Mr. Bainwood’s initial reaction, followed by indignation.
Not wanting to populate the podcast with too many sound effects, I also used music that would play underneath Atwood’s reading. The music was meant to communicate to listeners broader changes in the mood and tone of the story, as opposed to capturing the comedic nuances of a specific situation, which was the case with the sound effects.
The musical backing changes from up-tempo and hoppy to fevered to somber, reflecting what I imagine as Linnet’s changes in mood as she goes from describing the light-hearted incident with Mr. Bainwood to her frustrating exchange with her mother to her nostalgic remembrance of her Saturdays spent with her father
Many of the edits I incorporated pushed the Atwood reading from an audio-text to something that is more interpretative. Although Atwood imparts her own interpretation of the story through modulating her voice, the sound effects and music underlying each scene impress upon the listener more insistently my own interpretation of the story and scenes.
I asked a couple of classmates what they thought about my remediation of Atwood’s narration, and while they appreciated the livening effect of the music and sounds, they also pointed out that it would overwhelm the text itself at times.
Ultimately, like musical categories, there are different genres of podcasts, and it depends on what the creator of the podcast sets out to do. In the case of the New Yorker podcast, the minimalism of the readings imbues the podcasts with a sense of dignity and imperiousness that suits the style of the New Yorker brand.