The Tomato & the Big Apple

Intro from Jay Allison: This high-concept trip follows a tomato from Florida to New York... and, well, sort of back again.

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Listen to “The Tomato & the Big Apple”

Notes from Alwine van Heemstra

People seem to harden, especially in densely populated areas like New York City. The smallest issues engage people into scolding or fighting. In addition New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world. To survive you have to work harder than anybody else. You get fired instantly. And yet the city is as a magnet to people with big dreams. I made audio snapshots of “real” New Yorkers. They were born and raised in the city or moved there long ago, in search for success: the famous American Dream. The inhabitants have mostly a hate love affair with the city. They have to strain every nerve to exist; each in their own way, each for themselves. But they are all interconnected and part of a bigger whole: they depend on each other to survive.

The city itself is like a body with the urge to survive. Eight million people – like bacteria in an intestinal canal – digest everything that enters, take the important matter out and dispose of the waste. Appropriate for the comparison between city and body is that New York collects the excrements of her inhabitants through the wastewater system and converts it into manure. Amongst other things the city manure is sold to farmers to grow their crops. Especially tomatoes grow well on this fertilizer and people in de city eat tomatoes. A cycle.

For the documentary I selected a tomato in Florida that was destined for New York. The tomato took me from one situation to the other until it ended up on my plate. But it didn’t end there. We had a last encounter in the wastewater plant and from then on my view on life would never be the same.

Tech Info

To place the snapshots in a larger perspective I altered the scenes with short soundscapes revealing hard facts. The soundscapes were edited by a composer with the citysounds that I recorded and with the sounds from a trombonist whom she directed for this piece. It is the only instrument in de documentary except for music on the radio that was on in the truck.

I scripted the whole piece before I went into the editing. My story is narrated by an actress that I recorded in a studio. We took the soundscapes and cut them to the right size to get them in the rhythm of the scenes.

I recorded the interviews and the citysounds with a Tascam DAT recorder and a Sennheiser ME 64. Often the audio is rough. New York City is full of low hum tones like air conditioners, traffic, subways. Especially recording in the truck, it was a challenge. In the editing room my editor and I tried to use it to our advantage. We didn’t try to cover it up — we used it to stress the roughness of the city.

Additional Credits
Soundscape Composer: Calliope Tsoupaki
Trombonist: Wolter Wierbos
Narrator: Suze Barrett
Editing: Willem Davids
Broadcast Producer:Vincent van Merwijk (RVU Broadcasters The Netherlands)

This program was realized with the support of the Dutch Cultural Broadcast Productions Stimulation Fund and the Dutch version was broadcasted by the RVU/Educatieve Omroep.

Alwine van Heemstra

About
Alwine van Heemstra

Alwine van Heemstra lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She lived in New York City from 1999 until 2001 and visits the city since then on a regular basis. She works as a freelancer in various media and loves radio for its power to create images in peoples minds. She is also the producer of Boundless Sound, the radio-documentary festival in the Netherlands.

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  • Jay Allison

    7.01.04

    Reply
    The Tomato & the Big Apple

    Journeys often make good radio. This high-concept trip follows a tomato from Florida to New York… and, well, sort of back again. From food to fertilizer to food, all filtered through the perceptions of Dutch producer Alwine van Heemstra who makes interesting sonic and narrative choices in this half-hour piece for voice, soundscape, tomato and trombone.

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.04.04

    Reply
    note

    I am going to Crete for a week. I’ll find an internet café, but it could be the reason why my response will have some delay… I really look forward to questions, comments and suggestions.

  • Jake Warga

    7.05.04

    Reply
    Soylent Green Tomatoes

    Interesting and mildly disturbing concept–the circle of life.
    I will refrain with great effort not to make any poop jokes…darn, this is hard. Anyways, I liked the show but wonder if it could have been more effective in a sorter length. A little coffee/laxative to get things going. I’m not too crazy about the reverb effects in the narration, unless it was my streaming. Mind the mic handling noises. Great voice, read me a story. They didn’t say shit, why do you have to? There goes broadcast ambitions in this country whose censors haven’t taken a poop since Nixon era. I’ll never eat a tomato again. Thanks. Fun piece.

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.05.04

    Reply
    Reverb effects

    It was not your streaming, it were the soundscapes that you were hearing. In the original version -nearly fourty minutes, yes even longer than this one- that was broadcasted in The Netherlands they lasted longer, about two minutes each. Maybe they worked better that way because they were composed by Calliope Tsoupaki the way she composes music. But I think storywise the piece became better in this shorter version.

  • Adam Allington

    7.05.04

    Reply
    ambient characters

    I often wonder if I have become too locked into the 6 min radio story. Somehow, I become nervous or anxious when 15 seconds of ambient does not lead directly to an easily digested (no pun…) actuality. In this case, I forced myself to just be patient and after a little while I got into the spirit of the piece.

    The use of ambient to propell the listener from scene to scene is so irratic…it kind of feels like watching a movie of which I am only allowed to view one out of every ten minutes.

    After awhile the characters themselves began to appear not as real people, but elements in some sort of surreal soundscape. Even the narrator took on the quality of an invisible person hovering above what was really taking place.

    This was good storytelling. I liked this piece alot. Seems like a good one for Radiolab at WNYC.

    ps. after the bacteria is removed from the poop…the stuff they put on fields, it does not smell at all

  • chelsea merz

    7.06.04

    Reply
    Dialogue

    Hi Alwine,

    I really like this piece. I wonder if others experienced this but it wasn’t until after I listened to this and thought about how it was produced that I realized that there is no dialogue. But oddly it feels like there is. I’m not sure if that’s due to the pacing or the way the narrator reacts to what is around her–the things you choose to write about–whatever–it’s these phantom conversations, this tension that I can describe only as estranged familiarity that renders the people in this story–as Adam Allington suggests– "elements in a surreal soundscape." This piece is dreamlike but at its center there is this very real, very tangible tomato.

    I’ve heard the longer version of this piece and I like it better–only because it seems fully realized (self-actualized, perhaps)in a longer form. In making this shorter did you feel like you were adopting an American sensibility?

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.07.04

    Reply
    patience

    Adam- Thank you so much for your patience. We as Europeans are somewhat slower in our storytelling than Americans. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.07.04

    Reply
    short vs long

    Chelsea- thank you for liking the long piece better. I like it better because of the soundscapes but the long version doesn’t work for everybody. Especially the original Mike scene was too long according to some people because his story took us to far from the tomato. Anyway, it was for the Americans that I shortened it and as an exercise of killing your darlings it was kind of interesting to do.

  • Sydney Lewis

    7.07.04

    Reply
    movement

    When I get home I’m going to tell my tomato plants all about this piece, and quote them my favorite sentence: "Because I eat, the tomatoes grow."
    I enjoyed the pace and floaty quality of this work. (for some reason the movie Repo Man just came into my head.) Like Chelsea, I appreciate that the elements interplay creates the feel of dialogue, without the reality — as though the wind suddenly lifted the various pieces into this particular flow. It has a natural movement, so to speak.
    I like, too, that the sense of New York, mecca for the hungry, is so present. Made me forget 9/11 for just a moment.
    Did you script as you listened to tape, or script and find tape to support your narrative? What kind of response did the longer piece receive when aired?
    thank you…

  • Joshua Kilpatrick

    7.08.04

    Reply
    I liked the ‘sides’

    I enjoyed listening to this work, but I didn’t connect with the main idea which I understood to be, "we’re all a part of a bigger cycle". I agree with the big idea, but the story just didn’t connect me to it. I ended up liking the "side items" more.

    In particular, I liked the New York characters and how they revealed the driven almost obsesive nature of life in that city. I agree with the producer that the raw edgy sounds contribute to a state of mind which the piece ushers you into. Even though the pace of the story was slower than normal, the sounds made me feel "anxious" and "rushed".

    The quote from the guy who made a business delivering fresh veggies, "money covers over a lot of problems", seemed very sad and pushed me toward the question "where are we heading and why are we in such a hurry.". How could he resolve his absence from family with "Look at these tomatoes! They’re the best.."

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.09.04

    Reply
    script

    Sydney – I’m curious about Repo Man. I’ll rent it. You mention forgetting about 9/11. Good. Although in the longer version Mike talked about his 9/11 experience. At the time it seemed appropriate but I’m glad I took it out, especially after your reaction.
    About the scripting: I first made a rough outline of what I needed to get on tape. With that I went to the US to get the material. Next I transscripted the tapes and wrote the script. And to answer your last question: the longer piece got different reactions. There were people that were really enthousiastic about it and there were people that couldn’t get in to it. Especially the soundscapes got some discussion.

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.09.04

    Reply
    emotions

    Joshua – I think you did got the main idea. The ‘we are all part of a bigger cycle’ idea is just a vehicle to look at our society from a different perspective in a city that is so attractive to me, but at the same time I wouldn’t be able to survive over there. It is about the New York people who do manage to survive but got to work their ass off for it.

  • Sue Mell

    7.11.04

    Reply
    Slaves To Produce

    Hey Alwine.

    So many interesting elements to this piece but I have to say that, for me, the quintessential (and most poignant) moment was Mike singing along with the radio.

    I like your idea of the cycle of the tomato as the cycle of life and I, like so many others, also liked your final reflection.

    At the same time, the thing I found myself most interested in was not the cycle of life/tomato concept–I was more drawn to the other story you include–the struggles of human beings at the behest of that tomato. In the end, I wondered if this was potentially a stronger narrative theme (despite the fact that it may not have been the story you were originally after). Was this at all a dilemma for you? Or was your approach to find a way to incorporate all you’d gathered?

  • Sue Mell

    7.11.04

    Reply
    oops!

    On reading your last post it looks like that WAS more the story you were after so…I’m sort of confused about the tomato role now because it seemed to dominate the piece Could you talk a little more about what you were ultimately after in terms of the listener’s response on an emotional level?

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.12.04

    Reply
    macro-micro

    I understand your confusion because this was also my struggle in the script writing. For me it was a challenge to get both a macro-view (the cycle of life) and a micro-view (flesh and blood) on the city. Without the struggling people no city; without the city no struggling people (yet another cycle). Their grip on each other fascinated me. Following the tomato made it possible to show this concept without loosing sight of real people, the people who it’s all about: who make the city. Sue, I hope I’m not confusing you even more…

  • Jay Allison

    7.12.04

    Reply
    the writing/reading

    I’m interested in the writing and especially the reading.

    Did you narrate the original Dutch version? How did you decide to have an American speaker narrate from your first-person perspective in the English version?

    I wonder how the piece might have sounded if you’d voiced it, accent and all? I think it might have lent another dimension, especially to an American audience, because we’d have felt ourselves being perceived from outside. In the current version, it all feels like it comes from here because your narrator so fluently reads your words that we come to feel she is you, which may have been the intention, but it’s also unsettling. I wonder how many people listening even realized it’s not your voice.

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    7.12.04

    Reply
    voice

    Also in the Dutch version I had an actress read my text. I liked the idea directing somebody else reading my documentary words. There were people in the Netherlands that told me I should have narrated it myself and others that liked the voice of the actress. I do get your point that my accent would have added something in the English version and I should have tried it. But I kind of like the idea that it’s unsettling, even though I didn’t do this on purpose.

  • Phil Nunnally

    11.14.05

    Reply
    very well done

    I really liked this piece. I heard it on a podcast and didn’t know what it was from the title at first, but I’m glad I gave it a listen. You got some beautiful location sounds and worked them in seamlessly. And I enjoyed the length – it was nice to stretch out and let it unfold. I hope you have more work posted here!

  • Alwine van Heemstra

    12.09.05

    Reply
    thank you!

    Thanks for taking the time to listen and to react! Just found out the tomato is running as a podcast. All other pieces I made are in Dutch so I don’t have anything else posted here.

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