Noise, Storytelling with Sound, and Visuals on the Radio with Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad
I recently had the chance to chat with Jad Abumrad, creator and co-host of WNYC’s Radiolab. Each episode of Radiolab explores ideas in science, technology, and the universe at large through a seamless blend of expert interviews, sound design, and music. Together with co-host Robert Krulwich, the show has covered topics such as sleep, colors, cities, and loops, just to name a few. Recently, Radiolab has taken to the stage, touring around the United States and adding a visual element to the show’s already imagery-rich storytelling. Jad and I talked about noise, sound’s ability to create powerful mental images, and how all of that translates into a live show.
Designing Sound: I’ll start off by asking you about noise. When I say the word “noise”, what does that make you think? What does it mean to you?
Jad Abumrad: Honestly, the first thing I think is a particular style of experimental music which is loud and abusive and cacophonous and hurtful, but which I very sparingly employ in scoring the show. I’m thinking Merzbow and the whole “musical pain posse” that sort of tumbled out of him. I always like the idea that those stabs and bursts of noise could kind of catch someone off guard, almost like an idea that sort of hits you in the face before you’re ready for it. There’s something about the storytelling we do where I want those ideas to have that kind of impact. So I think about that kind of music.
But, I guess if I wanted to abstract it a little bit, noise is just this thing that sound does before it becomes music or meaning. You know, it’s disorganized sound. It can be organized simply by noticing, as John Cage taught us, or it can be composed into a kind of order, and then the noise becomes music. So, I think of noise as the data out of which we cull stories and meaning.
DS: I like that concept noise being the idea sort of hitting you. So, you find it to be particularly helpful for storytelling and making a point. It can be jarring at times; do you ever worry about the noise sort of turning people off and making them lose focus to what’s going on?
JA: Yeah, I do. In the very beginning of the show, when it was mostly just me in my own ignored little island making the show, I would experiment with that balance. You want the sounds to be sort of familiar and inviting but also slightly disturbing, and you’re seducing people so that you can kind of disturb them in a way. That’s sort of the process that you go through, you want that “Come here, come here, come here… BOO! Come here, come here, come here… OOF!” That’s kind of what you do as a storyteller.
I remember in the early days, when playing with the sounds, I would get the balance a little bit wrong, and I would put stuff on the air that was sort of unlistenable, that people would react really badly to; there’d be too much of it. Luckily for me, in the early days, pretty much no one was listening, so I didn’t have many listeners to actually lose. I was just kind of there by myself, and this went on for years. So, I did have a period where I was experimenting with finding that balance.
If you listen to the show now, what you hear is this weird blend of dreamy, trance-inducing soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of noise, stabs of things. Out of that dream, it suddenly just bursts, and then it’ll pop. That’s the balance we’re always playing with.
I was experimenting with that from the very beginning, but I couldn’t quite get it right. And still, there are times when we get it wrong, when the sounds become distracting. From the beginning, the number-one complaint was always “Gee, they’ve got interesting ideas, but do they have to edit it that way?” I get that constantly, and I think that when I get that a little, that’s fine. I feel like you need a little bit of that just to feel normal. But then if I get it a lot, I think that then the balance is a little off, that I’ve created something that’s a little too “noisy”, for lack of a better word. There’s a happy medium.
DS: Do you feel that noise can be useful in creating a mental image, or a visual, to go along with whatever the topic of the show is?
JA: Oh, yeah! If I just take noise to mean simply “sound without pictures”, if I do my job right, I can use words and sounds that are like words, or somewhere between words and music, to create images in your head. They’re so immediate and undeniable that literally those images will just pop into your head. But, those images don’t exist. You have to paint them, so I’m starting that process and you’re finishing it. It’s like I hand you the paintbrush and you finish the painting.
In that way, there’s a kind of empathy that exists, between the broadcaster and the person listening. There’s a kind of instinctive connection that happens. If I can do my job right, you finish the sentence, and I love that about radio. It’s what keeps me working in this medium and not, say, in TV. I love the idea that somehow, because of what radio lacks, we have to form a connection to make it work, I just love that idea.
Our version of storytelling, versus something like “This American Life” or something else, is that I use sounds as words. There are “word” words, like the words I’m using right now, but there are also sounds that evoke words. There are sounds that are very literally like words, like a knock, a sound effect, basically a word of a kind that means a picture of a door. That means door, door opening, whatever. But there are also sounds that are more amorphous, sitting somewhere between words and music, and we use those to create something that evokes a picture but also creates a feeling. Then we use music to deliver feelings on occasion. So, yeah, we use all of that stuff. The ultimate goal is to create that instant connection when you say something and somebody else completes it.
DS: Have there ever been any times where you’ve felt that not having a visual was a hindrance? We’re there any times where you didn’t feel that you could get the visual across through just the audio realm?
JA: The classic thing that radio people say is “turns out radio is the most visual medium,” (which actually isn’t true, TV and movies are actually pretty damn good at visuals). We run across stories all the time, where we’re like “ah, this is really a silently visual thing.” We’ve done stories about swarms. One of our earliest episodes was about the emergent properties of schools of fish and flocks of starlings and how there are all of these hidden rules in these systems. It’s a beautiful idea and you can talk about it to death, but if you see a billion starlings torqueing and weaving in the sky, there’s nothing that can describe that. You just can’t.
I remember that we were talking about swarms. Some scientist we had spoken with, Iain Couzin, who worked at Princeton – still works at Princeton, certainly did about 10 years ago – he showed us this video of a bait ball. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these things. It’s something that happens underwater where dolphins will circle a bunch of fish and whip them up so that they’re in this tight little ball. They become this silver, flashing ball, and the seagulls above will see that and just start dive-bombing this ball. You’ve got these dolphins circling the fish, these seagulls coming in from above and dive-bombing into the center of this ball. The ball kind of expands, like a donut, and then whips back together to avoid the seagulls. It’s the most trippy thing you’ve ever seen, so crazy. There’s nothing, no words that can describe that picture. So yeah, we run into that kind of stuff all the time.
However, I will say this: Maybe six months ago, we did a show on color. We were confronted throughout that episode with, “How do we do this? We should be a TV show in order to do this properly.” We had a story that revolved around the image of a dog, a crow, a butterfly, and some other animal looking at the rainbow. The question was, “What do all these creatures see? Would they see the same rainbow?” because they have different cones in their eyes, and there’s all this interesting science about what colors various animals can see.
Anyhow, we had this problem, of “What would a rainbow look like to a mantis shrimp?” which actually has several thousand times the color vision than a human. Not only is that a purely visual image, but its visual in a way that human beings wouldn’t even be able to see even if we could show it. We ended up translating [all of] that into a choir, a 160-voice choir, where we had different color bands correspond to different parts of the choir. So you actually sung it, we sung what a mantis shrimp would see. It was one of those instances where I was like, “We just beat the pictures. We totally beat the pictures. The pictures couldn’t even do what we just did.”
So, there are times when I’m surprised in which the ways radio can actually over-compensate for what it lacks.
DS: Going into the whole idea of creating visuals with sound, what’s your process? Once you have your topic and you do your interviews, do you then listen through and build from there?
JA: We sort of decide everything as a group. We have these big editorial meetings that last forever and we toss around ideas and come up with really vague senses of what our next show will be, or what three shows from now are going to be. Usually, it’s because we have one story that’s got an idea attached to it that seems bigger than that [one] story, so then you’re like “What can go with it? Maybe we can go here or over here.”
When you’ve got a couple of these things together, the basic energy of the show comes when you’ve got a “story” story, like a story-shaped object; a dude getting his coat on, walking out the door, no science involved, but he then experiences something amazing and profound. Then you stick that next to a scientist, somebody that’s actually trying to empirically understand what that dude just experienced, so you get this combination of experience and explanation. You put those two together, and there’s a kind of energy, like they vibrate against each other. Then you know you’ve got something, and then you go and try to make a show out of it.
We go through a kind of storyboarding process. It’s a lot like film where you try to visualize in a super low-res way how each “shot” is going to unfold in all the different chapters of each story. We think of it and talk of it in very cinematic terms, like, “Okay, here – this is a long shot. This next part we’re going to go in for a close-up, and then we’re going to do sort of a montage.” We talk about it in cinematic terms, and storyboard it out that way.
Somewhere in the tail end of the process, you’ve got a story that actually feels like it’s got the right shape, and the sense of surprise and adventure is all where it should be. Then, it would be good to have a musical conversation. It used to be where I would just close the door at the end of the process and just score the piece. Nowadays, what ends up happening is that we’ll have a kind of musical storyboard conversation, where once you’ve got your “movie” on paper, you’re sort of like, “Okay, I think I can hear something happening right here, because this is a different chapter and we should chapter it out by having music under this part but not that part. That’ll create a real division between part A and part B.” Then you’re thinking, “Oh, this part is sort of like a movie; here’s where we’re going to make our little movie. We’re doing a science explain here, so let’s just do some sound design right there. I kind of hear it like Ligeti plus ‘Looney Toons’…” So we’ll go off and try and do that.
We start to have a conversation on paper. Then some of the producers will run off and try and make certain parts of it, and they’ll filter that back to me, and then we’ll go back and forth a couple of rounds. But, there is also that a part at the end of each story where I will just sort of shut the door and write music that goes in certain parts of the story. Maybe it’s taking something that one of the producers did and stretching it, looping it, or layering it with something else, or maybe it’s writing something entirely new. Maybe it’s taking some small pre-existing bit of music and running it through some granular synthesis thing so it becomes a long drone. There are a million different ways that we get to that sound.
At the very end of things I’ll generally take over, but more and more these days, it’s a shared aesthetic that we’re all passing around. We’re operating more like a collective than one person with one aesthetic.
DS: How does that methodology translate into the live show? When you’re doing the live show, now you do have that visual element and on the last tour, from what I’ve seen, you guys went nuts with the visuals.
JA: Yeah, well we tried to. We’re approaching the live show as its own beast. Radiolab began as a radio show, and then it became a podcast. It did change a bit when we fully embraced the idea that we were a podcast now that also happened to be a radio show. Similarly, when we go on stage, particularly in this last tour, we really thought about it as a separate entity that is. It’s not just like we’re there simulating the experience of listening to radio or making radio. It should be a stage show; it should have theatrical elements that are unique to the stage that don’t translate [to radio].
We did a lot of that; we worked with Pilobolus and they made dances and they did crazy beautiful shadow puppetry to go along with some of the stories. They did this gorgeous, 10-minute light effect, where they poured sun; they used spots and blankets to filter the spots to make this tiny little sun that slowly got bigger and bigger and bigger that ultimately filled the entire auditorium. They did all kinds of crazy cool stuff that were purely visual. There’s no way to translate it back to the radio, and that feels right.
The first step was to just see the stage as its own thing. That said, the core of what we do is still radio/audio storytelling. I don’t think you’re ever going to see us do anything that’s truly cinematic. The coolest, most interesting pictures are still going to be the ones that exist in your head, not ones that are there, explicitly shown. The moment you get too “televisual” with it, then you’re talking costs that are outrageous; I have to show you exact pictures rather than imagined pictures. You get into whole other heap of problems.
I think what we’re going to do this time out is to pick our spots to be very, very visual. [There’re] going to be a lot more moving images this time than we’ve ever had, not necessarily “visuals” but a lot of imagery that’s going to go along with these stories. There are also going to be parts of the show that’ll be almost dark, where I think people are going to want to close their eyes and get lost in the story that’s being told. We’ve got some amazing musicians who are going to be scoring the pieces live, so whereas I usually compose the music for the stories, this is going to be completely handled by the musicians. I’ll be conjuring the voices for the pieces off the computer, but they’ll be playing the music live. In the end, it’ll be an amalgam of radio storytelling and something peculiar and distinct for the stage.
I hope that five tours down the road, assuming we still do it, that the live show will be a completely separate thing; it’ll have its own life that’s somehow not ever tied to the radio. I can just imagine that, and that will be kind of a sign of success for me, if it just lives and breathes on its own with its own set of rules.
DS: What is your favorite moment on the show, in terms of sound? What was one moment you were really happy with how it came out?
JA: I can’t think of a specific one right now, but I get really excited about the stuff that nobody ever notices. This is by no means my favorite – this is just somehow the one that pops to mind – I remember scoring a piece about a nun who was hearing voices, and it turned out to be a brain tumor. That’s all I can remember about the story, I know that there’s so much more to it.
I remember I took little tiny bits of Baroque music and I created these really odd syncopated loops that then stacked up into this beautiful 6-part layer effect that created this serene, dreamy, holy backwash to this ending moment in the story. I remember all the other producers were like, “Oh, that’s nice, that works.” And I was like, “No, don’t you hear all the layers, man? Don’t you hear? I spent like a half-day on this one little 20-second piece! Don’t you hear all the work I just did?” Most of the stuff I’m really proud of now hopefully doesn’t call too much attention to itself. It just kind of works, just sort of, “Oh, that works, that’s pretty.” Sometimes, the dumbest, stupidest little sound cues will take me hours and hours and hours (and they’re not supposed to). More often than not, I’m more proud of that stuff.
I used to get really excited about when we’d do things, like when we did this whole journey of sound as it enters your ear and becomes a wave of air that gets translated into water moving back and forth, which then gets translated to hairs rocking, which then gets translated into electricity, which then travels through the neurons to the brain and becomes a thing. That took me days and days and I had to create sound design for each step along that process, and I was really proud of that. But now, when I hear that, it sounds noisy to me.
The stuff I really actually enjoy are the really quiet moments where I’ve got a really subtle, sweet little sound that doesn’t actually want to be noticed, and if you were to take away the words in the story it would just sound like nothing. It’s just what’s needed right in that moment in the story. I get proud of those moments a lot more, but those happen to be the moments no one notices. And they shouldn’t.