Quirky radio science show 'Radiolab' offers live version at Paramount
"Radiolab," the quirky public-radio science show featuring Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, presents a live version of the program, including the dance group Pilobolus and singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24-25, at Seattle's Paramount Theatre.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Radiolab' live: 'In the Dark'8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $36-$46 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).
What do Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," Hindu scripture, the Bible, Norse mythology and nearly all ancient literature all have in common?
According to a recent episode of public radio's innovative science program "Radiolab," not one of them makes any reference, in its original language, to the color blue.
Precisely. That's the kind of stop-you-in-your-tracks revelation that sends "Radiolab's" hosts in pursuit of astonishing answers to unnerving riddles each week, with all the bracing adventure of a Sherlock Holmes story.
The 10-year-old, Peabody Award-winning show, "Radiolab," which airs on more than 375 stations in the U.S. (locally on KUOW and KPLU), is at the Paramount Theatre this weekend for a live, stage version of the program. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich promise a "house party," mixing music, comedy, dance and "Radiolab's" typically fervent inquisitiveness.
"Science is about passion," says Abumrad, 39, from his home recording studio in Brooklyn. "We live in a temporary reality. I want to know how reality works before I'm gone. It's a restless, urgent curiosity we're always after on the show."
"Radiolab's" well-deserved reputation for pushing the envelope of radio production includes such sonic experimentation as layered, unedited dialogue, audio effects and an unorthodox use of music to approximate nonmusical experience.
(In that same episode about the lack of "blue" in old texts, "Radiolab" demonstrated what colors may look like to butterflies, dogs and mantis shrimp by using a choir to sing names of different hues at varying levels of emotional intensity.)
That formula might sound like sensory overload, but it actually offers an exhilarating immediacy, not unlike having several good friends tripping over each other to tell you a great story at your favorite pub.
Such diverse "Radiolab" topics as language, the behavior of ants and the true origins of the "Crossroads" myth surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson gain an extra dimension through this rich approach.
"Robert and I came out of traditional news," says Abumrad, a 2011 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient. "As a journalist, you ride a wave of your own curiosity about a story, but then you reduce that story to a three-minute, predigested version of the world for an audience.
"It leaves out the discovery process, how you got there, bumping into things along the way. On 'Radiolab,' we're transparent about process.
"We get confused, we get excited, sometimes we're totally wrong, and it's all right there in front of you. It's a way of moving through the world amazed, knowing just enough to know your next question. I'm just a guy on a trip, and I want us to go together."
"Radiolab" began as a weekly, three-hour programming experiment in search of a theme on New York City's public radio station WNYC. Krulwich, 64, a veteran of PBS' "Frontline" and "Nova," joined "Radiolab" in 2004 and helped the show find its focus, tone and sound.
"We kept pushing technique all the time, seeing how much you could do to a radio piece before people turn it off," Abumrad says.
The most engaging part of that technique is the way Abumrad weaves conversation segments, recorded at different times, into a dreamy fabric. Abumrad, who studied music theory and composition at Oberlin College, says that process was inspired by his studies.
"Every day I'm struck by the fact that elements I work with as a composer are also elements in oral storytelling," he says. "When you use your voice, it goes up, it goes down, it rises to a crescendo, gets loud, gets quiet. The beats and rhythm are always there. We layer voices on the show, like jazz."
Abumrad and Krulwich will break the constraints of radio altogether at the Paramount with a show featuring edgy dance troupe Pilobolus, Kids In the Hall comic Dave Foley and singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen.
Titled "In the Dark," the production's theme is, well, darkness: the evolution of the eye, competitive blindness and an astronaut's harrowing tale of being lost in the blackest black of space. As always, Abumrad says, this "Radiolab" will be a mix of fact and the human factor.
"Discovery is messy," he says. "We're trying to make science messy again, to get back to the root of it."
Tom Keogh: email@example.com.