Dallas — There is a gap, between the creative ideal in your head and the reality it becomes. In that sea of doubt lives Gut Churn, the title of Friday night’s inaugural show for #thinkspeak, the new series of intellect, science, and creativity presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center and KERA.
On the surface, Gut Churn was Jad Abumrad’s tale of how Radiolab, the public radio show and podcast, came to be. First the anxiety of creating not just a new radio show but a new format where the sound design comes to the fore. Then the tap-dancing-on-water feat of maintaining a program that grew to have an astounding ten million listeners.
“More than anything,” Abumrad told Kris Boyd of KERA’s Think, “it's a deep dive into dancing with doubt.” Or as she described Radiolab in her opening remarks, “a complete comfort with uncertainty.” Indeed, the show asks questions that generate more questions, which factors into a process he calls “lostedness.”
In his 90 minutes at Dallas City Performance Hall, Abumrad braided together stories, ruminations, and occasional clips from Radiolab shows. This arising field of entertainment is not storytelling, theater, lecture, or stand-up, or even a mixture of all, nor is it truly multimedia, but something wholly new. Just as his accompanist cellist Zoë Keating, who live-records digital loops of riffs and then interacts with them, is not classical, pop or New Age. Together they embody the creative betwixt, the synapse gap that bridges possibility.
The process of “lostedness” included these wildly disparate, yet ultimately related, intelli-bits:
- Abumrad’s fantasy of the world’s brainiest diner, diving into thought bubbles to ascertain NPR newscaster Scott Simon’s intimacy, podcaster Joe Frank’s gonzo, Walter Kronkite’s gravitas, and Ira Glass’s Taoistic no knowledge. And in the process uncovering his unique voice.
- Talking doubt and chance with Annie Duke, world poker champion who taught Abumrad how playing the odds really works.
- The tale of his first big radio gig, when he was told to wrangle over 12 hours of Wagner’s German opera The Ring of the Nibelung into a one-hour radio show—a process akin to being lost in the archetypically dark and spooky German woods.
- The story of Radiolab’s first big live show in Seattle where a tech issue left the show with many minutes of no sound or screen. Until an audience member yelled out “That’s why you have a cellist!” It prompted Keating to improvise several minutes of music, which she used to close Saturday night’s show.
- Abumrad played part of a radio piece, the story of a man obsessed with chasing an antelope to see if humans evolved upright to chase food. We heard his thoughts while running, the learning, the doubt, the connections, and why he continued to run.
- He shared ponderings on flying squirrels, how their leg-to-arm skin flap mutations were first used as wings, perhaps to escape from a predator: be eaten, die falling or learn to fly.
- A bit on conducting a large choir in a halleluiah chorus glorifying the lowly mantis shrimp. The crustacean’s abundant cones give it exquisite color sight, even though it lives in the murky ocean depths.
The underlying theme of Gut Churn was connection through technology. Abumrad used a quote from a Radiolab interviewee, “Sound is touch at a distance,” to launch an intimate tale of his primal launch into radio. As “an Arab kid in a Southern Baptist universe” growing up in Kentucky, he lay in bed one night listening to a public radio piece. An infantryman in Vietnam shared his thoughts in the middle of the night as bombs and artillery burst in the background. With teen Abumrad in middle-class bed, though far apart in distance, age, and circumstance they were both alone in the dark, connected by a bridge of technology.
The set was as trim as a pair of hipster jeans, Abumrad’s stool and music stand with the all-important iPad was on the left, and Keating played atop an elevated platform on the right bedecked with a glowing MacBook. Between them suspended a floor-to-ceiling video screen, echoing the theme of technology as connector. Gut Churn featured just the right amount of sparse yet clever animations and video clips that always complemented and never overwhelmed the content—no easy feat. But Keating was underused. More of her gorgeous music mid-show would have lifted the energy.
With an audience full of Radiolab fans possessing a musical bent, and subscribers to #thinkspeak just up for something new, Gut Churn was an intelligentsia-literati-hipster-techie event—as close to Manhattan as Dallas gets. “Kind of a mind-blowing series,” said Abumrad on stage that night, “so proud to be kicking this off.”