The public-radio program Radiolab’s latest live theater performance, Radiolab Live: In the Dark will come to Salt Lake City April 4 & 5. To read a feature interview with co-creators and co-hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, go here.
To explore the nature of light and dark, Krulwich and Abumrad have invited a few artists onto the stage, including dance troupe Pilobolus, Demetri Martin and Thao Nguyen, who will be doing a live score during the performance. Nguyen will be accompanied by San Francisco-based drummer Jason Slota and Salt Lake City-based upright bassist Ron Harrell. (Thao has worked with a different bassist in each city that In the Dark has been performed.).
City Weekly: Let’s start off by talking about your first experiences of getting enamored with science. I used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy semi-religiously when I was a kid. I’d say that was my catalyst toward an interest in science. Do you have a similar memory of him or was it something else?
Thao Nguyen: Love that man! I do have very vivid memories of him. I can’t remember anything that I might have learned from him, but I remember his lab coat and his sparkling personality. And, ya know, as for my career in the sciences, well, I think I remember in second or third grade I was chosen to be an extra in a video about astronomy. I remember my mom dropped me off in the evening time; it was my friend and I. It was for some public-access channel or something, and we were just told to look up at the stars and act interested. I don’t know where that video is, actually, but I have half a mind to go look for it.
Maybe that’s what sparked it, but I actually ended up going to a magnet school here in Virginia called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. It was certainly a very sweet place to go to school; it was just a bunch of nerds. And our unofficial mascot was the TI-83. You know that guy? And so there was this larger-than-life-size thing -- whoever was the tallest kid in class was the mascot, because the costume was this huge cardboard calculator that you’d wear around at the games.
CW: I totally remember him. I had an arsenal of calculators for my honors math classes. And the TI-83 was sly, because not only could you do math, but you could also play games; like, I remember one called something like “Drug Wars,” where you were a drug dealer. Good life skills, right? (laughs) All kinds of stuff, really.
TN: And with quadratic equations you could draw little characters, little South Park characters.
CW: Well, jumping forward to now, have you had any other science-related life experiences?
TN: Well, um (laughs) ... perhaps the science of cooking. No, not too much. I went to a liberal-arts college, and I just did music. And I don’t use science or math in music the way that more formally trained people do. I think Radiolab is a revival of this once-thriving, now-latent passion of mine.
Nguyen's latest album was a collaboration with Mirah. Here's "Eleven," featuring Tune-Yards.
CW: Can you tell me more about that?
TN: I think it’s because Jad and Robert have made Radiolab so engaging that it has popularized science for everyone. There’s a healthy curiosity for it, so everyone has more of an investment. And it’s just really engaging topics.
CW: One of the things about In the Dark is that they are exploring the nature of light and dark, and instead of them just asking the questions themselves, they’ve asked Pilobolus and Demetri Martin and you to help them. So how does a musician go about exploring what the nature of light and dark is?
TN: Well, in general, I’d sit with a bottle of liquor alone -- that’s how I explore darkness (laughs). But for this show, it’s been really fun to help them -- through music -- convey, depict and embody the mood of whatever the piece is. We’re doing the live scoring and that’s a lot of the stings and ambient noise and the sort of colorization of the scene. That’s our prerogative. And it’s also to really play the mood, whatever it may be. Jad is so amazing on the show with that, so we’re basically trying to create that.
CW: I was wondering if it would only be that, or if you would be playing your own material?
TN: There’s a space in the middle of the show when I’ll play one of my own songs. And there’s a song that I wrote for the show; there’s a segment that involves Pilobolus with it. There are elements of scoring, original compositions and songs that I’ve written before that are appropriate.
CW: Have you done live scoring before, or is this your first time?
TN: No, I’ve never done live scoring. The last scoring project was a film, a documentary, American Teacher; maybe it was about a year ago. It’s about teaching and how undervalued teachers are -- a Dave Eggers film.
CW: One of the prominent tenets of Radiolab is this sense of discovery that Robert and Jad have in front of the audience. Will there be any of that with the music you play next week, like any improv that might startle you as you play?
TN: (laughs) Yeah, because we only play once a month, and I forget things. Every time we do it is a bit different. Obviously, there are cues, but within a certain segment what we are going for needs to be achieved, but within that there is freedom. And sometimes equipment doesn’t work, so there’s that. But, yeah, I think each time we play it there’s a sense of discovery and this energy even though we’ve done it before, because we’re dealing with really amazing concepts. And this sort of collaboration is very nuanced and multi-tiered; there’s a lot of aspects that are colliding.
CW: OK, that’s great. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to plug anything else that you have going on this year. What’s on the forefront?
TN: This year, I’m just working on my new record. So, we’ll see.
CW: Thao, thanks so much for taking a second to chat with us.
TN: Yeah, man. We’re looking forward to it. Thanks. See you soon.
Nguyen's first NPR appearance back in 2009 for a Tiny Desk Concert.