Two Unraveling Characters, Interwoven by Music

There’s some magical quality in radio, perhaps the softness of the voice or the raw emotion in every vibration that can evoke a visceral reaction. That magical quality comes out really strongly in “Unraveling Bolero”, by Jad Abumrad for Radiolab. It explores the intersection of creativity and neurology, and the eerie similarities between two artists. The music used to connect the two stories is what creates that magical quality.

Unraveling Bolero is the story of two lives, woven together in a haunting echo of one another across time and space. The first is Anne Adams, an incredible cell biologist, who after a series of events became a full-time artist. Soon afterwards, her obsession with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero began as she meticulously deconstructed the composition into a striking visual representation. The second is Maurice Ravel himself who, in the 1920’s in France, became consumed by the very same repetitive melody, during the process of writing the piece.

Everytime I listen, I become the artist, obsessed with the music even though I know it’s driving me mad. The frustration captured is so real that I can feel it… These feelings of madness are a result of the music and narration working together as emotional punctuation. For instance, the first time we are told of Anne Adam’s slow downward spiral, somber music creates the tone. The melody lingers after the narration has finished, capturing the torrent of emotions she undoubtedly went through. Through these subtle suggestions, the music offers this glimpse into her internal struggle

The music is the piece. The story talks about a song. The song seems to have the power to alter lives. It is the generous and intentional insertions of sound that drive the story forward. In particular, the various segments of the famous song, Bolero by Maurice Ravel, serve as the central lynchpin of the plot.

More importantly, the music creates the characters’ personality. For example, after the introduction of Debussy, there is a whimsical musical flourish. It sounds exactly like Debussy’s music. The building tension of the piece is achieved largely through strategic use of Ravel’s Bolero. In the beginning, we hear a few bars of the famous melody. But then Bolero is repeated and then repeated again to a final crashing crescendo as the truth behind Anne Adams and Maurice Ravel’s obsession is revealed.

Complete satisfaction. By the end of the piece, I was utterly invested in the madness of their respective lives. The audio experience could not be possible without the rich infusion of sound in the piece. The music captured the raw emotion, the confusion, and the exhilaration of creating all the way to the story’s climax.

What is the true source of the artists’ madness? Is it the music? Listen on for the full story.

Unraveling Bolero
by Jab Abumrad for Radiolab in 2012
20 min

{jcomments on}

A Community of the Heart: An Evening with Coleman Barks and Martin Shaw


Friday, February 15, 2013
7:30 pm
Memorial Church
Stanford University
Free; no registration is required

Join us for a special evening with poet Coleman Barks and storyteller Martin Shaw to explore the playfulness and intensity of the heart and its many secrets. Focusing particularly on Rumi, whose poetry so powerfully opens the heart, the evening will feature poetry, myth, jokes, and lively conversation about the place where language and feeling combine to make a caravanserai of longing. Two travelers tell of their dreams and invite you to join them. Bring your dancing shoes to hurl at the moon.

Coleman Barks is the author of numerous Rumi translations, including The Essential Rumi, and has been a student of Sufism since 1977. His work with Rumi was the subject of Bill Moyers’s Language of Life series on PBS, and he is a featured poet and translator in Moyers’s poetry special, Fooling with Words.

Dr. Martin Shaw is a mythologist and author of the award winning A Branch From the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness. Director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the United Kingdom, he is also visiting lecturer in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s leadership program at Oxford University.

This program is co-sponsored by The Stanford Storytelling Project and The Stanford Office for Religious Life.

Valentines 3

Sometimes a simple question is all it takes to get someone telling a story. We begin this show by asking people to tell the story of their first kiss. Every story is the same. Every story is different. After that, changes of hearts and a deeper understanding of one’s capacity to love. Then we have two glimpses into potential future realities, android love and a Valentinian Apocalypse. Have a great V Day.

Host: Rachel Hamburg

Producers: Aaron Thayer, Eme Akpabio, Claire Woodard, Charlie Mintz, Will Rogers, and Jonah Willihnganz

Featuring: Max McClure, Heidi Thorsen, and members of the Stanford community who told us their story in White Plaza.

Music: Daniel Steinbock, Max McClure, Fleet Street, and a spontaneous mishmash of singers who were out serenading people on the Saturday night before this story aired, in February 2009.

Release Date: 16 February 2010

Story 1: Your First Kiss

Answering our first of three questions, passersby on White Plaza tell us of their first kisses. Some kisses were awkward, some were sensational, and some were both.

image via flickr

Story 2: When did you change your mind about love?

White Plazans tell of a time when they shifted their perceptions of love–sometimes shifts for the better, and often for the worse.

image via flickr

Story 3: The Heart that Grew Three Sizes in One Day

White Plazans tell of a time they realized their capacity for love.

image via flickr

Story 4: Falling for Androids

The first winner of our winter story contest, Max McClure, reads a story about love beyond the bounds of species. Will he find love in all the wrong places?

image via flickr

Story 5: Apocalypse, February 14, 2023

Heidi Thorsen, the second winner of our story contest, posits the Valentinian Apocalypse of Love. Is this the big one?

image via flickr

On Repetition in Storytelling

From the SSP blogging staff: In preparation for our event this Friday with Coleman Barks and Martin Shaw, SSP blogger Bonnie Swift held an informal interview with Martin Shaw, asking him about repetition in the oral tradition, in the light of Shaw’s telling of the Handless Maiden myth.

What follows is the full text of Shaw’s response.

The raw ground of many of these stories I tell are to be found in oral culture. A time when human speech was clearly a note in a far wider music – the roots of these tales carrying the croaking-burrs and twigged silver musings of the magpie tucked tight in their thinking. The teller was placed within, rather on top, of the web of sound the living world creates. This base-line consciousness creates a very vivid negotiation with the wider psyche of sea foam and black bear. Everything is intelligent, animate, communicating.

A great thinker on orality, Walter J. Ong, reminds us that the Hebrew term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘event’. In oral culture, a word is an event. It has both weight and mighty influence. Ong goes on to give us the illustration of a buffalo hunter being able to smell, taste or touch a buffalo, even if it is quite dead, but if he hears a buffalo, then he better get out of the way quick! The sound is direct, active, informing.

When we realise that when these stories first started to appear the sum total of our knowledge is what we could recall – no internet, no shelves of books – then we start to understand why a word would be considered an event. Recall is not endless, so a certain sense of selection would be necessary. To allow a word into the granary of your storied thinking would be something considered, not a scribbled note in a journal to be picked over another day. This association of action with a word helps us relate the relationship between language and spell casting. To assemble words into your memory is to increase verbal breadth into this wider web of sound, it is a form of power. And because it is power, the impulse is to remember things of true significance; the mind becomes a polished arrow rather than fluffy with whatever the chat show or news is telling us.

As a storyteller I have long suspected that the constant motifs we find in tales – three daughters or sons, an animal ally, a wedding – are a remnant of this oral learning, this need for repetitive scenes to lock the story down in the memory. It is a wonderful discipline for an apprentice storyteller to learn stories by ear only, as an activation of this sophisticated application of memory. Repetition also laces a kind of ritual patterning of language through the wider narrative, it gives it a kind of returning point, and if you improvise in the moment as much as I do, then that’s useful. The ‘matter’ of the story is the progression it follows, but the ‘sense’ of it is how I tell it that day and hour, with particular inflections and emphasis. Matter and Sense are old medieval ideas about how to tell stories. Too much ‘matter’ and it lacks imagination, too much ‘sense’ and it becomes weightless, lacking the pathos of its history through many mouths and cultures. So the mythteller is a hinge between tradition and innovation.

This is not to equate imaginative flatness with this form of retention – certain descriptions will go alongside the characters. As Ong describes it, they would prefer brave soldier to soldier, sturdy oak to oak, and so on. Whilst the image is fleshed out in nothing like as much detail as a modern novel, these brief inflections create just enough rooting for the story to reach its tendrils into the oral listener’s imagination. For them to actually invest in the retaining of the story.

The value of repetition within speech is also a throwback to when groups may have struggled acoustically to hear the speaker, or the imperative was to ground the words in the oral memory of the listener. In a culture that is oral, knowledge not repeated soon evaporates, and so this grounding was crucial.

This evaporation is useful for forgetting specific tribal traumas (although they often linger for some generations) as there are no written texts reminding the group of a great abuse or loss, thereby weakening their wider mythos. If the group moves location and the geographic anchor to genealogy and story changes, then before too long the storyteller stops repeating them and it drifts into a great forgetting. Of course, there are variants of this – far distant memories of homelands have been sustained in certain cultures – for example, the Gypsies – for many hundreds of years. But as a loose rule, there has to be collective decision to ‘keep remembering’ for the old patterned genealogies to stay clear in the group mind.

Oral storytellers, although insisting they don’t deviate from the narrative, almost never give a verbatim recital. Being placed into groups frequently – even faced with those you have known all your life – alerts the teller to the collective moods they are confronted with and how they themselves are feeling. Hence, the intonation and emphasis will vary. There is also the thought of how the story itself wishes to be told that night. As an independent agency, both linked to memory retention and supernatural agency, the story has its own peccadillos. It’s a contrary beast.

If, gathered under threadbare canvas or by the hearth fire of a Cumbrian farmhouse, the old stories are told, then there is an undeniable sense of communitas, a reaffirming, a brushing up against mighty images that remind the group of their history, place and values. The characters who elegantly waltz into the room are ancient companions. All laugh at the three gossiping ravens, or hold their breath as the young woman wanders forest paths at midnight, despite knowing the outcome. The characters in these stories have to be remarkable or they simply would not be remembered within an oral climate.

Video of Martin Shaw telling “The Handless Maiden”
with Daniel Deardoff at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood in 2010
39 minutes

{jcomments on}


Whether or not there’s a cape, a sword, or a noble steed involved, we all go on quests. We leave the comforts and routines of ordinary life in search of a light that hovers just beyond the horizon. In the old days, it was a better trade route, a new world, the holy grail. It’s much the same today. But what is it about the quest that makes it so different from merely reaching for a goal? And what makes it worth leaving everything else behind? In this episode, a girl named Rachel searches the world in a quest for her holy grail. Accompanying her is an academic all-star named Bobby, who is questing for certain kind of community. In our last piece, a film editor named Giusepi goes on a quest around America for a better way to serve people.

Producers: Rachel Hamburg and Sophia Paliza

Host: Rachel Hamburg

Featuring: Bobby Holley, Daniela Bize, Guisepi the Tea Guy

Release Date: 30 January 2013

Images courtesy of Rachel Hamburg


Story 1: In Search of a Nomad Base

Rachel Hamburg tells the story of her search for a transformative feeling she had once while traveling. While searching, she joins Bobby Holley, a computer-geek turned nomad, on his quest to build a “nomad base” – a free home for travelers, hitchhikers, and wanderers – in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Producer: Rachel Hamburg

Featuring: Bobby Holly, Daniela Bize

Music: Cam Deas, Black Twig and Steve Gunn, Fred van Eps, Victor Herbert Orchestra, James Blackshaw, Loren MazzaCane Connors, The Oo-Ray, Broke for Free, and Phil Reavis

Original Music: Manolis Seuega

This piece also features the music of Jake Wachtel (Walk/Tell) who traveled around the world for a year and then recorded an album called WanderLove, which features 80 instruments that he collected on his journeys.



Story 2: Giusepi the Tea Guy

Guisepi is a film editor with an unusual quest: to build a bus that will allow him to travel America, bringing free tea to strangers.

Producer: Sophia Paliza

Music: Yair Yona, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Steven R. Smith



Bonus Story: Heinrich Kaput

While hitchhiking in Germany, Bobby Holley befriends a stranger who makes an unusual request.

Producer: Rachel Hamburg and Bobby Holley

Writer: Bobby Holley

Music: Axel Linstädt for Improved Sound Limited, James Blackshaw, and Phil Reavis