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The Creator of ‘Radiolab,’ a Lapsed Composer, Returns to Music

During the interview, Mr. Abumrad shared some of his compositions, including a remix of Terry Riley’s pioneering masterpiece of Minimalism, “In C.” He talked about the piece, his life as a lapsed and occasional composer and how it overlaps with his career as a radio producer. Listen to the remix, “Counting in C,” and read edited excerpts from the conversation.

What is this?

You hear some of the first sounds of my kid in this piece, actually. My son had just been born, and it’s one of those weird things where as a dad you’re up all night, but you don’t have a lot to do. You’re just patrolling the space and bleary-eyed. I made this piece in three days for an anniversary album for “In C” — which for me was an important piece. When I was in music school, it was one of the pieces I heard where I was like, “Aha, I get this.” They ran us through these 12-tone composition classes, and I was in total despair. I was like: “I don’t get this. This music hurts.” And then I heard “In C.” It felt interesting and challenging, but you don’t have to carve out your heart with a rusty knife to get it.

The whole premise of the remix is that this is the music you count to. I borrowed a friend’s kid. You’ll hear her counting. It’s that classic cliché of Minimalism: tink tink tink tink. But he [Terry Riley] started it. But then you can tell I was delirious, because the rest of the song goes in this other direction that makes zero sense. There’s more Terry Riley … and I think some Soundgarden?


Equipment in Mr. Abumrad’s studio.

Landon Speers for The New York Times

What were you listening to when you started at Oberlin?

Bad techno. My musical taste goes high and low. I was into, like, Underworld’s “Rez.” It’s like the best techno song ever made, still. It’s horrible music, but legitimately an amazing song.

Is that what your writing was like?

No, a lot of what I was doing was learning how to write for specific instruments: ensemble, oboe, this instrument or that instrument. I was just terrible. I never listened to orchestral music. But we also had to study musique concrète and Stockhausen, and I really got into that stuff. It was so cool that they were taking little bits from the world and using them as musical objects. I connected with that.

There was also this whole other program called Timara, basically an electronic music program. It was these kids, and they’d work in the musical building — just a bunch of synths in the basement, and they never saw sunshine. Part of the music curriculum was to do a Timara piece, and that, for me was like, “Oh, this is my jam,” to work with synthesizers and combine them with acoustic sounds.

You mentioned Stockhausen. Who else influenced you?

Stars of the Lid, Ligeti, Lutoslawski — just because you can hear the structure.

What do you mean hear the structure?

It’s not so tightly structured that it’s confusing. You can hear these big gestures in the music. When I heard Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, I was like: “Oh, I hear the structure.” It’s a long crescendo, then it’s an epic climax, then it’s a diminuendo. The structure felt easy to grasp, and it just kind of clicked for me.

Is that something you strive for in your own music?

I think so. I want the gestures of the piece to feel physical. Music for me isn’t a cerebral exercise. When things swell up, it’s to create an emotional response, and when it’s quiet it’s to bring you back and pull you into yourself. That lends itself to structures that aren’t overly complex. It’s super meticulously edited, but the macro stuff is trying for big, grand gestures.

The kind of stuff I compose for “Radiolab” is very simple. It you took away the sound of the story, what you’d be left with is not really music. It’s just a tone that maybe crescendos, and then diminishes. It’s really a note.

What influence, if any, does radio production have on your composing, and vice versa?

I try to keep my music production free and totally unpolluted by my radio production. But I do feel like the feedback loop works in the opposite direction. “Radiolab” originally was like a musical form of journalism. I would often think about the stuff that I learned about in comp class like, “Can I do Bach counterpoint?” or “Can I do a little musique concrète-y stuff and treat them as Stockhausen might?” It doesn’t work so much in reverse, because the story is such a tyrant in radio production. The music has to be very careful not to overstep in a radio story.

I feel like I never hear a consistent answer about whether people who write electronic music are producers or composers. What do you call yourself?

I like the word composer. I feel like it also applies to making radio stories. When you’re making a story, you’re composing the relationship between ideas. And when you’re doing that with music you’re taking sounds, and you’re organizing them. That, to me, unfortunately has a black turtleneck, proper feeling. But actually, I think it’s a better description of what I do across my life than anything else.

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