Denver Narrators’ new collaboration melds storytelling and music

Photo: The Narrators music rehearsal
Denver writer Laura Bond (right) reads her true story as the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra performs during a rehearsal for The Narrators' "Two-Way Street" event.

The Narrators, a Denver-based storytelling show and podcast, has made a name for itself for sharing compelling personal stories in a live setting.

Now, it will host shows that combine two art forms: storytelling and music.

"The premise is very basic: We invite people to tell true stories based on a changing theme." says co-host Robert Rutherford, who in 2014 moved to San Diego, where he hopes to start hosting a second Narrators series later this year.

"We’ve always talked about how to expand the scope of what we could do with that basic premise," he says.

Last year, the Narrators partnered with Off-Center at the Jones to develop theatrical versions of three stories with puppets, actors and dancers.

This weekend brings another collaboration, when the storytelling series teams up with the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra (MSCO) for two live events called "Two-Way Street."

"It’s the scope and scale that interested me," Rutherford says. "To see someone up there telling a very personal story in concert with 35 musicians will really bring the piece to life."

(Full disclosure: CPR Classical host and MSCO director David Rutherford, who will conduct the orchestra this weekend, is also Robert's uncle.)

Robert Rutherford spoke with CPR News about the collaboration.

CPR: How will this collaborative event work?

Rutherford: MSCO chose three classical masterpieces for us. We gave three of the storytellers those pieces of music in September. They got to just sit with the music and think about what it evoked in them or how it made them feel and then they wrote true stories. The other three storytellers just wrote stories about whatever they wanted. We then gave those stories to MSCO in January and they took in the stories and then selected existing music they felt matched the emotional timbre of the stories. And we will pair the stories with the music this weekend.

CPR: Why did you decide to pair storytelling with music?

Rutherford: There are two languages at play here. There’s the spoken English language in the stories and that comes with its own set of rules and expectations in relationship with an audience. When you think about music as a language, generally speaking it doesn’t necessarily need words. People connect with an orchestral work in a very ethereal way. And so it was fun to mash up the two languages and see where they meet and how they contrast and compare.

CPR: How did you select the storytellers?

Rutherford: Every single one has told a story for the Narrators before, and in my opinion they represent the best of what our show is. I think they approach their work very seriously, honestly and bravely. They dig deep into the process of storytelling and trying to write something in a way that connects with people. I think that it’s very diverse and the tone and approach of the stories are all very different too.

CPR: Can you elaborate on one of the story-and-music pairings that will be featured?

Rutherford: I’m not sure how much I can say because we’re trying to get the audience to guess which came first, the music or the story. But I’ll speak to mine. I chose "The Marriage of Figaro Overture" by Mozart very specifically because everybody knows this song. And when I think about this music, I think about how it’s often used as a set up for visual gags in comedy movies. But being a contrarian – probably to a fault – I didn’t want to write a story that just played in to that. The more I tried that, it was really hard and I had a lot of restarts. Ultimately, it’s a very impressionistic tale that’s more poignant than anything else. I have this thing with clouds and sunsets, and I’ve been taking photos of the sky for about 10 years. When I started, it was a way to slow down and be present. And what’s weird about having hundreds of photographs now is that it’s creepy how much this growing collection makes me realize how soon I’m going to die. Flipping through it just reaffirms for me how quickly everything is happening. At the end, I feel I was trying to reframe the way somebody might think about the musical piece itself.

CPR: Tell us about the audience engagement aspect.

Rutherford: David selected a piece of music and he’ll talk about what music does to us. Everybody will have postcards and as this music plays, they can write down something. We’re hoping that the music might evoke in them some memory or some emotion that they will want to share on the post card. And during the second part of the show, the Narrators will pick out some of those pieces and read them for the audience.

The Narrators presents six storytellers performing with music by the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra on Friday night at the Augustana Lutheran Church's Fellowship Hall and Saturday night at the McNichols Civic Center Building as part of the 2015 Denver Music Summit.