It’s strange how often I’ve encountered seemingly sporadic coincidences pronouncing subject matter in books I’ve recently read, or perhaps it’s not. I’m still uncertain if one’s subconscious is firing specific neurons that make certain events or encounters more luminous amongst the sea of information one processes day to day through reading, like a flare illuminating a previously piceous expanse or if the correlation between two pieces of information derived from different sources and their concatenation in close succession is purely helter skelter.
I was recently reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods again and came to the surrealistic description of the protagonist’s introduction to the Wisconsin tourist attraction, The House On The Rock, a pell-mell of oddities, dioramas, strange architecture and bizarre collections set to the score of offbeat classical music, seemingly performed by instruments that play themselves. Maurice Ravel’s composition, Bolero, is first deciphered upon entrance, coming from an unseen player piano’s undulating and staccato tones, which coincidentally happened to be the piece focused on in a Radiolab podcast I had listened to a week before. The podcast’s theme focused on a woman named Anne Adams, who had become obsessed with the arrangement and interpreted the work into a visual rendering using paint. (see the above image)
Adams had been a prominent biologist until her son had been in a severe car accident in 1986 and chose to take time off to help him recuperate. He had a complete recovery and Ann decided to take up painting instead of returning to Biology. In 1994 at age 53, Anne became obsessed with Ravel’s Bolero, learning how to play the composition on the piano and formulating a structure for a visual art piece, including detailed annotations regarding the musical notes, describing specific colours for their representation.
The finished painting was entitled Unravelling Bolero, a striking work with repetitive angular shapes and patterns, each with a specific nuance and colour, following the compulsive Bolero verse and leading to the heightened, entropic finale. This work was to be the indicator of a neurodegenerative disease called frontotemporal dementia, a form of aphasia that affects the frontal lobe, causing it to deteriorate over time and often leads to a creative torrent in patients due to the creative parts of the brain becoming less inhibited by the dominant frontal lobe. Ravel’s background was unbeknown to Anne, only being familiar with Bolero, and had not known that Ravel himself had suffered from the same disease with staggering coincidences.
In 1928, Maurice Ravel composed Bolero at age 53, the same age Ann Adams had become infatuated with Bolero. Ravel had begun to show signs of frontotemporal dementia during this time but had gone unnoticed, being prone to forgetfulness at the best of times. The symptoms gradually became worse with his writing, speech and comprehension deteriorating, one account recalling Ravel attempting to eat a meal using the wrong end of a knife, not being able to ascertain the reason for his difficulty with cutting the food. Similar scenarios were recorded with Anne’s deterioration, such as gradually forgetting her address and other diminished cognitive skills after the creative flux began to dissipate. The severity of the disease’s affect led to Ravel undergoing brain surgery in 1937 which proved to be unsuccessful, leading to his death a year later. Anne passed away from the disease in 2007.
Multiple listens to Bolero whilst writing this conjured images of an hedonistic, ancient Roman scene from a 1960’s film. Epicurean indulgences being undertaken by the togaed followers of a Roman General while the camera repeatedly pivots 360 degrees from a central position amidst the congregation, a regal looking Julius Caesar reclining in the background. The scene changes from a hypnotic serenity to a dizzying discomfort marked by a crescendo, images rapidly amalgamating the lead up to Caesar’s most trusted associates turned dissident though clandestine discourse. The final shot, Caesar’s visage of disbelief towards the conspirator who left the final mortal wound in his body.
Et tu Brute?
Maurice Ravel’s Bolero
The House On The Rock’s Bolero
Check out the Radiolab podcast here: