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Unraveling Bolero

Monday, June 18, 2012 - 08:48 PM

In this podcast, a story about obsession, creativity, and a strange symmetry between a biologist and a composer that revolves around one famously repetitive piece of music.

Anne Adams was a brilliant biologist. But when her son Alex was in a bad car accident, she decided to stay home to help him recover. And then, rather suddenly, she decided to quit science altogether and become a full-time artist. After that, her husband Robert Adams tells us, she just painted and painted and painted. First houses and buildings, then a series of paintings involving strawberries, and then ... "Bolero."

At some point, Anne became obsessed with Maurice Ravel's famous composition and decided to put an elaborate visual rendition of the song to canvas. She called it "Unraveling Bolero." But at the time, she had no idea that both she and Ravel would themselves unravel shortly after their experiences with this odd piece of music. Arbie Orenstein tells Jad what happened to Ravel after he wrote "Bolero," and neurologist Bruce Miller and Jonah Lehrer helps us understand how, for both Anne and Ravel, "Bolero" might have been the first symptom of a deadly disease.

 

Read more:

Unravelling Bolero: progressive aphasia, transmodal creativity and the right posterior neocortex

Arbie Orenstein's Ravel: Man and Musician

Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works

Guests:

Jonah Lehrer

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Comments [56]

Chris

Commenters have pointed out that "ravel" is physically in "unraveling", but has anyone pointed out that the word "ravel" is one of only a few words that is its own antonynm? To ravel means both to tangle and to untangle, so Ravel was in fact by definition unRaveled...spooky.

Nov. 05 2013 11:19 AM
evin from Terlingua, Texas

http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/131/1/39.long

a link with more of Anne's art, including diagrams depicting the progression of her
condition paired with the art she created with the parts of her brain that she had
available to her at the time.

What a valuable contribution to art and science.

Oct. 07 2013 12:20 AM
Andrew Horner from Manchester, UK

I have been working my way through the back catalogue since hearing a documentary about Radiolab on BBC Radio 4 a few months ago. I found this episode inexpressibly sad. I love Ravel's music but had no idea of his personal history or his illness. Thank you to Robert Adams for bravely and movingly telling Anne's story.

Aug. 07 2013 05:59 PM
michelle from pgh

i swear to god i had this idea and was working on it with the painting/music as a performance art piece. effin A. not so original now.

Apr. 08 2013 10:04 AM
Victoria Natal from New York

I came across this podcast after doing a lesson with my students on Bolero. I thought this was so interesting that I am going to play it for my students. Ironically enough though Arby Orenstein was my music history professor at Queens College and he never told us any of this information about Ravel! Will definitely keep listening to radio lab!

Jan. 23 2013 12:32 PM
Katie Belan

I heard this story while in my Drawing 2 class the other morning--and it absolutely blew my mind. It's a sad, but also amazing story. Yay for creativity! (:

Jan. 19 2013 11:49 AM
Alma from Barcelona, Spain

This story is amazing!...I listened this composition lots of times when I was a chidl!...since one day I discovered it in one of my father's classical music cassettes....I have recently discovered your program and it's really interesting!

Jan. 18 2013 12:02 PM
ashley jewel talbot from seattle, wa

would love to see that painting of strawberries!

Oct. 23 2012 03:33 PM
Julia Alling from Groton, MA

Dear RadioLab,
This podcast was a revelation. Years ago my sister and I sat through an interminable movie starring James Caan and a cast of thousands - James Caan played himself, his son, his grandfather, his second cousin twice removed...ad nausem. My sister Jane and I were riveted, not because it was good, but because it was so bad. This podcast has put that hilarious experience in a whole new light. Thank you. And thank you for reminding me of a time I laughed so hard in a movie that I thought I might die.

Sep. 28 2012 02:06 PM
David Nicholson

I agree with everyone's comments that this is a great story, but I feel like the explanation of brain function is a little lacking. It's a bit gauche to self-promote in the comments, but I wrote a blog post that references this episode, and I hope people will check it out before coming to any conclusions about why frontotemporal dementia would give rise to the kind of symptoms that Jad Abumrad and Bruce Miller described: <a href="http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2012/09/snakes-on-brain-or-why-care-about.html">Snakes On a Brain, or, Why Care About Comparative Neuroanatomy (Vol.1)</a>. And to all the people who said they also like listening to certain pieces of music over and over again, don't worry, I think that just makes you human.

Sep. 05 2012 12:38 AM
lance from SD, CA

@ Jeffery K, nice snobbish comments that demonstrate you didn't (couldn't?) read the accompanying article; slide down off that big, high horse, sir, before your cred completely evaporates.

@jg2904; doncha just love the Patricks (little trolls) who seem to exist solely to impose their (largely unsubstantiated) belief(s) about 'best' in every conversation? Way to call the ball!

@ The Producers and The Authors: Facinating. More compelling evidence that Homo Sapiens are just beginning to understand... anything. nice work, thank you for your effort.

Aug. 22 2012 06:52 PM

@Patrick, Ravel isn't any less of a creative genius just because you say so. Ravel and Debussy together moved the Impressionist movement more than any two composers; this is widely regarded as fact. The masterful Igor Stravinsky himself once described "Daphnis et Chloe" as "one of the most beautiful products of all French music". Also, I don't know if anyone told you, but part of being a great composer is "orchestrating melodies in clever ways."--That's just a pet peeve.

And which composer, may I ask, has written entirely inspired works? Name me one. Hell, even much of Beethoven's music is electric of his contemporaries. But to discount the likes of "Jeux d'eau", "Ondine", "Miroirs", "Boléro", "Pavane pour une infante défunte", "Rapsodie espagnole", and "Daphnis et Chloe" is simply foolish, and unjustifiably patronizing. I don't know about the science behind Ravel's loss of sanity here, but I'm far more inclined to trust the historian and college professor over your musically illiterate ass.

If you're here just to perpetuate a hopeless silly Ravel/Debussy feud, get lost. It was stupid then and it's 80 years too late now.

Aug. 20 2012 05:37 PM
patrick from TX

Ravel was not a creative genius like debussy. Ravel was an orchestrator. He himself admitted this much. His talents and duties lied in orchestrating melodies in clever ways.

Bolero is not repetitive because he was insane. Bolero is repetitive because it's meant to be. "how many ways can I orchestrate this one melody?" Is that insane? I dont think so. Could such writing cause one to go insane? Likely not as much as genetics or other factors.

The sum of Ravel's original works are, aside from a few, largely uninspiring.

You might be best trying to find rhyme/reason in a composer/work with actual and ORIGINAL artistic substance.

Aug. 09 2012 12:25 AM
Michael from La Jolla, CA

First, I wanted to say this was an intriguing story and I very much enjoyed it, so thanks!

In a bizarre coincidence, I listened to this podcast while staining spinal cord sections from an FTD patient (though, my research primarily concerns another highly related disease).

I wanted to point out that the theme of repetition in this story could possibly extend down to the molecular level (disclaimer: it is impossible for me to tell without a DNA test, any connection to these patients is purely speculative).

One of the recently discovered heritable causes of FTD is a DNA level expansion of six repetitive base-pairs, GGGGCC, on the small arm of chromosome 9 in the previously unknown gene C9ORF72. "Normal" copies of this gene contain contain 3-20 repeats, but in the diseased gene this repeated sequence expands to over a thousand base-pairs in length.

The mutation was only discovered in October of 2011, so it is still early-days from a scientific standpoint. However, early studies indicate decreased verbal fluency and word finding difficulty is not uncommon in FTD patients carrying this mutation.

... just something to think about!

Aug. 08 2012 12:34 AM
Sally

All through the podcast I kept waiting for a reference to Ravel and "unRAVELing Bolero."

Aug. 05 2012 09:03 PM
addnote

about Basquiat:
"and he put on music, which drove me crazy. Classical music -- Ravel. Over and over the Bolero Revel."
source: http://youtu.be/877HmPhFdE4?t=26m1s

Aug. 02 2012 07:19 PM
Miss FD from Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Fantastic episode, as usual. This made me think about my own tendencies to become incredibly obsessed with my own music pieces, in which the same set of chords or melody will continue to loop in my mind over and over for days and weeks (even playing in the background of my dreams!), until I finally manifest them into a piece that I can play back "outside of my mind".

Regarding the Unraveling Bolero piece, it'd be interesting to know if other pieces of music also triggered such synesthetic reactions for Anne Adams, even if she didn't specifically decide to physically paint other pieces of music.

Jul. 25 2012 10:35 AM
Tony from Indianapolis

I wonder if anyone remembers Blake Edwards' 1979 movie "10"? In it, Dudley Moore plays a songwriter who has a mid-life crisis and falls for a ravishing young woman played by Bo Derek. Her character has a fascination with "Bolero," and likes to hear the piece in the background when she is making love, so Moore's character has to keep it playing to get her in the mood. I thought about him during the "Unraveling Bolero" episode because, in 2002, he died of pneumonia complicated by progressive supranuclear palsy or PSP. Like the condition that undid Ravel and Dr. Adams, PSP is a brain disease that slowly takes away one's ability to process thought. I don't mean to draw too close a parallel here--because Moore himself was never especially drawn to "Bolero"--but a) he plays a songwriter in "10" and Ravel was a composer, b) Moore's character becomes obsessed with a vision (Bo Derek running in slow motion on the beach) whereas Dr. Adams obsessed over "Bolero" and strawberries, and c) Moore, Adams and Ravel died of a degenerative brain disorder. "Bolero" seems to carry a curse...

Jul. 19 2012 12:17 AM
Susan Hartt from Silicon Valley

after hearing about neurological, I can't help but think that there is some neurological basis for the addictiveness of the pop song "Somebody that I used to know." Somebody played it for me and I had to hear it over and over. Then, I played it for someone else and I watched her play it over and over.

There's even a YouTube video about how addictive it is

Jul. 17 2012 07:14 PM
Ben from Los Angeles

Any way to get poster-size prints of "Unraveling Bolero"? It is fascinating and beautiful.

Jul. 17 2012 02:28 PM
FurryMoses from Australia

@Erin the piece, as mentioned, is Ravel's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement - there is a beautiful recording of it by Herbie Hancock that I love - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnDUulft0dQ

Jul. 17 2012 02:51 AM
Scott McGregor from Campbell, CA

I recently watched a video about colorblindness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUsups6Mk3I&feature=share) called "No Such Thing as Color".

That video suggested that color blindness might be akin to tone deafness.

I'm colorblind to some extent and I have a relative who is tone deaf, and I found that elucidating. In a recent post on my own Facebook wall (http://www.facebook.com/mcgregor94086/posts/263882097054808) I commented that someone who is tone deaf might appreciate listening to the 1st Flute player rehearsing Bolero in a way that more normally pitch-capable people might not, because you learn to look for (or listen for) nuance in the things you do notice, that people who notice other things more saliently aren't likely to appreciate.

As an example, I've noticed that my color blindness enabled me to appreciate how images might look in Black & White in ways that other photographers might miss. It even enabled me to win a contest for one of my black and white photos in a contest on "Autumn Leaves" where the judges were overwhelmed with color photos.

It gives me pause to think about how these black and white graphic elements might become even less salient to new viewers when old black and white movies are "colorized".

Then I got to wondering about why I thought of Bolero. And I realized that was because I recently listened to the "Unraveling Ravel"on a RadioLab Podcast.

And that got me to thinking about another Radio Lab podcast I listened to recently: "Colors" and specifically the segment on "Why isn't the sky blue?" in which you asked did Homer get the colors "wrong" because he was color blind?

I realized that I had just gone full circle, since it was that question about colorblindness that led me to view the aforementioned youtube video that started off all this musing...

Or did it? Maybe it started even earlier...

Because I am realizing this isn't mere a circle, it is a "strange loop" which brings me back to your episode "Loops" which recedes this all. And also your short "Loop the Loop" in which the fatal event takes place out here in the San Francisco Bay area.

But on your bookshelf that connects with Douglass Hofstadter who wrote "I am a Strange Loop", but before that wrote "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB)" that connected a famous composer with an artist... And it was not long after GEB came out that I met Doug in a bookstore in Palo Alto, and began a correspondence with him, through which I was connected back to Scott Kim, who drew Inversions...and who also lived in the bay area...

Help! I think I have been infected by a form of Earworm (OMG, another RadioLab podcast) in which instead of getting a song out of my mind I can't get RadioLab podcasts out of my EVERY thought!

Am I alone? Am I Patient Zero? (Yikes still stuck!) or am I a strange loop too, predestined to be part of a future RadioLab episode that was foreshadowed in a past episode?

Jul. 13 2012 05:57 PM
js290

I wonder if a ketogenic diet would have helped her condition.

http://www.bulletproofexec.com/podcast-13-how-to-take-care-of-your-brain-with-coconut-oil-ketones/

Jul. 12 2012 04:27 PM
Heather from Brooklyn

Thanks Radiolab! This story was fascinating. I imagine Anne Adams felt Ravel was speaking to her in some mystical way. And wasn't he? I cannot wait to watch the movie, Bolero, as the clip of Carol Adams and George raft dancing to the piece is absolutely stunning. See a clip on my art-science blog, here: http://sciencesparksart.tumblr.com/post/26839721137/watch-this-clip-of-carol-adams-and-george-raft

Jul. 10 2012 10:22 AM
Jeffrey Kaufman from New Jersey

Clear symptomatic parallels with aspects of autism and compulsive disorders. The show featured a too simplistic analysis of Ravel's disorder as reflected in his music let alone too small a scientific sampling of other hyper creative persons both well known and little known. This show was superficial and produced to get a quick WOW response.

Jul. 07 2012 03:56 PM
Scott from Washington, DC

Hi! I love the Radiolab podcast and this episode in particular. Could I make one suggestion though? Could Radiolab publish a list of the books (and authors) that are discussed or given a shout-out in the episodes? Thanks!

Jul. 03 2012 02:14 PM

Gina - I wasn't saying that this was the same thing as autism, but that it is parallel, with similar aspects of consciousness affected. There would of course be a big difference between someone who had regular brain development suffering degenerative brain damage later in life, and a kid born with a condition that kept them from developing the regular way in the first place.
I have multiple sclerosis, so I'm actually experiencing some neurological changes of my own. I don't think it's affected my cognition, but how could I know for certain? The brain is pretty bad at perceiving its own function. Your husband would likely be in the same situation, unable to see whether his change in habits is unusual or just a natural development of personality... at least until things changed enough to significantly impact function. It may be helpful to get a series of MRI exams and a neurologist to monitor how things develop.

Jul. 01 2012 03:24 AM
Lieve

This was a compelling story, more so because Ravel is a favorite composer of mine. However, as I rechecked his chronology of compositions, I am disturbed that you may have made a creative leap for the sake of a good story.

Bolero was an exercise in crescendo. While the theme did not change, his orchestration - and Ravel was well know for that - evolved colorfully. The study was a success both musically and to countless listeners who become transfixed by its theme and variations.

After Bolero, Ravel wrote his two piano concertos simultaneously. Neither of these compositions exhibit any of the repetition of Bolero, as might be expected by someone with a degenerative brain disease. As much as I enjoyed the story, I am not sure the parallel exists.

Jun. 30 2012 02:54 PM
Zenqi from Morro Bay, CA

I am 51 years old and since my 30's have felt drawn to a genre of music labeled "ambient" where the music is very repetitive. I work alone repairing sewing machines, a quite intricate process. I seldom listen to music while working but find the ambient music motivating with it's slowly building grooves and subtle progressions. I also play guitar and can noodle on the same riff for long periods, even revisiting the riff for days or weeks. Makes me wonder what is in store for me in the future. Not that I fear anything, but an interesting possibility.

Jun. 30 2012 11:32 AM
Erin Brutlag

what is the last piece of music playing during the podcast?

Jun. 30 2012 12:02 AM
Joseph Miller from Northern Virginia

I could assume that you noticed "Ravel" is in the word "unravel," but maybe I have some insight here. :)

Jun. 29 2012 01:13 PM
Pedro from São Paulo

Just made me remember about Stroke of Insight
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Nice show guys! Like always!
So much to listen/learn!

Jun. 29 2012 11:19 AM
Gina. Scribner from California

My daughter heard this broadcast and sent me the link. It moved me greatly. I think my husband has FTD. I have been trying for 2 years to get the doctors to see what I see. He is a brilliant man who is descending into repetitive obsessive creative bliss. Funny I have used the word unraveling often to the doctors to describe his state of mind. I am a special education teacher and worked lots with autism This is not the same. Your piece gives me courage to pursue this diagnosis It validates my everyday observations. I am in your debt.

Jun. 28 2012 09:42 PM
JJR from Sugar Land, Texas

@ Bob M. above;
I'm grateful to see you mention autism in your post. I myself have Asperger's syndrome myself and though the presenters did not make this connection, as I listened, many of the symptoms and conditions these artists suffered from, though clearly forming a distinct diagnosis, did nonetheless immediately remind me of autistic traits I have learned about since receiving my A.S. diagnosis in 2010, especially in famous cases like Temple Grandin.

However, unlike Temple Grandin, not only am I on a different (milder) end of the autism spectrum, but I am not a "visual" Aspie but a Verbal one. I notice that compared to other Aspies, I am not especially sensitive to environmental factors nor am I overwhelmed by overpowering visual images beyond my control the way many "visual" autistic people are. This story perhaps sheds light on why that might be and was fascinating for me to think about beyond the story's original context. People DX'ed with ASD's who have researched their condition will likely especially enjoy this episode above and beyond what a neurotypical person will who has no idea what we're talking about ;-)

Jun. 28 2012 12:28 AM
Keovar from Asheville, NC

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the parallel with autism. The deeper into the autistic spectrum someone is, the more likely they are to have limited communication and a tendency for repetitive actions.

Jun. 28 2012 12:23 AM
Jesse

Wonderful podcast and such a complex and unsettling story. Unfortunately, 'Unraveling Bolero' is the only of Anne's pieces online. It would be great to see more.

Jun. 27 2012 04:56 PM
Tom from Toronto

In case anyone's wondering: the piece right at the end is the second movement from Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. For some reason I couldn't remember where that sound clip was from, so I figured I'd save anyone else the hassle of searching for it. The transition from piano to piccolo a third of the way in is probably one of my favourite moments in classical music, hands down.

Jun. 27 2012 12:41 AM
Harriet Couper from London UK

Thank you for an amazing show - I am a new listener and was deeply moved by this story. Can it really be a comfort, in the face of loss, that Anne's disease unleashed her brilliance before consuming her? After listening to the Crossroads episode, this feels like a deal with the devil, albeit an unwitting one. But, so many lives end exclusively through suffering - Anne got into her brain's VIP lounge, and I suspect she had a good time. I don't know and I can't stop wondering!
Please tell me if you know where I can obtain prints of Anne's work.

Jun. 26 2012 02:10 PM
Bob Minder

Really good one! Your [and our} friend Oliver Sacks once did a documentary series, Mind Travelers, on which one episode--Rage to Order--was devoted to Jessica Parks, an autistic artist who is fascinated with houses and the sky. She may for instance feature a corner of a neighbors three story house from a looking up perspective so that the background is the night sky with the star configuration precisely {or near} what it actually was on the evening of the painting.
This program and her art are worth viewing. Being a teacher, I've shown the film to students each year for decades so that by now I will sometimes be out with my wife and remark, slowly, "This is a superial day!" And I confess to inculcating the vocabulary of Jessica's system more extensively than that one reference.

Jun. 26 2012 06:18 AM
Ken from Lansdale PA

this was an important point that was missing in the background story of Ravel
- In 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. However, afterwards he began to experience aphasia-like symptoms and was frequently absent-minded.

Jun. 24 2012 08:00 PM
Luna

Well, things aren't looking good for Philip Glass. . .

Jun. 23 2012 11:23 AM
Bren

This was a fantastic, fascinating segment. However, I couldn't resist pointing out that Jonah Lehrer may be suffering from this degenerative repetition disease: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/06/jonah-lehrer-sorry-plagiarizing-himself/53765/

Jun. 22 2012 07:36 PM
Nicole from Florida

Such a powerful piece. I wonder what it says about otherwise healthy and young people like myself who love music that repeats ad nausem like in pop music or techno music. I can listen to the same songs over and over dozens of times in one sitting before I move on to another song.

This would make for an interesting scientific study on the human brain.

Jun. 22 2012 06:57 PM

Bolero is one of my favorite classical pieces, so, um, what does that say about my mental health? Seriously. You don't have to be mentally ill to like it, right?

Jun. 22 2012 01:34 PM
Rodrigo from Brazil

Great story! =)

Jun. 22 2012 12:37 PM
Badr from Texas

I loved this story.

Jun. 22 2012 12:31 PM
Naty from Miami

Beautiful story; ugh, I want Radiolab podcasts EVERY DAY! Love you guys so much, thank you for putting so much effort into such a wonderful show, amazing work, every time!

Jun. 22 2012 11:31 AM
Davud

Fascinating story. I would love to own a print of Anne's Unraveling Bolero painting.

Jun. 21 2012 09:32 PM
Mike B from Richmond, VA

Great episode. This is one that I will most certainly share with my music faculty and students. Thank you!

Jun. 20 2012 10:03 AM
Julia Roig from Puerto Rico

Compelling story about creativity, Ravel and Anne Adams. As an artist, it was kind of frightening to hear and sad...and yet so lovely to find, that when your brain is awash, creativity persists at the core. It makes you think about how important these things are in our society from a different perspective. Thanks. And many thanks to Robert Adams for sharing.

Jun. 19 2012 09:19 PM
Holly from Dallas, Texas

Amazing segment. Very very nice to experience movement in art--albeit from unfortunate circumstances.

Jun. 19 2012 05:27 PM
Alex

God I hate when you talk about music

Jun. 19 2012 04:00 PM
Lin

Interesting story, as always! I was also excited to have correctly guessed the diagnosis, thank to the speech-language pathology education I just completed :)

Jun. 19 2012 11:36 AM
Mike from Portland, OR

What a brilliantly done piece. You guys really know how to engage the mind and the ears.

Jun. 19 2012 10:30 AM

Hi, I recently discovered your show and it's absolutely fantastic! I'm an avid NPR listener and I can't even begin to imagine how I didn't know about this program in the past! For someone like me who works at a radio station, this is a great inspiration for how great the medium can be!!!

Jun. 19 2012 09:57 AM
Kressel

Such a tragic story! I used to write, and even was published a few times, but I haven't done it in several years, mostly because I'm so busy working. This podcast makes me grateful that though my own creativity has gone on the back burner, it hasn't burned out or worse, burned me out.

Jun. 19 2012 09:49 AM

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