Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” was the first needle drop of 2017, for the second consecutive year. Not the same record as last year, but a different rendition from a different conductor and orchestra.
2016 was Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, this year was set aside for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The whole thing was purely coincidental as I’d just finished purchasing yet another version, but I’m thinking that it might make for a fine New Year’s tradition. Over the years, my fascination with “Bolero” has morphed into full blown obsession, sometimes leading me to play the same piece over a dozen times in succession. I’ve since realized that I must necessarily purchase every version of “Bolero” I come across. I’m only six deep, so far. I still need to discover what Claudio Abbado did with his shot at the baton and I desperately need to hear Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic. Every conductor infuses his own vision into the piece and every orchestra brings its own special mojo to their performance.
I am certainly not alone in my obsession for Ravel’s masterpiece. Jean-Michel Basquiat used to play his well worn copy of “Bolero” on a constant loop while painting, often driving those around him crazy. I don’t know which version he owned; it remains an elusive piece of pseudo-knowledge which I will doggedly continue to pursue. I must know because I must have it for myself. Somehow, it makes perfect sense. The whole piece is basically the same insistent theme, repeated 18 times with increasing urgency, leading to an explosive finale. In fact, some psychiatrists have suggested that the repetition in Bolero could reflect a manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease, or some other serious mental deterioration. “Perseveration, an Alzheimer’s symptom, is the obsession of repeating words or actions, and could have been the mastermind behind Ravel’s infamous masterpiece.”
Wanna know the kicker? During the 90’s, a highly regarded cell biologist named Anne Adams was apparently driven to madness once she became obsessed with Ravel’s composition. After her son was involved in a car accident, she decided that she would stay home to care for him and took up painting to occupy her free time. “Soon afterwards, her obsession with Maurice Ravel’s masterwork began as she meticulously deconstructed the composition into a striking visual representation. Much like the composer, she became consumed by the repetitive melody and took to painting a bar by bar representation of what she heard.”
When Adams completed “Unravelling Bolero” in 1994, her brain was starting to be affected by a neurodegenerative condition called primary progressive aphasia. It later robbed Adams of speech, and eventually took her life. The craziest part? Ravel suffered from the same condition!
In other words, listening to Ravel’s “Bolero” repetitively may actually represent a symptom which leads you straight into madness. As I finish writing these words, I will have listened to “Bolero” six consecutive times. I’m not sure that means anything but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve gone completely obsessive over the composition and I suspect it won’t be the last. If I wind up a neurological mess in 30 or so years, I guess we’ll know why. There are much worse ways to die than Bolero’s syndrome, aren’t there? Every story attached to this piece of music seems to have madness of some sort attached to it, the neurologists may be onto something. Maybe those parental advisory warnings, placed on many records during the 80’s and 90’s, missed the mark entirely. Tipper Gore was targeting the wrong music with her senate hearings. “Bolero” might, in fact, be more dangerous that “Darling Nikki” or “She Bop”, worse for your health than Judas Priest or Mercyful Fate. There is medical proof.