Two Unraveling Characters, Interwoven by Music

There’s some magical quality in radio, perhaps the softness of the voice or the raw emotion in every vibration that can evoke a visceral reaction. That magical quality comes out really strongly in “Unraveling Bolero”, by Jad Abumrad for Radiolab. It explores the intersection of creativity and neurology, and the eerie similarities between two artists. The music used to connect the two stories is what creates that magical quality.

Unraveling Bolero is the story of two lives, woven together in a haunting echo of one another across time and space. The first is Anne Adams, an incredible cell biologist, who after a series of events became a full-time artist. Soon afterwards, her obsession with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero began as she meticulously deconstructed the composition into a striking visual representation. The second is Maurice Ravel himself who, in the 1920’s in France, became consumed by the very same repetitive melody, during the process of writing the piece.

Everytime I listen, I become the artist, obsessed with the music even though I know it’s driving me mad. The frustration captured is so real that I can feel it… These feelings of madness are a result of the music and narration working together as emotional punctuation. For instance, the first time we are told of Anne Adam’s slow downward spiral, somber music creates the tone. The melody lingers after the narration has finished, capturing the torrent of emotions she undoubtedly went through. Through these subtle suggestions, the music offers this glimpse into her internal struggle

The music is the piece. The story talks about a song. The song seems to have the power to alter lives. It is the generous and intentional insertions of sound that drive the story forward. In particular, the various segments of the famous song, Bolero by Maurice Ravel, serve as the central lynchpin of the plot.

More importantly, the music creates the characters’ personality. For example, after the introduction of Debussy, there is a whimsical musical flourish. It sounds exactly like Debussy’s music. The building tension of the piece is achieved largely through strategic use of Ravel’s Bolero. In the beginning, we hear a few bars of the famous melody. But then Bolero is repeated and then repeated again to a final crashing crescendo as the truth behind Anne Adams and Maurice Ravel’s obsession is revealed.

Complete satisfaction. By the end of the piece, I was utterly invested in the madness of their respective lives. The audio experience could not be possible without the rich infusion of sound in the piece. The music captured the raw emotion, the confusion, and the exhilaration of creating all the way to the story’s climax.

What is the true source of the artists’ madness? Is it the music? Listen on for the full story.

Unraveling Bolero
by Jab Abumrad for Radiolab in 2012
20 min

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