May 22, 2018

Unraveling Bolero

This week, we're throwing it back to an old favorite: 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 us what happened to Ravel after he wrote "Bolero," and neurologist Bruce Miller helps us understand how, for both Anne and Ravel, "Bolero" might have been the first symptom of a deadly disease.

 Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

Read more:

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

Arbie Orenstein's Ravel: Man and Musician

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Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Audible.

 

Robert Krulwich:

As we explore this story of obsession, creativity, and symmetry, check out This Is Your Brain on Music, both a cutting-edge study and a tribute to the beauty of music. Go to audible.com/radiolab or text "radiolab" to 500500 for a free 30-day trial and a free audio book.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Casper. As we continue this episode on creativity and symmetry, check out the Casper or the Wave mattress, with a support system that mirrors your body shape. Get $50 towards select mattresses by visiting casper.com/radiolab and using code "radiolab" at checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Jad. Before we start, I would like to let you know about a new podcast that is out there in the world that is aimed at, drum roll please, kids.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I must say I'm particularly excited about this 'cause my kids just discovered podcasting. It's this thing that we can do together. This particular one, which is called This Podcast Has Fleas, tells the story of a dog and a cat who live in the same house and have competing podcasts.

 

Waffles the Dog:

Hi everybody. I'm Waffles. This is Dog Talk, a podcast by a dog.

 

Jad Abumrad:

They both have podcasts. Everybody has podcasts this days. Why, why would pets be any different? Let me [inaudible 00:01:28] you a tease, a small soupcon of what you can expect from this series. This is a moment when Waffles the dog walks into the mud room-

 

Waffles the Dog:

All right, we have arrived at the mud room. [crosstalk 00:01:37] the door.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... And discovers that she is not the only pet in the house with a podcast.

 

Jones the Cat:

One, two, three, [crosstalk 00:01:42]

 

Waffles the Dog:

Loyal listeners, the cat is sitting in his litter box. He has a microphone, and headphones, and a big electronic thingy with a lot of buttons on it. He is doing a podcast! Well (laughs), I don't care. I'm sure it won't be any good.

 

Jones the Cat:

Live from the Litter Box. (singing)

 

Jones the Cat:

Cat lovers, this is Live from the Litter Box, and I am Jones the cat, coming at you with a show so hot, it just might explode. Thanks to all you cat lovers who downloaded my hit new single featured in last week's episode. Let's hear a little bit of it now.

 

Jones the Cat:

(singing)

 

Jad Abumrad:

Jay Pharoah, Saturday Night Live alum, plays the cat. Emily Lynne plays the dog. Alec Baldwin plays a goldfish.

 

Jad Abumrad:

If you have kids, if you don't, don't check it out. It's called This Podcast Has Fleas from WNYC studios. You can get it wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Jones the Cat:

Hey! You're pretty good at that, Jaddy McDaddy.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thank you.

 

Jones the Cat:

And I gotta say, I just love your show. It's an inspiration! You sure you're not a cat?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 5:

Oh, wait, you're listening (laughs).

 

Speaker 6:

Okay.

 

Speaker 5:

All right.

 

Speaker 6:

Okay.

 

Speaker 5:

All right.

 

Speaker 6:

You're listen-

 

Speaker 5:

... listening-

 

Speaker 6:

... to Radiolab. From-

 

Speaker 5:

WNYC.

 

Speaker 6:

C?

 

Speaker 5:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So, okay, so this one, this one I think you weren't around for the first time I did it.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I wasn't. I was gone for... But I, but then I listened afterwards.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You hate-listened.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I hate-listened, isn't that great? I hate-listened. And then, as is often the case, I sort of reluctantly became your like-listener.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Aw, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs) Thanks.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No, so this one is a, uh, it's a, you know, I... Me, I'm a music nerd, right?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah. You are.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is a story about, um, the weirdness of creativity and a piece of music that, frankly, I had studied in school, but which unites two people across space and time in a really bizarre way. It's a kind of rhyme.

 

Speaker 7:

(laughs)

 

Speaker 8:

Okay, so, um, I can bring in another chair-

 

Speaker 8:

[crosstalk 00:04:05]

 

Jad Abumrad:

First story begins in the 1980s in Vancouver, British Columbia with a woman named Anne Adams.

 

Speaker 9:

[crosstalk 00:04:11] thereafter-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Who by all accounts was a brilliant cell biologist.

 

Robert Adams:

Oh yes, and was highly articulate.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's her husband, Robert Adams.

 

Robert Adams:

You know, extremely capable with language. She did cancer research. She actually developed a cell line that I believe still exists.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Robert Adams:

So she was very sharp.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He says that as a scientist, she was a natural, but then, rather suddenly at the age of 46...

 

Speaker 9:

[crosstalk 00:04:35] and, uh, about-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anne kinda did a 180.

 

Robert Adams:

Something happened in '86 which changed the course of her life. [crosstalk 00:04:42]

 

Jad Abumrad:

It all started when their third son, Alex, gets into a really bad car accident.

 

Robert Adams:

And we were told that he would probably never ever walk again.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anne decides she's going to take some time off to help him recover, and he does. He does learn to walk again, but while at home, she just decides to quit. To quit science and become a painter.

 

Robert Adams:

Yeah. Anne made up her mind then and there that she was gonna take up art full-time.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Had she ever painted before?

 

Robert Adams:

Well, she did a fair amount of it when she was in high school.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which was a very long time ago, so the whole thing struck him as kind of out of the blue. But he rolled with it, and, uh, within a short period of time she'd converted a room in their house into a studio and she was painting-

 

Robert Adams:

Houses and buildings, little churches.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Simple at first, but then after that-

 

Robert Adams:

Brightly colored versions of what you see when you look down the barrel of a microscope.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You know, cells, bacteria. After that-

 

Robert Adams:

Strawberries.

 

Jad Abumrad:

A series of paintings involving these blazing red strawberries.

 

Robert Adams:

For instance, a water faucet, and out of it would be coming a stream of strawberries.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Robert Adams:

There was things called strawberry universe, where the strawberries had rings around them like Saturn and so on.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, wow.

 

Robert Adams:

And I think there were something like 35 or 36 strawberry paintings.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Robert Adams:

But then she would switch to something else.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Even after their son had fully recovered-

 

Robert Adams:

Even threw away his crutches and went back to school.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... Anne kept on painting.

 

Robert Adams:

And she would work all day long.

 

Jad Abumrad:

10 hours a day, making these paintings that got bigger and bigger and more abstract. And there were times, he says, when he was like-

 

Robert Adams:

Wow (laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Because for someone who hadn't painted since high school, she was suddenly-

 

Robert Adams:

So prolific.

 

Robert Adams:

And, uh, it's entirely possible that something was happening to her even then.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Way below the surface. I mean, on the surface, she was just painting, and it was working. People were buying the paintings. She was having solo shows. She was becoming a successful artist.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But then in 1994-

 

Robert Adams:

She decided... I don't know what gave her this idea [inaudible 00:06:45]... I never knew what gave her any of her ideas. But, um, she decided she was going to do-

 

Jad Abumrad:

A painting of, well, this.

 

Robert Adams:

Bolero.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Bolero.

 

Robert Adams:

Yes, yeah. Bolero. [crosstalk 00:07:01]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Robert says he's not quite sure how it happened, but at some point that year, Anne heard this famous piece by Maurice Ravel, became obsessed, couldn't stop listening to it. Then, playing it on the piano. Then, deconstructing it, mapping every pitch in the melody, in the bass, to a color.

 

Robert Adams:

Here's, uh, here's one page which isn't very long.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is from her notes.

 

Robert Adams:

She's got A, silver. A-flat, copper. B, leaf green. B-flat, metallic green. C, [crosstalk 00:07:29]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Eventually, the painting.

 

Robert Adams:

It was quite a large work. Two panels side-by-side. Very electric colors.

 

Jad Abumrad:

A blizzard of symbols and triangles and little tooth-type things with marks on them that all mean something, and rectangles marching-

 

Robert Adams:

Back and forth across the first panel.

 

Robert Adams:

There was a triangle in the bottom of each one of the rectangles, and the height of the rectangle represented the loudness.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's an incredibly obsessive translation of the music into visual language. And just like the melody in Bolero, the symbols repeat and repeat and repeat, obsessively getting bigger and bigger and bigger until at the very end of the second panel, things unravel.

 

Robert Adams:

By the way, her title for the painting was Unraveling Bolero.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And that unraveling, turns out it happened before.

 

Robert Krulwich:

When we come back, we're going to, um, we're going to explain what we mean by a rhyme. Won't have to explain it. It'll just rhyme.

 

Emily Villani:

Hello. This is [Emily Villani 00:08:33] from Austin, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Audible. As we explore this story of obsession, creativity, and strange symmetry between a biologist and the composer, check out This is Your Brain on Music, The Science of a Human Obsession, available on Audible.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Both a cutting-edge study and a tribute to the beauty of music itself, This is Your Brain on Music unravels a host of mysteries that affect everything from pop culture to our understanding of human nature. Go to audible.com/radiolab or text "Radiolab" to 500500 for a free 30-day trial and a free audiobook.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Casper. As we continue listening to this Unraveling Bolero episode on creativity and symmetry, check out the Wave mattress with a premium support system that mirrors your body shape or the Casper, with a breathable design and supportive memory foam.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Get your Casper mattress delivered to your door in a small, how-did-they-do-that-sized box. You can be sure of your purchase with Casper's 100 night risk-free sleep-on-it trial. Right now, get $50 towards select mattresses by visiting casper.com/radiolab and using code "radiolab" at checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Jad, Robert, Radiolab. Getting back to our story. Uh, we heard Anne's story, uh, about painting the strawberries and then painting the painting of that piece of music.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And now we're going to tell you a different story.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Different time, different place, different person...

 

Robert Krulwich:

But strangely rhymed.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. Story number two. Well, okay, should we jump in?

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Yeah, please.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Arbie Orenstein.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He's written about Ravel, performed Ravel, talked to anyone who ever knew Ravel.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Uh, he kind of is a, what shall I say, a kind of a living presence inside my head.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So, okay, Maurice Ravel is a composer, obviously, one of the greats.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Born in 1875. Papa was an engineer. Mother was from an old Bosque family.

 

Jad Abumrad:

As in, she was Spanish?

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Yes.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which is why, uh, some of his music, like Bolero, does sound a bit Spanish.

 

Jad Abumrad:

In any case, mom encourages him to study music. He goes off to Paris in the 1890s, meets Claude Debussy, and together they sort of invent this style of music which we now call Impressionism, which was this kind of-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Free-floating, almost dreamlike, sensuous, a lot of colors.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Very flowery.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Yes.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But then, like Anne , Ravel makes a kind of shift.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

1928-

 

Jad Abumrad:

When he was 53, about the same age Anne was when she did the painting-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Ravel is having an absolutely phenomenal year.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Just toured the United States, performed for thousands.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

He's at the zenith of his creativity.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And he's back in France at a beach house-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Wearing a pink bathing suit.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And story goes, right before he steps out onto the beach, this melody swoops into his head. He runs over to the piano-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Takes his index finger, and he goes, da, dun-dun-di-dun-di-dun, dun, dun-dun-dun. There it was.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It just came to him fully-formed?

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Well, he... I don't know if he played the whole melody, but he at least started it off.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But here's the shift. When he sat down to flesh the whole thing out, instead of developing the melody, making it super flowery like his other stuff, he decided, "No, I'm not going to do that. I'm gonna take this melody and repeat it again and again and again. And then again some more. And then some more."

 

Arbie Orenstein:

The theme never changes one note.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The only thing that does change is the orchestration, which grows around the melody.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Very slowly.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Bit by bit, it gets bigger, bigger.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

More accompaniment. More instruments play the melody.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But the melody itself for 340 bars never varies to the point, he says, where the performers-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

They're ready to see a psychiatrist by the time they're done playing this piece. And Ravel, at the first performance in Paris, some woman screamed out, "He's crazy!"

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which turned out to be, well, not exactly true, but in the neighborhood. Six years after he wrote Bolero, this is 1933, Ravel begins to forget words. He'd always been forgetful so no one really noticed at first. But then one day at dinner, he grabs the knife by the wrong side.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

And he doesn't realize it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And he continues to try to eat.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Holding the sharp side of the knife and trying to cut with the handle.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Then he visits a friend, leaves-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Not two hours go by, knock on the door, it's Ravel again. He didn't remember that he'd been there before.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Just two hours earlier.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

Eventually-

 

Jad Abumrad:

By 1935-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

He could not write any more.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Or speak. His language had evaporated. Arbie says there are documents where you can see Ravel desperately trying to relearn the alphabet.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

A... A... A... A... Over and over again.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Arbie Orenstein:

B... B... With a kind of a shaking hand, very small. It's very, very painful to see.

 

Robert Adams:

Whatever it was that was wrong was getting worse. And, uh, [crosstalk 00:14:21]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's the weird symmetry. Just like Ravel, six years after finishing her Bolero...

 

Robert Adams:

By 2000, I would say she was becoming [crosstalk 00:14:28]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anne also begins to forget words.

 

Robert Adams:

She would try to say things and couldn't. She would try to find words and couldn't.

 

Speaker 13:

So how are you today?

 

Anne Adams:

Fine (laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Eventually Anne ends up at the University of California, San Francisco.

 

Robert Adams:

And this was in 2002. And they gave her a bunch of tests.

 

Speaker 13:

Can you tell me your, your full name please?

 

Anne Adams:

Anne [Theresa 00:14:52] Adams

 

Jad Abumrad:

There's a video of one of these tests, and in it you can see Anne sitting at a table in a black sweater, gray hair, glasses, very composed.

 

Speaker 13:

And can you tell me your address?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Like someone who's used to knowing the answers to questions that people ask her.

 

Anne Adams:

4, um, 23...

 

Speaker 13:

Which town?

 

Anne Adams:

Um, which town?

 

Speaker 13:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Anne Adams:

Vancouver.

 

Speaker 13:

Great.

 

Anne Adams:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Bruce Miller:

By the time Anne had come to see us, her communication abilities were markedly diminished.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's Dr. Bruce Miller. He's a neurologist. He runs the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF.

 

Bruce Miller:

Example, we asked her, uh, to describe, uh-

 

Speaker 13:

Okay Anne, I would like you to take a look at this picture.

 

Bruce Miller:

A very complex, rich picture with-

 

Speaker 13:

Take your time.

 

Bruce Miller:

Children, with a kite, with a sailboat on the ocean.

 

Speaker 13:

And please tell me what you see. And if you can, please try to speak in sentences.

 

Bruce Miller:

Anne would be able to say single words with no grammar. She'd go "sailboat."

 

Anne Adams:

Tree.

 

Bruce Miller:

"Boy."

 

Anne Adams:

Um...

 

Bruce Miller:

"Water."

 

Anne Adams:

People.

 

Bruce Miller:

"Kite."

 

Anne Adams:

Kite. Flag.

 

Bruce Miller:

And, uh, that four or five words would come out over about a minute's time. She was very frustrated.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Both Anne Adams and Maurice Ravel were unraveling in the exact same way at the exact same speed to the same soundtrack, you might say. But just, roughly 60 years apart.

 

Bruce Miller:

We think he and Anne, down to the very molecular process had the exact same disease.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And he thinks Bolero, the music and then the painting, in both their cases, was the first symptom of that disease.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This takes a couple of steps to explain. Bear with me.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But to start, the disease is called frontotemporal dementia, and it's... It begins when certain cells in your frontal cortex, which is sort of above your forehead, begin to wither away, in some cases literally leaving holes in your frontal cortex. And we know this about Anne from tests and brain scans. We suspect it about Ravel because, according to Arbie, just before he died-

 

Arbie Orenstein:

On December 28th, 1937-

 

Jad Abumrad:

A French surgeon opened up his skull and saw...

 

Arbie Orenstein:

That one of the lobes of the two lobes of the brain had sunk.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Because it was disintegrating.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Now in both of their cases, the part of their brain, the part of their cortex that got hit, was on the left. It was the part of the brain that does a lot of things, has a lot to do with memory, but most importantly for our story, this is the part of your brain that largely governs language. And what you see is that people who suffer from frontotemporal dementia, they lose their words. They can no longer string words together.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And here's the thing about losing something like language. It has all kinds of other effects in the brain because, according to Bruce, our brain is a series of interconnected circuits. And when in a normal brain, a dominant circuit like language turns on, it is basically wired to turn a bunch of other circuits off. It basically goes, "Shh" to other parts of the brain.

 

Bruce Miller:

[crosstalk 00:18:21] We have this constant dance where one circuit or many circuits turn on and then they're obligatorily turning off other circuits.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So language acts as a kind of brake on other things that the brain can be doing, like daydreaming, thinking in pictures.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But when the language is no longer there to hold things back, often what happens is that those other parts, like say the visual parts, can rush forward. And suddenly the mind is just flooded with images, and you hear reports of people having these intensely visual experiences they- they've just got to express.

 

Bruce Miller:

This is very common. We see a number of patients who become visually-obsessed.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He says he sees, you know, investment bankers who've never shown any interest in art-

 

Bruce Miller:

Never even walked into an art museum.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All of a sudden, they decide in their 50s, "Well, I'm going to move into a loft, take up painting."

 

Bruce Miller:

That's right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

How many of these cases have you seen?

 

Bruce Miller:

50, 60. Uh, some of them have sculpted, some of them have painted. [crosstalk 00:19:17]

 

Jad Abumrad:

He's said he's seen people talk up gardening, graphic design, and what so many of the cases have in common is that the sort of visual creativity that bursts forth, it's not the free-flowing kind. It's very mechanical.

 

Bruce Miller:

The repetition, the obsession.

 

Jad Abumrad:

They get stuck in a kind of loop, taking one visual idea and doing it again and again and again like an Anne Adams painting or...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Bolero.

 

Bruce Miller:

This, uh, drive to repeat happens very early in the course of this illness.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So he says, what can seem like a simple creative choice to repeat a melody may actually be driven by a condition that you won't even know you have for six years.

 

Bruce Miller:

We think that this had something to do with the very unusual rhythmic, repetitive sorts of music that Ravel produced.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I asked Bruce, so why the repetition? Where does... Where does that come from?

 

Bruce Miller:

Um...

 

Jad Abumrad:

And, um-

 

Bruce Miller:

I think this is the release of, uh, of [crosstalk 00:20:16]

 

Jad Abumrad:

He says that we don't really know.

 

Bruce Miller:

... programs, so I, I think that [crosstalk 00:20:18]

 

Jad Abumrad:

But he offered up a theory which I find fascinating, which may get to the root of creative obsession of any kind.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He says there might be several parts of the brain that are held back by the language circuit, and one of them is this very ancient part of the brain.

 

Bruce Miller:

The basal ganglia, the part of the brain we move with [crosstalk 00:20:39]

 

Jad Abumrad:

You can call it our "reptile brain." This is the part of us that, uh, governs, you know, basic behaviors like eating, running.

 

Bruce Miller:

Motor programs, that uh, we, uh, do repetitively every day.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's all it does. It send commands saying, "Move, move, eat, eat, run, run." Birds and snakes get by with basically just this part of the brain. It keeps them alive.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Now, normally, he thinks the language part of us-

 

Bruce Miller:

Inhibits these habits, these repetitive motor programs that [crosstalk 00:21:05]

 

Jad Abumrad:

But when the language part of the brain is not there to do the shushing, these motor commands filter up too.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So imagine you're one of these people. Your mind is flooded with all of these images, maybe sounds. It's also flooded with all of these kinetic, repetitive instructions. Move, move, move, do it again, and in the early stages of the illness, you still have enough brain to make sense of it all.

 

Bruce Miller:

There's still a lot of cortex that is still available to act upon this desire to repeat. [crosstalk 00:21:34]

 

Jad Abumrad:

And so you get art that is obsessive and repetitive, but also beautiful and abstract, like Anne's painting Unraveling Bolero.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But then, Bruce says, as the disease progresses and more of that sort of cortex-y, human-y part fades away-

 

Bruce Miller:

The repetition becomes much simpler.

 

Jad Abumrad:

In the latter stages of a disease, he says you'll often see patients-

 

Bruce Miller:

Pouring water into a cup 100 times in a day, squishing ants over and over again. The complexity of the behaviors are diminishing as we're losing these, uh, parts of the brain that make us so human.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is sort of what you see in Anne's work. Her paintings start off simple, explode into abstraction, and then get simple again.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But what's unusual compared to the other patients is that she kept painting almost all the way to the end.

 

Robert Adams:

Until literally, it was not possible for her to, to hold and direct a brush or a pen.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's her husband Robert again.

 

Bruce Miller:

Anne became progressively paralyzed on the right side of her body.

 

Robert Adams:

She lost the ability to paint, 2005, early. And that, that, that was sad.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Towards the end, he says he would go into her studio.

 

Robert Adams:

And I would see her there-

 

Jad Abumrad:

In front of a blank canvas.

 

Robert Adams:

And she wouldn't be doing anything. She would just be looking at it. And I'd come back a couple of hours later, and she'd still wouldn't have done anything.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hmm.

 

Robert Adams:

She had lost the ability to do the art.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And that, to me, is one of the, I dare say, beautiful parts of Anne's story. That the drive to create is as primal as anything else in the body. That even after she couldn't eat, after she could barely swallow, she still sat there in her studio, trying to paint.

 

Robert Adams:

She had gone downhill so far by that time that, uh, that, uh, she was hardly recognizable as, as herself.

 

Jad Abumrad:

At some point in the disease, and you can see that in this early tape, painting was really all she had.

 

Anne Adams:

I, I don't have the, the memories of this.

 

Speaker 13:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It was basically all she was.

 

Speaker 13:

Can you tell me what your job is? Are you, are you still working?

 

Anne Adams:

Uh, I do art.

 

Speaker 13:

Great.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She died in 2007?

 

Robert Adams:

Yes, in January of 2007.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Almost exactly 60 years after Maurice Ravel.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks to Robert Adams, Bruce Miller at the University of California, San Francisco, and Arbie Orenstein at Queens College.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, that's a song that's not... That's, that's, that's, that's a piece that is not [?] gonna stay the same.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Mm-mm (negative). It's funny, I used to think of Bolero as like a happy, jaunty tune, and now I'm like, "Oo, it's kinda haunted."

 

Robert Krulwich:

It's an interesting sort of, uh, paradox that this thing ends on. She sits in front of her canvas, ferociously stalls.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hm.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Uh, I mean both of... It's the ferocious part. Th- Th- That creativity comes from a kind of restlessness, and the restlessness may be one of the things that leaves last.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. All right, speaking of leaving, we should go.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yep.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening.

 

Mitch Letto:

Hi, this is [Mitch Letto 00:25:51] from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our managing director.

 

Mitch Letto:

Our staff includes Simon Addler, [Maggie Bartelomeo 00:26:07], Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Hobte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Amanda Aronczyk, Shima Oliaee, Jake Arlow, and Reed Canaan.

 

Mitch Letto:

Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Audible. Check out This is Your Brain on Music, both a cutting-edge study and a tribute to the beauty of music. Go to audible.com/radiolab or text "Radiolab" to 500500 for a free 30-day trial and a free audiobook.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by Casper. Check out the Casper or the Wave mattress, with a support system that mirrors your body shape. Get a $50 towards select mattresses by visiting casper.com/radiolab and using code "radiolab" at checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

 

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