A Visit to Bolero Land

Ravel’s Bolero– a piece which deserves the nomenclature of iconic- has a very important role to play in my life. It’s a piece which makes most musicians roll their eyes- overexposed, boring to play, become a cliche, not again. I refuse to be among those musicians! For I will defend Bolero with knives. With. Knives.

Before delving too deeply into my psyche, to the anecdotes!

  • Accused of using too much modulation, Ravel accepted a dare to write an entire orchestral piece in C major, and the ecstatic key change to E major is the point in the piece where he wins the bet (this anecdote neatly ignores that shimmering passage of polytonality between the piccolos, celesta and horn and subsequent G major doubling but let’s not let minor details get in the way- and considering the instant fame of the work, that the other party to the bet has never emerged is highly suspicious. Unlikely.).
  • Ravel tapped out the iconic tune on the piano and said to a friend- conveniently in the same room- to comment how insistent this melody was, and he would do something with it (probable).
  • If the modern system of royalties was in place in 1928, Ravel would the richest composer to have ever lived, and one of the richest musicians of the 20th century from any genre (possible, but pointless).

While I wholeheartedly worship at the Church of Ravel, and logically know he wrote better pieces (the piano concertos! the operas! the string quartet!), Bolero is where my heart is. I can’t remember when exactly I first heard it- I think it may have been a Jane Rutter arrangement?- but it was one of the first pieces of music that opened my brain and my ears into what an orchestra would do. My obsession even lead to some mild larceny- I stole one of my high school’s few study scores so that I could have a full score of Bolero in my personal library (and it was a Durand edition, so probably cost them half the departmental budget). Subsequently, when I had to sit the musicianship entry exam to the Queensland Conservatorium I managed to ace the rhythmic dictation- something that has never been one of my best skills- because they used the snare drum pattern. Which I could write easily from memory. Because I’m pretty cool.

It’s probably worth a mention that there is an innate sex appeal in Bolero but a particularly Ravellian sexiness. The piece has logic, it has structure, it follows a clearly defined order and hierarchy, the material moving through the orchestral families in a sensible way. Since the first time I heard it, I have heard the eroticism that is as blatant and suggestive as a leather harness. Why is this? There is a fun exploration here. And the legendary ballet staging by Maurice Bejart is, in both the male and female versions, such a deliberate play on a hypnotic sort of allure that is heard in the music. At least I’m not the only pervert who has a subliminal urge to melt candle wax every time I hear a snare drum riff. That we know so little about Ravel’s sex life- there’s practically no record of any kind of interest in men or women (apparently he did once propose to a female friend who burst out laughing)- makes the sex-link so much more fascinating. That the original ballet scenario suggested by Ravel was around factory machinery, and that oft-quoted Stravinsky line about our friend Maurice as the ‘perfect Swiss watchmaker’, opens up a whole new avenue that maybe Ravel was actually just really into machinery mechanical, not biological.

The ‘secret sexual urges of Ravel’ theory is a slightly more cheering one than the neurology theory that was put forward in 2002 by Amaducci, Grassi and Boller that Ravel was in the early stages of primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a rare disease which has a degenerative affect on language. This started a whole academic foofaraw of historic diagnosis and counter-diagnosis that is amusing, sad and bizarre for someone who isn’t a neurological scientist. Personally, without having read the full papers or having had the time to finish my own neurology studies, it does come across a bit like grasping at straws. One paper compared Bolero to the paintings done by a painter who had a confirmed PPA diagnosis at a similar age and used this as a evidence- an approach which I imagine a lot of composers would find akin to comparing the liver and the kidneys. I mean, they’re basically the same, right? There is a more poetic (and for me, more interesting) interpretation of Ravel’s mental well-being in the beautiful little novella, Ravel by Jean Echenoz.

One of the most useful markers of whether a piece is iconic or not is the number of reinterpretations and reinventions (the only piece in the Australian repertoire that meets this criteria would be Elena Kats-Chernin’s Eliza’s Aria, incidentally another piece that works off patterns and repetition).  So to conclude, here is my list (curated? idk) of my favourite Bolero mutants from Youtube. I mainly wanted to do the list so I could include the jaw-dropping gamelan cover, but unfortunately it seems to have left Youtube, which is a loss for all of us.

Starting off with something pretty straight, a smooth saxophone orchestra cover from Japan’s Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble.

Far be it from me to hate on the late, great Benny Goodman but this is just so wacky it’s quite charming.

This delightful ukulele orchestra arrangement from Ukolollo.

Like a lot of Ravel orchestral pieces, there is a two piano version. Frankly, I’m assuming it breaches the Geneva Convention to have one player do the snare drum riff rather than alternating between hands and players.

Surprise! Frank Zappa had a go and it’s pretty great.

Angelique Kidjo is a once-in-a-generation artist and when I first heard Lonlon on the quirky French radio station FIP, it was one of those moments where I stopped what I was doing and stood dead still so that I could listen properly. I actually prefer the version without the sax solos, which Kidjo carries solely with voice (it is also on Youtube); but c’mon, Branford Marsalis.

And finally, one of my all time favourites, -Bolero by Johannes Kriedler.