“Music is like sex, it’s too important to be left up to the professionals!”  – Robert Shaw

Ravel’s Bolero comprises the same theme, performed 18 times in a row, by different combinations of instruments. It is a gradual crescendo over more than fifteen minutes.

An ex boyfriend of mine once tried to convince me that Ravel wrote Bolero as a music joke – but that the joke backfired when it became his most popular work. I haven’t found any evidence for this assertion, but it must have been a little unsettling for Ravel that he became most famous for a work that is more than a little experimental in nature.

It isn’t the sort of piece that I would want to listen to on a recording. For me, the joy of this piece comes from performance. As much as I want to hate it for being banal, when I see it performed, I always enjoy it. Damn it. 

Watching the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform Bolero, I was reminded that it has a strong connection with sex. It has been used in numerous films and theatre pieces to remind people of sex, create sexual tension or represent sex. The slowly growing crescendo is sexual with the tumultuous finale reminiscent of orgasm.

Well that’s the theory anyway. 

A couple of points:

– The first thing is that it only goes for around sixteen minutes. If that’s all you are making love for, then you are doing it wrong. Perhaps the mythology of Bolero was started by women trying to make their husbands last longer?

– Torvill and Dean, the gold medal winning British ice-skaters at the 1984 Winter Olympics used the piece in their routine that got them the highest score of all time. Comedian Robin Williams describes ice dancing as ‘ice fucking’ and he definitely has a point. Their use of this piece sexualised it for another generation.

– When you hear it, think of the poor snare drummer – who plays the same rhythm over and over again. That’s got to hurt a bit.

– Ravel once said of Bolero: It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of “orchestral tissue without music” — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.” 

I think Bolero reminds us of sexual theory, but has very little to do with the reality of good sex. Of course, if you have ever actually made love to Bolero, please let me know how it went. If you think simultaneous orgasm between two people is hard, then imagine how hard it must be to time it to match an eighty piece orchestra. 

Perhaps I should film sex with Bolero and see what happens.So the only way I can really think that would make Bolero interesting would be a rule whereby the couple had to switch position at every part.  Eighteen positions over sixteen minutes. Definitely worth considering….

…and when you think about it – that’s exactly what made Torvill and Dean’s performance great. They didn’t dance the same moves eighteen times in row – would have been boring if they had. Hmm….something for further investigation.