In my yoga class here we listen to music. It’s a nice mix of chant and new age stuff, and sometimes there’s some techno Om stuff. It’s nice. At first I was put off by it because I’m used to doing yoga without music but now I just tune it out. Most of the time, my favorite music happens during sivasana, which is the final relaxation time because my mind can drift off and truly I can become relaxed.
But today was different. During the final poses of the hour, before sivasana, I heard the familiar strains of Ravel’s “Bolero.” You would definitely know this song. It’s one of the most recognizable tunes after, perhaps, Amazing Grace, and the Six Flags commercial with the dancing old man. (I know you know this.) In any case, Bolero is so recognizable because it is the same tune repeated over and over for something like 13 minutes, never changing key until the very last thirty seconds or so. The only variation of the tune is its volume. I read somewhere that Ravel’s brain worked in such a way that this repetition brought him a sense of calm.
For me, it brought a wave of nostalgia I hadn’t been expecting. I suppose we don’t ever really expect to be brought back in time until we’re already there with the help of a familiar smell or an old photograph. Today it was the sound of Bolero, slowly and surely gaining strength and volume with the addition of bold brass and firm percussion.
The song itself is magical. It sounds like a returning memory feels: at first quiet, the instruments almost like whispers—- a furrowed brow and the thought, “Is that what I think it is?” A clear clarinet breaks through the whispers of the instruments and then it is the unmistakable refrain, the one that will carry its way again and again through the length of the work, building certainty, building intricacy each time it repeats. In this way, Bolero is like memory. They begin so quietly, without our even knowing. And then when we are certain we have the memory, we replay it again and again, remembering details, sensory details, touch and smell and movement. We go back in time and are transported to being different selves, before things happened, before things changed.
What I love about Bolero is the memory I have attached to it: Sunday mornings in the kitchen, my father swinging me around the room with my little feet on his, twirling and spinning with the Bolero in the background, the smell of silver dollar pancakes spinning with us and my father’s slippered feet coasting and scuffing our linoleum floor, so in the end we are in the center of a cotton candy whirlwind of sound and smell and taste. Good Lord there is no memory I have that is more vivid than that, no memory I hold more precious than that simple moment decades ago when my feet were small enough to fit upon his and I could smush my nose into his shirt and inhale the deep sawdust cherry tobacco smell that had become his natural cologne. He carries me to the right two steps, turns in a circle, holding both of my arms out to the side, my little hands clutching in his dry wide fingers. I balance precariously on his toes and together we spin. It is not a dizzying spin, rather it is purposeful but lighthearted, like the early strains of Ravel’s work, before the percussion becomes dominating. To the left, back in a circle, and always, without fail, he is humming along to the music.
All this Bolero brings back to me: safety, my father’s voice, his hands, adoration. And so while I sat in sivasana and listened to the music build, the percussion gaining control, the clarinet and oboe repeating again and again the same notes louder and clearer and stronger, I was again, five years old and not at all relaxed. I sat up straight in the yoga room and closed my eyes and tried my very, very hardest to keep myself in the memory.
But, like all things, the song ends and so does this memory. It will resurface the next time I hear the music, and it will never fail to be this exact same memory. The silver dollar pancakes will never change, my father will never change, and the linoleum floor will be the exact same one I remember every time. There are no surprises in this memory in the same way there are no surprises in Bolero. And I don’t think I could be thankful enough for that simple fact.
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