FTLDA Patient Stories A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity

A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE
Published: April 8, 2008

brain_600_spanIf Rod Serling were alive and writing episodes for “The Twilight Zone,” odds are he would have leaped on the true story of Anne Adams, a Canadian scientist turned artist who died of a rare brain disease last year.

Trained in mathematics, chemistry and biology, Dr. Adams left her career as a teacher and bench scientist in 1986 to take care of a son who had been seriously injured in a car accident and was not expected to live. But the young man made a miraculous recovery. After seven weeks, he threw away his crutches and went back to school.

According her husband, Robert, Dr. Adams then decided to abandon science and take up art. She had dabbled with drawing when young, he said in a recent telephone interview, but now she had an intense all-or-nothing drive to paint.

“Anne spent every day from 9 to 5 in her art studio,” said Robert Adams, a retired mathematician. Early on, she painted architectural portraits of houses in the West Vancouver, British Columbia, neighborhood where they lived.

In 1994, Dr. Adams became fascinated with the music of the composer Maurice Ravel, her husband recalled. At age 53, she painted “Unravelling Bolero” a work that translated the famous musical score into visual form.

Unbeknown to her, Ravel also suffered from a brain disease whose symptoms were identical to those observed in Dr. Adams, said Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist and the director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Ravel composed “Bolero” in 1928, when he was 53 and began showing signs of his illness with spelling errors in musical scores and letters.

“Bolero” alternates between two main melodic themes, repeating the pair eight times over 340 bars with increasing volume and layers of instruments. At the same time, the score holds methodically to two simple, alternating staccato bass lines.

“ ‘Bolero’ is an exercise in compulsivity, structure and perseveration,” Dr. Miller said. It builds without a key change until the 326th bar. Then it accelerates into a collapsing finale.

Dr. Adams, who was also drawn to themes of repetition, painted one upright rectangular figure for each bar of “Bolero.” The figures are arranged in an orderly manner like the music, countered by a zigzag winding scheme, Dr. Miller said. The transformation of sound to visual form is clear and structured. Height corresponds to volume, shape to note quality and color to pitch. The colors remain unified until the surprise key change in bar 326 that is marked with a run of orange and pink figures that herald the conclusion.

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