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FEATURE | Toronto Ravel Unravels The Illness That Took Down A Musical Giant

By Robin Roger on December 23, 2019

Poster for Ravel's Brain; Ravel Study Group Presenters, Left to Right: Larry Weinstein, director, Ravel's Brain; Ravel Study Leader John Herberman; Ravel's Brain Score Composers Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk
Poster for Ravel’s Brain; Ravel Study Group Presenters, Left to Right: Larry Weinstein, director, Ravel’s Brain; Ravel Study Leader John Herberman; Ravel’s Brain Score Composers Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk

Walking into Hugh’s Room for the December meeting of the Toronto Ravel, a monthly gathering of professional and amateur musicians who delight in taking a deep dive into orchestral scores, I was hit with a rush of energy and excitement. It was generated by the sound of room full of people savouring their conversations. Like music itself, there were fluctuating rhythms, levels of volume and pitch, inflections of laughter and pauses for breathing. Even in the dark, and damp cavern that is Hugh’s Room, there was genuine warmth.

My rapid response to voices in dialogue is living proof of the Aphasia Institute’s motto: Life’s A Conversation. This brilliant tag line succinctly states how central verbal communication is for human wellness, and the desperate dilemma of those struck by aphasia, which is the loss of ability to understand or express speech due to brain damage. When the subject of the conversation is specifically Maurice Ravel’s aphasia, as it was at the Toronto Ravel’s most recent get together, it becomes a very powerful conversation about the loss of conversation.

This shared sensitivity to the despair of aphasia makes the Toronto Ravel and the Aphasia Institute perfect allies. As Larry Weinstein, writer and director of the 1987 documentary Ravel’s Brain put it before the film was shown at the meeting, “I’ve always felt that Ravel’s death was the saddest death in music history. He was in prison from his aphasia and other symptoms of brain deterioration for five years before he died, far more torturous even than Beethoven’s period of deafness.” This is what motivated Weinstein to create this documentary in 1987, the 50th anniversary of Ravel’s death.

The film, created at the time when the protocols for Ravel’s surgery had just been released, includes interviews with one of the surgeons who was in the operating room during Ravel’s procedure, and is a gripping depiction of the great composer’s torturous loss of speech at the same time as he retained his musical powers. This situation, described by the Aphasia Institute as “masked competence”, meant that Ravel knew more than he could say. As he continued to produce musical ideas, he could not articulate them to those around him.

The programs developed by the Aphasia Institute since it began in Toronto in 1979 were not available to Ravel in 1937, when his grim choice was between undergoing a high risk, recently developed neurosurgical procedure or enduring continued drastic deterioration. Today, people with aphasia can access a vast array of programs, including the Aphasia Institute’s world-renown method, Supported Conversation for Adults with Aphasia, which uses a set of techniques to help people caring for someone with aphasia to encourage conversation. The Community Aphasia Program includes a Creative Expressions initiative with a strong musical component. The goal of every activity is to eliminate the isolation that threatens people with aphasia when they give up trying to communicate. The Aphasia Institute of today, and the physicians caring for Ravel over 80 years ago, recognized the same threat posed by the condition: hopelessness.

In Ravel’s Brain, which combines archival film, live interviews with contemporaries of Ravel and staged re-enactments, the words of Ravel’s surgeon, Vincent Clovis, articulate this plight. Bass Baritone Richard Cowan, is shown in surgical garb, first in his study with models of the human brains and skeletons around him, and later in the operating room, as he sings the prognosis, “all hope is lost…silence”. His words are sung as lyrics set to two early compositions by Ravel, Un Grand Sommeil Noir I & II. The film culminates with the depiction of the procedure, which Ravel did not survive.

The film portrays Ravel as a deeply private but sociable man, beloved by his devoted circle of friends. The composer’s way of life, combining countless hours alone working on compositions, with exuberant gatherings to enjoy music and companionship, is common to many composers, including members of Toronto Ravel, who value their time in their studios but thrive on the camaraderie of shared musical study.

The music professionals and composers first came together in 2013 to study Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe because they had begun to notice that their solitary work on their own commissions or in their separate studios was taking a certain toll on them. As composer Doug Wilde testifies in the Ravel video, “I’ve been spending a lot of time alone in my booth; there’s a lot to be gained by interaction.”

Toronto Ravel Founder and Study Leader John Herberman vividly recalls the pleasure of their first meeting. “The room was electric, and the smiles on our faces were saying how cool it was that all of us got to sit in one room and rediscover some of the wonder that got us into music in the first place.” The radiant collegiality and camaraderie that I felt the minute I arrived at December’s meeting, six years after Ravel’s launch, proves that they found the perfect remedy for their isolation. The growth of the Aphasia Institute from a small, local initiative in 1979 to one with an international reputation testifies to the brilliance of their original strategy of helping individuals with aphasia and their families to navigate life one conversation at a time. There’s no substitution for human contact.

Today, sad to say, aphasia is a growing problem. So too is social isolation. The Toronto Ravel and the Aphasia Institute are each effective responses to that problem, and each deserve to thrive.

To learn more about Toronto Ravel watch their promotional video (below).

To learn more about the Aphasia Institute, go to their website.


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Robin Roger
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