Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bolero and Bionics

So I’m innocently minding my own business, just sorta idly going through some Gizmodo posts, when I see one titled From the Archives: Wired’s Bionic Quest for Bolero. That’s just too darn intriguing on too many levels for me to possibly be able to ignore.

I’ve always loved Ravel’s Bolero (but according to the article he himself was always a bit dismayed by its popularity). I’ve seen it performed live a good number of times, but I have to admit that pretty much all of those were by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia in the early 1980s. The first time I saw them do it I had basically no warning, and I ended up being totally blown away. I’m a huge Todd fan, so it was a special treat to see him do Bolero. They first played classical instruments, then their rock ’n’ roll instruments. Completely amazing.

But I digress. This was supposed to be about bionic ears.

The Wired article was from maybe four or five years ago, which I didn’t realize at first, but that doesn’t matter so much. It was also filled with interesting science and technology, but that wasn’t so important either. What made it worth reading was the sheer amount of angst, hope, worry and joy. I cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to lose my hearing, and to then against all hope be able to use technology to fight to get my hearing back. I also can’t think of a more joyful thing to strive for in that regard than to hear Ravel’s Bolero. To keep trying different technologies, each with it’s successes and setbacks, to finally be able to hear a voice but to not have the capability of hearing music, and to keep on persevering through years of effort, that is a story worth knowing about.

I can hear music. I take it for granted. I have friends who don’t quite hear what I hear though. They can certainly hear a song but can’t separate the bass from the rhythm from the lead. It is almost beyond my ability, however, to imagine what it would be like to finally once again be able to tell the difference between two notes an octave apart, and to be able to call that a total victory. And then a year later to be able to get a software upgrade for your hearing which lets you distinguish five different notes in an octave instead of one is simply mind boggling.

We live in an age of miracles.

Photo: from the Wired article. CT scan: Valley Radiology; Matt Hoyle.

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