“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Played on a 1929 Theremin

Here in America, we’re living in some anxious times. And frankly my nerves are a little torn and frayed–especially after the run-up to last night’s debate. Maybe some of you feel the same. Maybe you could stand to relax a bit. Maybe this will do the trick.

Above, watch Peter Pringle perform on the theremin “Over the Rainbow,” the song originally written for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. And it’s not just any theremin. It’s the 1929 RCA theremin that belonged to the Hollywood thereminist, Dr. Samuel Hoffman. In fact, it’s the very same one that Hoffman played on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1956, below.

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8+ Hours of Classic Charles Dickens Stories Dramatized, Starring Orson Welles, Boris Karloff, Richard Burton & More

Do you know who would have understood our current political moment? Who would have known how to make sense of the naked avarice, widespread bullying, demagoguery, and predatory politicking? Charles Dickens, that’s who.

The villainy in Oliver Twist alone suffices to show just how well Dickens understood misogyny, criminal exploitation, and the ways seductive insincerity works to ensnare the vulnerable.

As we approach the interminable holiday season, many of us will reflect on Dickens’ scathing indictment of greed in A Christmas Carol. Nearly everyone wants a piece of Dickens’ presumed political views. The Socialist Review proclaims “he would have been only too familiar with the shameless piling up of wealth, the poor struggling to survive, the penny pinching of welfare, and the lofty contempt of our rulers” in the 21st century.

But Dickens was no revolutionary. His foreign policy ideas “anticipate Kipling’s proletarian defenders of empire,” and he might have fit right in with the most starry-eyed of neoconservatives.

Was he a defender of free market ideals, as some allege? The idea seems implausible. Characters like pre-redemption Scrooge and Ralph Nickleby—who in, say, Ayn Rand’s hands might be champions of individualism and selfishness as a virtue—become in Dickens’ novels examples of frighteningly truncated humanity. Take this description of Nickleby, uncle of the orphaned Nicholas:

He wore a sprinkling of powder upon his head, as if to make himself look benevolent; but if that were his purpose, he would perhaps have done better to powder his countenance also, for there was something in its very wrinkles, and in his cold restless eye, which seemed to tell of cunning that would announce itself in spite of him.

This is the look of the deceitful, scheming businessman in Dickens: the cold eyes, the barely-concealed malice. In novels like Oliver Twist and Hard Times, Dickens “provides a damning critique of industrial England of the nineteenth century” and “an indictment of global laissez faire capitalism of the twenty-first century.” So argues The Copperfield Review, in any case.

But when we read Dickens, we don’t do so foremost to have our political views bolstered or challenged, but to experience the immensely moving and entertaining plots, with their vividly delineated characters like Ralph Nickleby above. These qualities have always made Dickens’ work translate beautifully to the stage and screen, and also to the radio waves, where Dickens appeared in dramatic adaptations during the medium’s golden age and beyond, often in star-studded productions.

For example, at the top of the post, you can hear a 1950 radio play of David Copperfield with Richard Burton in the title role and Boris Karloff as “the smarmiest creep in Dickens,” Uriah Heep. The latter character may be one of the most obsessively described in all of the author’s works, to the point of caricature. And yet, writes Sam Jordison at The Guardian, “just as Satan gets the best lines in Paradise Lost, Heep gets some of the best moments in David Copperfield.”

Further up, you can hear Orson Welles star in a 1938 production of A Tale of Two Cities. This play is the third in Welles and John Houseman’s series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which featured Welles’ handpicked company of actors. Soon sponsored by Campbell’s Soup, the program was renamed The Campbell Playhouse by the time Welles produced an adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge.

In the Spotify playlist above, hear that production as well as a second Welles-starring version of A Tale of Two Cities recorded in 1945 for the legendary Lux Radio Theater. You’ll also find Richard Burton’s David Copperfield and classic productions of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and short stories like “The Queer Client,” “The Signalman,” and “The Trial for Murder.” If you need Spotify’s free software, download it here.

Visiting, or revisiting, the Dickensian world through radio plays fits in perfectly with the author’s own mode of disseminating his fiction: he was a showman who loved to give readings of  his work “with full histrionic brilliance,” writes Simon Callow, “and stage-managed to a point of high theatricality.” And through such entertainment, he believed, he might move readers and audiences with his critiques of the exploitative systems of his day.

The playlist above will be added to our collection, 700 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free. Copies of Dickens’ works can be found in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Sights & Sounds of 18th Century Paris Get Recreated with 3D Audio and Animation

In what is often called the “Early Modern” period, or the “Long Eighteenth Century,” Europe witnessed an explosion of satire, not only as a political and literary weapon, but as a means of reacting to a whole new way of life that arose in the cities—principally London and Paris—as a displaced rural population and expanding bourgeoisie radically altered the character of urban life. In England, poets like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift savaged their rivals in print, while also commenting on the increasing pace and declining tastes of the city.

In France, Voltaire punched up, using his pen to needle Parisian authorities, serving 11 months in the Bastille for a satirical verse accusing the Regent of incest. Despite the hugely successful premiere of his play Oedipus seven months after his release, Voltaire would ultimately be exiled from his beloved city for 28 years, returning in 1778 at the age of 83.

Now, of course, Parisians celebrate Voltaire in every possible way, but what would it have been like to have experienced the city during his lifetime, when it became the buzzing center of European intellectual life? In the video recreation above, we can partially answer that question by experiencing what 18th century Paris may have looked and sounded like, according to musicologist Mylène Pardoen, who designed this “historical audio reconstitution,” writes CNRS News, with a “team of historians, sociologists and specialists in 3D representations.”

The team chose to animate “the Grand Châtelet district, between the Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame bridges” because, Pardoen explains, the neighborhood “concentrates 80% of the background and sound environments of Paris in that era, whether through familiar trades—shopkeepers, craftsmen, boatmen, washerwomen on the banks of the Seine… or the diversity of acoustic possibilities, like the echo heard under a bridge or in a covered passageway.” The result is “the first 3D reconstruction based solely on a sonic background.”

“We are the whipped cream of Europe,” Voltaire once said of his Paris, a luxurious, aristocratic world. But 18th century Paris was also a grimy city full of ordinary laborers and merchants, of “cesspools and kennels”—as a commentary on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities notes—and of wine-stained streets without proper drainage. And it was a city on the verge of a revolution from below, inspired by iconoclasts from above like Voltaire. In the 3D video and audio recreation above, we get a small, video-game-like taste of a bustling city caught between immense luxury and crushing poverty, between medieval theology and humanist philosophy, and between the rule of divine kings and a bloody secular revolution to come.

We started the video above at the 2:06 mark when the animations kick in. Feel free to start the video from the very beginning.

via @WFMU/CNRS News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Charlie Chaplin Finds Comedy Even in the Brutality of WWI: A Scene from Shoulder Arms (1989)

A friend of the Roman poet Martial once asked him why he went to watch lions devour slaves at the Coliseum. “These are my times,” replied Martial, “and I must know them.” Not every Roman enjoyed such brutal spectacles, and Martial himself perhaps least of all, but he regarded it as a duty as an observer and interpreter not to spare himself the awful sight that pleased so many of his fellow citizens. Charlie Chaplin, too, knew his times, as evidenced by pictures like 1936’s Modern Times, which made light of industrial capitalism, and The Great Dictator, his sharp 1940 satire of Nazism and fascism.

But the horrors of the previous World War gave him material too, as you can see in this scene from the 1918 silent comedy Shoulder Arms, above: “There have been learned discussions as to whether Chaplin’s comedy is low or high, artistic or crude,” said the contemporary New York Times review of the film, Chaplin’s most popular to date, “but no one can deny that when he impersonates a screen fool he is funny.”

His screen fool, in this case, has enlisted in the “awkward squad,” and though boot camp gives him a hard time, the pratfalls he goes through when sent off to Europe eventually lead him to win the Great War almost singlehandedly. Alas, as with most of Chaplin’s hapless protagonists, his moment of triumph vanishes even more quickly than it came, and at the time of its premiere the real war still had weeks to go.

Before making the movie, Chaplin himself had doubts about the potential for humor in the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind, but he must have ultimately understood what all the most astute comedians do: that comedy and tragedy have always gone hand-in-hand. “Saying something is too terrible to joke about is like saying a disease is to terrible to try to cure,” as the particularly astute Louis C.K. recently put it — a man of our own comedic and tragic times, and one who certainly knows them as well as Chaplin knew his.

Find 65 Free Charlie Chaplin Films Online in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Reddit

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Explore 5,300 Rare Manuscripts Digitized by the Vatican: From The Iliad & Aeneid, to Japanese & Aztec Illustrations


Hundreds of years before vast public/private partnerships like Google Arts & Culture, the Vatican served as one of the foremost conservators of cultural artifacts from around the world. In the era of the Holy Roman Empire, few of those works were available to the masses (excepting, of course, the city’s considerable public architecture and sculpture). But with over 500 years of history, Vatican Museums and Libraries have amassed a trove of artifacts that rival the greatest world collections in their breadth and scope, and these have slowly become public over time. In 1839, for example, Pope Gregory XVI founded the Egyptian Museum, an extensive collection of Egyptian and Mesopotamian artifacts including the famous Book of the Dead. We also have The Collection of Modern Religious Art, which holds 19th and 20th century impressionists, surrealists, cubists, expressionists, etc. In-between are large public collections from antiquity to the Renaissance.


When it comes to manuscripts, the Vatican Library is no less an embarrassment of riches. But unlike the art collections, most of these have been completely inaccessible to the public due to their rarity and fragility. That’s all going to change, now that ancient and modern conservation has come together in partnerships like the one the Library now has with Japanese company NTT DATA.

Their combined project, the Digital Vatican Library, promises to digitize 15,000 manuscripts within the next four years and the full collection of over 80,000 manuscripts in the next decade or so, consisting of codices mostly from the “Middle Age and Humanistic Period.” They’ve made some excellent progress. Currently, you can view high-resolution scans of over 5,300 manuscripts, from all over the world. We previously brought you news of the Library‘s digitization of Virgil’s Aeneid. They’ve also shared a finely illustrated, bilingual (Greek and Latin) edition of its predecessor, The Iliad (top).


Further up, from a similar time but very different place, we see a Pre-Columbian Aztec manuscript, equally finely-wrought in its hand-rendered intricacies. You’ll also find illustrations like the circa 17th-century Japanese watercolor painting above, and the rendering of Dante’s hell, below, from a wonderful, if incomplete, series by Renaissance great Sandro Botticelli (which you can see more of here). Begun in 2010, the huge-scale digitization project has decided on some fairly rigorous criteria for establishing priority, including “importance and preciousness,” “danger of loss,” and “scholar’s requests.” The design of the site itself clearly has scholars in mind, and requires some deftness to navigate. But with simple and advanced search functions and galleries of Selected and Latest Digitized Manuscripts on its homepage, the Digital Vatican Library has several entry points through which you can discover many a textual treasure. As the site remarks, “the world’s culture, thanks to the web, can truly become a common heritage, freely accessible to all.” You can enter the collection here.


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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

1944 Instructional Video Teaches You the Lindy Hop, the Dance That Originated in 1920’s Harlem Ballrooms

1944’s MGM short Groovie Movie, abovebills itself as an instructional film for those wishing to learn the Lindy Hop and its extremely close cousin, the Jitterbug.

The educational model here is definitely of the “toss ‘em in the pool and see if they swim” variety.

The easily frustrated are advised to seek out a calm and patient teacher, willing to break the footwork down into a number of small, easily digestible lessons.

Or better yet, find someone to teach you in person. We’re about 20 years into a swing dance revival, and with a bit of Googling, you should be able to find an athletic young teacher who can school you in the dance popularized by Frankie “Musclehead” Manning and his partner Freda Washington at Harlem’s Savoy ballroom.

Speaking of teachers, you might recognize Arthur “King Cat” Walsh, the “top flight hep cat” star of Groovie Movie, as the fellow who was brought in to teach I Love Lucy‘s Lucy Ricardo how to boogie woogie.

He’s got more chemistry with his Groovie Movie partner, Jean Veloz. Backed by Lenny Smith, Kay Vaughn, Irene Thomas, Chuck Saggau, and several talented kiddies, they quickly achieve an astonishingly manic intensity as narrator Pete Smith barks out a host of jazzy lingo. (Herein, lays the truly solid instruction. The attitude!)

Smith also heps viewers to a few of the influences at work, including ballet, traditional Javanese dance, and even the “gay old waltz.” Sadly, he fails to mention the Harlem ballroom scene from whence it most directly sprung.

At least Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a professional troop drawn from the Savoy’s most skilled practitioners, got their due in the 1941 film, Hellzapoppin’, below. Again, astonishing!

Okay, worms, let’s squirm.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Akira Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers: Write, Write, Write and Read

We should all learn from the best, and in the domain of cinema, that means studying under masters like Akira Kurosawa. Though now nearly twenty years gone, the Japanese filmmaker known as “the Emperor” left behind not just one of the most impressive bodies of directorial work in existence — RashomonSeven SamuraiThrone of BloodRan, and much else besides — but a generous quantity of words. In addition to the voluminous materials related to the films themselves, he wrote the book Something Like an Autobiography, gave in-depth interviews, and offered filmmaking advice to established colleagues and young aspirants alike.

“If you genuinely want to make films,” Kurosawa tells the next generation of directors in the clip above, “then write screenplays. All you need to write a script is paper and a pencil. It’s only through writing scripts that you learn specifics about the structure of film and what cinema is.”

This brings to mind the story of how, long unable to find funding for Kagemusha, he wrote and re-wrote its screenplay, then, still unable to go into production, painted the entire film, shot by shot. Such persistence requires no little strength of patience and discipline, the very kind one builds through rigorous writing practice. Kurosawa quotes Balzac: “The most essential and necessary thing is the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time.”

Take it one word at a time: apparently creators as ostensibly different as Balzac, Kurosawa, and Stephen King agree on how to handle the writing process. And to write, Kurosawa adds, you must read. “Young people today don’t read books,” he says, echoing an oft-heard complaint. “It’s important that they at least do a certain amount of reading. Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can’t create anything. Memory is the source of your creation. Whether it’s from reading or from your own real-life experience, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.” Or, as Werner Herzog more recently put it: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read… read, read… read.” But per Kurosawa, don’t forget to write — and when the writing gets tough, do anything but give up.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art of Making Old-Fashioned, Hand-Printed Books

Reports of traditional books’ death are greatly exaggerated, thanks in part to the success of print-on-demand publishing and other digital innovations.

As thrilled as we are about the survival of the printed page—it’s a relief to have something to read after Wi-Fi fails during the zombie invasion—the craftsmanship that goes into hand-printed, hand-bound volumes is an almost-lost art.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s video, above, documents the painstaking process, beginning with the arranging of metal type that will result in an octavo, the most common type of book.

It’s a quiet endeavor, though surely a bit louder than the V&A’s silent documentation, an unusual choice given a certain segment of the millennial populace’s appetite for well-edited artisanal craft videos in which music plays a big part.

A well-deployed tune could elevate these lovely visuals to the realms of the advanced elegy.

YouTube user, Kraftsman Sheng, attempts to remedy the situation by reproducing the video (sans attribution) with a soundtrack of his own choosing—pianist Roger Williams’ syrupy 1965 rendition of “Softly As I Leave You,” below.

An unconventional choice, to be sure. I should think something baroque would go better with all of this meticulous folding, cutting, and binding.

Though perhaps something a little more robust could highlight the hardcore heroism of the artisans toiling to keep this ancient art alive. Electric Lit has a round up of great book-inspired punk songs, of which “Time” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids seems particularly apt.

Print’s not dead!

via Atlas Obscura

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

U2 Takes Down Trump in a Las Vegas Concert; In Other News, Springsteen Calls Him a “Moron”

Give it up for U2. Playing in Las Vegas, America’s gambling capital, Bono turned a performance of “Desire” into a bit of Orwellian theater.

Bono: “Las Vegas, are you ready to gamble?”

Cut to Donald on the big screen: “What do you have to lose?”

Bono: “Are you ready to gamble your car?”

The birther-in-chief on the big screen: “What do you have to lose?”

Bono: “Are you ready to gamble your house? Are you ready to gamble the American Dream?”

Trump: “The American Dream is dead!”

Bono: “The American Dream is alive! No, you can’t deny her, D-e-s-i-r-e!”

Meanwhile, in other news, Bruce Springsteen made his own case against Donald. Asked by Rolling Stone what he thought of the the Trump phenomenon, he offered this:

Well, you know, the republic is under siege by a moron, basically. The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it’s a tragedy for our democracy. When you start talking about elections being rigged, you’re pushing people beyond democratic governance. And it’s a very, very dangerous thing to do. Once you let those genies out of the bottle, they don’t go back in so easy, if they go back in at all. The ideas he’s moving to the mainstream are all very dangerous ideas – white nationalism and the alt-right movement. The outrageous things that he’s done – not immediately disavowing David Duke? These are things that are obviously beyond the pale for any previous political candidate. It would sink your candidacy immediately.

I believe that there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution. And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. Fallacious answers to very complex problems. And that can be very appealing.

You can read the rest of the interview here. It’s also worth reading the Hillary endorsement from the Cincinnati Enquirer, an Ohio paper, which–until now–has endorsed GOP candidates for the better part of a century.

via Rolling Stone

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David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Importance of an Arts Education (and How It Strengthens Science & Civilization)

Unless you’re a policy geek or an educator, you may never have heard of the “STEM vs. STEAM” debate. STEM, of course, stands for the formula of “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” as a baseline for educational curriculum. STEAM argues for the necessity of the arts, which in primary and secondary education have waxed and waned depending on prevailing theory and, perhaps more importantly, political will. Andrew Carnegie may have donated handsomely to higher education, but he frowned on the study of “dead languages” and other useless pursuits. Industrialist Richard Teller Crane opined in 1911 that no one with “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… are those who are useful.”

It’s a long way from thinking of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Shelley wrote in his “Defence of Poetry” 90 years earlier, but Shelley’s essay shows that even then the arts needed defending. By the time we get to STEM thinking, the arts have disappeared entirely from the conversation, become an afterthought, as venture capitalists, rather than wealthy industrialists, decide to trim them away from public policy and private investment. The situation may be improving, as more educators embrace STEAM, but “there’s tension,” as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says in the excerpt above from his StarTalk interview show on Nat Geo. In the kinds of funding crises most school districts find themselves in, “school boards are wondering, do we cut the art, do we keep the science?”

The choice is a false one, argues former Talking Heads frontman and sometimes Cassandra-like cultural theorist David Byrne. “In order to really succeed in whatever… math and the sciences and engineering and things like that,” Byrne tells Tyson above, “you have to be able to think outside the box, and do creative problem solving… the creative thinking is in the arts. A certain amount of arts education…” will help you “succeed more and bring more to the world… bringing different worlds together has definite tangible benefits. To kind of cut one, or separate them, is to injure them and cripple them.”

The idea goes back to Aristotle, and to the creation of universities, when medieval thinkers touted the Liberal Arts—the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy)—as models for a balanced education. Tyson agrees that the arts and sciences should not be severed: “Suppose they did that back in Renaissance Europe? What would Europe be without the support and interest in art?” He goes even further, saying, “We measure the success of a civilization by how well they treat their creative people.”

It’s a bold statement that emerges from a longer conversation Tyson has with Byrne, which you can hear in the StarTalk Radio podcast above. Tyson is joined by co-host Maeve Higgins and neuroscientist and concert pianist Dr. Mónica López-González—and later by Professor David Cope, who taught a computer to write music, and Bill Nye. Byrne makes his case for the equal value of the arts and sciences with personal examples from his early years in grade school and art college, and by building conceptual bridges between the two ways of thinking. One theme he returns to is the interrelationship between architecture and music as an example of how art and engineering co-evolve (a subject on which he previously delivered a fascinating TED talk).

You won’t find much debate here among the participants. Everyone seems to readily agree with each other, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Speaking anecdotally, all of the scientists I know affirm the value of the arts, and a high percentage have a creative avocation. Likewise, I’ve rarely met an artist who doesn’t value science and technology.  We find example after example of scientist-artists—from Albert Einstein to astrophysicist Stephon Alexander, who sees physics in Coltrane. The central question may not be whether artists and scientists can mutually appreciate each other—they generally already do—but whether school boards, politicians, voters, and investors can see things their way.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness