Lin-Manuel Miranda Reads Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It's worth taking note of this: In a newly-released audiobook, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator and star of Hamilton) narrates Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Above and below, listen to excerpts of an unabridged reading that lasts nearly 10 hours. And also note that Miranda is joined at points by Tony Award-winning actress, Karen Olivo.

If you're tempted to hear the full production, you can purchase the audiobook online. Or you can download it for free by signing up for Audible's 30-day free trial. As I've mentioned before, if you register for Audible's free trial program, they let you download two free audiobooks. At the end of 30 days, you can decide whether you want to become an Audible subscriber (as I have) or not. No matter what you decide, you get to keep the two free audiobooks. Miranda's reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can be one of them.

NB: We have a partnership with Audible.com. So, if you give their program a try, it will help support Open Culture.

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Watch the New Trailer for Wes Anderson’s Stop Motion Film, Isle of Dogs, Inspired by Akira Kurosawa

It surprised everyone, even die-hard fans, when Wes Anderson announced that he would not just adapt Roald Dahl's children's book Fantastic Mr. Fox for the screen, but do it with stop-motion animation. But after we'd all given it a bit of thought, it made sense: Anderson's films and Dahl's stories do share a certain sense of inventive humor, and stepping away from live action would finally allow the director of such detail-oriented pictures as RushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou fuller control over the visuals. Eight years later, we find Anderson overseeing another team of animators to tell another, even more fantastical-looking story, this one set not in an England of the past but a Japan of the future.

There, according to the project's newly released trailer, "canine saturation has reached epic proportions. An outbreak of dog flu rips through the city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi issues emergency orders calling for a hasty quarantine. Trash Island becomes an exile colony: the Isle of Dogs." Equals in furriness, if not attire, to Fantastic Mr. Fox's woodland friends and voiced by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Scarlet Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and of course Bill Murray (in a cast also including Japanese performers like Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, and Yoko Ono — yes, that Yoko Ono), the canines of various colors and sizes forcibly relocated to the bleak titular setting must band together into a kind of ragtag family.

Anderson must find himself very much at home in this thematic territory by now. It would also have suited the towering figure in Japanese film to whom Isle of Dogs pays tribute. Although Anderson has cited the 1960s and 70s stop-animation holiday specials of Rankin/Bass like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy — all produced, incidentally, in Japan — as one inspiration, he also said on an ArteTV Q&A earlier this year that “the new film is really less influenced by stop-motion movies than it is by Akira Kurosawa.” Perhaps he envisioned Atari Kobayashi, the boy who journeys to Trash Island to retrieve his lost companion, as a twelve-year-old version of one of Kurosawa's lone heroes.

And perhaps it owes to Kurosawa that the setting — at least from what the trailer reveals — combines elements of an imagined future with the look and feel of Japan's rapidly developing mid-20th century, a period that has long fascinated Anderson in its European incarnations but one captured crisply in Kurosawa's homeland in crime movies like High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well. Anderson has made little to no reference to the Land of the Rising Sun before, but his interest makes sense: no land better understands what Anderson has expressed more vividly with every project, the richness of the aesthetic mixture of the past and future that always surrounds us. And from what I could tell on my last visit there, its dog situation remains blessedly under control — for now.

via Uncrate

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.

A Reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebrity Voices

For every august personage who’s taken a crack Edgar Allan Poe’s evergreen poem, "The Raven," there are thousands more who haven’t.

Humorist Jordan Monsell is doing what he can to close that gap, providing a sampling of 100 mostly male, mostly white, mostly human celebrity voices. It’s a solo recitation, but vocally a collaborative one, with a fair number of animated characters making their way into the credits, too.

He certainly knows how to cast outside the box. Traditional Poe interpreters such as Vincent Price and John Astin bring some well established creep cred to the enterprise. Monsell picks Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee already have existing takes on this classic, and Anthony Hopkins and Willem Dafoe are welcome additions.

But what to make of Jerry Seinfeld, Pee-Wee Herman, Johnny Cash… and even poetry lover Bill Murray? Manic and much missed Robin Williams may offer a clue. What good is having an arsenal of impressions if you’re not willing to roll them out in rapid succession?

While some of Monsell's impersonations (cough, David Bowie) fall a bit short of the mark, others will have you regretting that no one had the forethought to record Don Knotts or JFK reciting the poem in its entirety.

The titles offer a bit of a misnomer. In many instances, it’s not really the performers but their best known characters being aped. While there may not be too great a vocal divide between playwright Wallace Shawn and Vizzini in The Princess Bride, The Dude is not Jeff Bridges, any more than Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp.

The project seems likely to play best with nerdy adolescent boys… which could be good news for teachers looking to get reluctant readers onboard. Show it on the classroom Smart Board, and be prepared to have mini-teach-ins on Katharine Hepburn, Walter Matthau, the late great Robert Shaw, and other big names whose day has passed. Shrek, Gollum, and Harry Potter’s house elf, Dobby, are on hand to keep the references from feeling too moldy.

The specter of Poe gets the coveted final word, a balm to the ears after the triple assault of Christian Bale’s Batman, Mad Max’s Tom Hardy, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. (It may be a matter of taste. You’ll hear no complaint from these quarters with regard to Mickey Mouse, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, or The Simpson’s Krusty the Klown, wonderfully unctuous.)

The breakneck audio patchwork approach doesn’t do much for reading comprehension, but could lead to a lively middle school discussion on what constitutes a successful performance. Who served the text best? Readers?

Furthermore, who’s missing? What voice would you add to the Monsell’s roll call, below?

Morgan Freeman

Kermit the Frog

Johnny Cash

Ringo Starr

David Bowie

Rick Moranis

Gary Oldman

Peter Lorre

Adam Sandler

Don Knotts

William Shatner

George Takei

Michael Dorn

Daffy Duck

Ricky Gervais

Foghorn Leghorn

Liam Neeson

Nicholas Cage

John Travolta

Anthony Hopkins

Rod Serling

Cookie Monster

Jay Baruchel

Jeff Bridges

Johnny Depp

Archer

Dr. Phil

Gollum

Mandy Patinkin

Wallace Shawn

Billy Crystal

Owen Wilson

Dustin Hoffman

Krusty the Klown

Apu

Christian Bale

Michael Caine

Tom Hardy

Heath Ledger

Mickey Mouse

John Wayne

Jerry Seinfeld

Phil Hartman

Goofy

Al Pacino

Marlon Brando

Jack Lemmon

Walter Matthau

Christopher Walken

Rowlf the Dog

John Cleese

Robin Williams

Katharine Hepburn

Woody Allen

Matthew McConaughey

Cowardly Lion

Jimmy Stewart

John C. Reilly

James Mason

Sylvester Stallone

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stewie

Daniel Day Lewis

Maggie Smith

Alan Rickman

Dobby

Jack Nicholson

Christoph Waltz

Bill Murray

Dan Aykroyd

Sean Connery

Bill Cosby

Christopher Lloyd

Droopy Dog

Kevin Spacey

Harrison Ford

Ronald Reagan

JFK

Bill Clinton

Keanu Reeves

Ian McKellen

Paul Giamatti

Sebastian

Stan Lee

Jeff Goldblum

Hugh Grant

Kenneth Branagh

Larry the Cable Guy

Pee-Wee Herman

Shrek

Donkey

Charlton Heston

Michael Keaton

Homer Simpson

Yoda

Willem Dafoe

Bruce Willis

Robert Shaw

Christopher Lee

Edgar Allan Poe

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Smithsonian Design Museum Digitizes 200,000 Objects, Giving You Access to 3,000 Years of Design Innovation & History

John Lennon poster by Richard Avedon

When we think of design, each of us thinks of it in our own way, focusing on our own interests: illustration, fashion, architecture, interfaces, manufacturing, or any of a vast number of sub-disciplines besides. Those of us who have paid a visit to Cooper Hewitt, also known as the Smithsonian Design Museum, have a sense of just how much human innovation, and even human history, that term can encompass. Now, thanks to an ambitious digitization project that has so far put 200,000 items (or 92 percent of the museum's collection) online, you can experience that realization virtually.

Concept car designed by William McBride

The video below explains the system, an impressive feat of design in and of itself, with which Cooper Hewitt made this possible. "In collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the mass digitization project transformed a physical object (2-D or 3-D) from the shelf to a virtual object in one continuous process," says its about page. "At its peak, the project had four photographic set ups in simultaneous operation, allowing each to handle a certain size, range and type of object, from minute buttons to large posters and furniture. A key to the project’s success was having a completely barcoded collection, which dramatically increased efficiency and allowed all object information to be automatically linked to each image."

Given that the items in Cooper Hewitt's collection come from all across a 3000-year slice of history, you'll need an exploration strategy or two. Have a look at the collection highlights page and you'll find curated sections housing the items pictured here, including psychedelic posters, designs for automobiles, architect's eye, and designs for the Olympics — and that's just some of the relatively recent stuff. Hit the random button instead and you may find yourself beholding, in high resolution, anything from a dragonish fragment of a panel ornament from 18th-century France to a late 19th-century collar to a Swedish vase from the 1980s.

Mexico 68 designed by Lance Wyman

Cooper Hewitt has also begun integrating its online and offline experiences, having installed a version of its collection browser on tables in its physical galleries. There visitors can "select items from the 'object river' that flows down the center of each table" about which to learn more, as well as use a "new interactive Pen" that "further enhances the visitor experience with the ability to “collect” and “save” information, as well as create original designs on the tables." So no matter how much time you spend with Cooper Hewitt's online collection — and you could potentially spend a great deal — you might, should you find yourself on Manhattan's Museum Mile, consider stopping into the museum to see how physical and digital design can work together. Enter the Cooper Hewitt's online collection here.

Temple of Curiosity by Etienne-Louis Boullée

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.

Behold the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript: The 15th-Century Text That Linguists & Code-Breakers Can’t Understand

A 600-year-old manuscript—written in a script no one has ever decoded, filled with cryptic illustrations, its origins remaining to this day a mystery…. It’s not as satisfying a plot, say, of a National Treasure or Dan Brown thriller, certainly not as action-packed as pick-your-Indiana Jones…. The Voynich Manuscript, named for the antiquarian who rediscovered it in 1912, has a much more hermetic nature, somewhat like the work of Henry Darger; it presents us with an inscrutably alien world, pieced together from hybridized motifs drawn from its contemporary surroundings.

Voynich is unique for having made up its own alphabet while also seeming to be in conversation with other familiar works of the period, such that it resembles an uncanny doppelganger of many a Medieval text. A comparatively long book at 234 pages, it roughly divides into seven sections, any of which might be found on the shelves of your average 1400s European reader—a fairly small and rarified group. “Over time, Voynich enthusiasts have given each section a conventional name" for its dominant imagery: "botanical, astronomical, cosmological, zodiac, biological, pharmaceutical, and recipes.”

Scholars can only speculate about these categories. The manuscript's origins and intent have baffled cryptologists since at least the 17th century, when, notes Vox, “an alchemist described it as ‘a certain riddle of the Sphinx.’” We can presume, “judging by its illustrations,” writes Reed Johnson at The New Yorker, that Voynich is “a compendium of knowledge related to the natural world." But its “illustrations range from the fanciful (legions of heavy-headed flowers that bear no relation to any earthly variety) to the bizarre (naked and possibly pregnant women, frolicking in what look like amusement-park waterslides from the fifteenth century).”

The manuscript’s “botanical drawings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimerical, combining incompatible parts from different species, even different kingdoms.” These drawings led scholar Nicholas Gibbs, the latest to try and decipher the text, to compare it to the Trotula, a Medieval compilation that “specializes in the diseases and complaints of women,” as he wrote in a Times Literary Supplement article earlier this month. It turns out, according to several Medieval manuscript experts who have studied the Voynich, that Gibbs’ proposed decoding may not actually solve the puzzle.

The degree of doubt should be enough to keep us in suspense, and therein lies the Voynich Manuscript’s enduring appeal—it is a black box, about which we might always ask, as Sarah Zhang does, “What could be so scandalous, so dangerous, or so important to be written in such an uncrackable cipher?” Wilfred Voynich himself asked the same question in 1912, believing the manuscript to be “a work of exceptional importance… the text must be unraveled and the history of the manuscript must be traced.” Though “not an especially glamorous physical object,” Zhang observes, it has nonetheless taken on the aura of a powerful occult charm.

But maybe it’s complete gibberish, a high-concept practical joke concocted by 15th century scribes to troll us in the future, knowing we’d fill in the space of not-knowing with the most fantastically strange speculations. This is a proposition Stephen Bax, another contender for a Voynich solution, finds hardly credible. “Why on earth would anyone waste their time creating a hoax of this kind?,” he asks. Maybe it's a relic from an insular community of magicians who left no other trace of themselves. Surely in the last 300 years every possible import has been suggested, discarded, then picked up again.

Should you care to take a crack at sleuthing out the Voynich mystery—or just to browse through it for curiosity’s sake—you can find the manuscript scanned at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the vellum original. Or flip through the Internet Archive’s digital version above. Another privately-run site contains a history and description of the manuscript and annotations on the illustrations and the script, along with several possible transcriptions of its symbols proposed by scholars. Good luck!

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

Circus Artist Roxana Küwen Will Captivate You with Her Foot Juggling Routine

Roxana Küwen is a German-born circus artist who "likes to take her audience into her world and make them be astonished, confused or amazed by playing with categories and presence." Witness the video above, where Küwen does something quite simple. She puts her feet next to her hands and moves her 20 digits in unison. Familiar body parts are put into strange motion, leaving you feeling charmed. But also a bit disconcerted.

Then Roxana starts her foot juggling routine. It's not the most high velocity, risk-filled juggling act. The balls move slowly and never get more than a few feet off of the ground. There's a strange simplicity to it, though captivating nonetheless. 

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Musician Taryn Southern Is Composing Her New Album with Artificial Intelligence: Hear the First Track

“Break Free” is a new song by Taryn and Amper. The former, Taryn Southern, is a musician and singer popular on Youtube. The latter, however, is not human at all. Instead, Amper is an artificially intelligent music composer, producer and performer, developed by a combination of “music and technology experts” and now put to the test, being the engine behind Taryn’s single and eventually a full album, tentatively called I AM AI.

To understand what is Taryn and what is Amper in this project, the singer talks about it in this Verge interview:

The way it works is to give the platform certain input like BPM, instrumentation that I like, genre, key, etc. The platform will spit a song out at me, and then I can iterate from there, making adjustments to the instruments and the key. I can even change the genre or emotional feel or the song, until I get something that I’m relatively happy with. Once I have that, I download all the stems of the instrumentation to build actual song structure.

What Amper’s really good at is composing and producing instrumentation, but it doesn’t yet understand song structure. It might give you a verse or the chorus and it’s up to me to stitch these pieces together so that it sounds like something familiar you would hear on the radio. Once I’m happy with the song, then I write the vocal melody and lyrics.

The key sentence for cynics is the second to last one. Amper delivers the familiar, or rather, Taryn makes Amper work until she gets something familiar. AI is not at the stage yet where it might surprise us with a decision, except in the cases where it goes spectacularly wrong. Right now it’s very good at learning patterns, at imitating, at delivering a variation on a theme. (That’s why it’s really good at imitation Bach, for example.)

We could imagine, however, a future where AI would be able to take a number of musical elements, styles, and genres and come out with a hybrid that we’ve never heard before. And would that be any better than having a human do so?

By the way, you can try out Amper yourself here. Your mileage may vary.

via Electronic Beats

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Ridley Scott Walks You Through His Favorite Scene from Blade Runner

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The opening Voight-Kampff test that turns explosive, the flight over the high-rise rooftops and past the tower-side video geisha of 2019 Los Angeles, Roy Batty's dying monologue on the rainy rooftop, Deckard picking up Gaff's origami unicorn: like any other movie meriting classic status, Blade Runner less possesses memorable scenes than comprises nothing but memorable scenes. Fans have, of course, argued for their favorites, and if you have one yourself you can now compare your judgment against that of the film's director Ridley Scott, who talks about which Blade Runner scene he holds in highest esteem in the new video from Wired above.

Scott picks the scene when Deckard, Harrison Ford's hunter of the artificial human beings known as replicants, visits the offices of the colossal Tyrell Corporation that invented them and interviews an immaculately put-together young lady, almost a vision out of film noir, named Rachael.

But that's no lady — that's a replicant, at least according to the Voight-Kampff gear he breaks out and sets up for the procedure. "To Rick Deckard, it's just a job," says Scott. "He appears to be oblivious to the beauty and is unimpressed by what he sees. At the end of it, he says, 'How can it now know what it is?' He calls her 'it.' So obviously she's a race apart."

But how to signal that to the audience, showing without telling? Scott speaks of modeling Rachael after Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born star from the golden age of Hollywood "who had a severity which was spectacular." Still working at a time in cinema when "digital doesn't have a word," he wanted a way to differentiate replicants from humans by putting an unusual "light in their eyes" (he references the leopard in the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (who'd also worked on 2011) came up with a camera-mounted half-mirror that would, just often enough, tilt to make a "golden light" reflect off the retinas of Rachael and the other replicants. Scott's verdict: "Genius."

Many of us would say the same about most other aspects of Blade Runner as well. But as with any artistically rich film, nobody, not even the director, has the final say about it. Scott may have an unambiguous attitude about the best part of Blade Runner, but then, he also has an unambiguous answer to the story's central question of whether not just Rachael but Deckard himself is a replicant. Will Denis Villeneuve's soon upcoming sequel Blade Runner 2049 honor, ignore, or work around that answer? More to the point, will it, in the fullness of time, contribute as much to our collective memory as did the original? Only one test, of the kind that happens in the movie theater, will reveal that to us.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.

AC/DC’s “Back in Black” Played on the Gayageum, a Korean Instrument Dating Back to the 6th Century

Every now and again, we check in on what's happening in the musical world of Luna Lee--a musician who performs Western music on the Gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument that dates back to the 6th century. Over the years, we've shown you her adaptations of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile;’ David Bowie's “The Man Who Sold The World;” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah;” blues classics by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King & Muddy Waters; and Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb,” “Another Brick in the Wall” & “Great Gig in the Sky.” To keep the tradition going, we bring you today Luna's take on AC/DC's 1980 classic, "Back in Black." Enjoy these four minutes of metalized Gayageum.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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How a Recording Studio Mishap Created the Famous Drum Sound That Defined 80s Music & Beyond

It’s not a subtle effect, by any means, which is precisely what makes it so effective. Gated reverb, the sound of an airbag deploying or weather balloon suddenly blowing out, an airy thud that pervades eighties pop, and the work of every musician thereafter who has referenced eighties pop, including CHVRCHES, Tegan and Sara, M83, Beyoncé, and Lorde, to name but a very few.

Before them came the pummeling gated drums of Kate Bush, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Depeche Mode, New Order, Cocteau Twins, David Bowie, and Grace Jones, who turned Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” into a strict machine with the gated reverb of her 1980 cover.

Roxy Music caught up quickly with songs like the lovely “More Than This” on 1982’s Avalon, but Jones was an early adopter of the effect, which—like many a legendary piece of studio wizardry—came about entirely by accident, during a 1979 recording session for Peter Gabriel’s eerie solo track “Intruder.”

On the drums—Vox’s Estelle Caswell tells us in the explainer video at the top—was Gabriel’s former Genesis bandmate Phil Collins, and in the control room, recording engineer Hugh Padgham, who had inadvertently left a talkback mic on in the studio.

The mic happened to be running through a heavy compressor, which squashed the sound, and a noise gate that clamped down on the reverberating drums, cutting off the natural decay and creating a short, sharp echo that cut right through any mix. After hearing the sound, Gabriel arranged “Intruder” around it, and the following year, Collins and Padgham created the most iconic use of gated reverb in pop music history on “In the Air Tonight.” “Thanks to a happy accident,” says Caswell, “the sound of the 80s was born.” Also the sound of the oughties and beyond, as you’ll hear in the 38-s0ng playlist above, featuring many of the pioneers of gated reverb and the many earnest revivalists who made it hip, and ubiquitous, again.

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





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