Why Route 66 Became America’s Most Famous Road

Most Americans know Route 66, but sometimes it seems like non-Americans know it better. I happen to be an American living outside America myself, and whenever conversations turn to the subject of road trips in my homeland, it's only a matter of time before I hear the usual question: "Have you driven Route 66?" Originally commissioned in 1926, the 2,448-mile road from Chicago to Santa Monica enjoyed about three decades of primacy before its eclipse by the Interstate Highway System. Quaint though Route 66 may now seem compared to that vast postwar infrastructural project, it somehow hasn't quite let go of its hold on the American imagination, and even less so the world's imagination about America.

"Route 66 has been in the shadows twice as long as it was in the spotlight," says Vox's Phil Edwards, "but there's still this energy around it." In the video "Why Route 66 Became America's Most Famous Road," Edwards does the iconic road trip himself, and along the way tells the story behind what John Steinbeck called "the mother road, the road of flight."

This naturally involves an abundance of both cinematically empty landscapes, flamboyantly unhealthy cuisine, and richly kitschy Americana, the kind of thing featured in Atlas Obscura's robust Route 66 category. Edwards visits colossal cowboy statues, the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum ("horses must be dead to be considered"), and a roadhouse where, if you "eat 72 ounces of steak and sides in under an hour, you get it for free" — and those are just in Texas.

Route 66 can't but appeal to American history buffs, but in recent decades it has also attracted connoisseurs of desolation. Originally shaped by a variety of lobbying interests, including an especially vigorous promoter of Tulsa, Oklahoma named Cyrus Avery, the "Main Street of America" turned many of the hamlets along its path into, if not destinations, then places worth spending the night. Fascinating artifacts remain of Route 66's vibrant midcentury "motel culture," but not even the most America-besotted visitors from foreign lands could overlook how thoroughly history seems to have passed most of these places by. I saw this first-hand myself when I drove across the United States on Interstate 40, the continent-spanning freeway that follows Route 66 in places and certainly hastened its demise. You can see it and much else on Route 66 besides in the "aerial documentary" above.

Edwards' interviewees include denizens of Route 66 making a go of reversing the decline of this 34-years-decommissioned road, such as the proprietor of the Motel Safari, a veritable 1950s time-capsule in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He also talks to the editor of Route 66 News, an elderly Texan lady with a thing for dinosaurs, a modern-day Cyrus Avery looking to promote the glories of Route 66's Oklahoma stretch, and Route 66 road-trippers of various ages and nationalities, including a guy who actually ate that 72-ounce steak within an hour. "There was dessert as far as the eye can see," says one still-marveling young European. He almost surely meant desert, but as far as the charms of America's open roads go, both interpretations are equally true.

Related Content:

If You Drive Down a Stretch of Route 66, the Road Will Play “America the Beautiful”

12 Classic Literary Road Trips in One Handy Interactive Map

Four Interactive Maps Immortalize the Road Trips That Inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road Turned Into Google Driving Directions & Published as a Free eBook

Download Digitized Copies of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civil Rights Guide to Traveling Safely in the U.S. (1936-66)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Dave Brubeck’s Time Out Changed Jazz Music

Music video essay maestro Polyphonic is back. What I dig about his videos is that he takes on some of the true warhorses of modern popular music and manages to find something new to say. Or at least he presents familiar stories in a new and modern way to an audience who may be hearing ELO, Queen, or Neil Young for the first time.

His latest upload explores Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking jazz album Time Out. This is an album that regularly tops best-of lists, gets reissued constantly, and is so ubiquitous in some circles that it’s hard, like Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, to hear the album with fresh ears.

Polyphonic touches on something right at the beginning of the video that deserves a full video essay of its own--the State Department’s mission to send American jazz musicians around the world as cultural ambassadors. This is a part of history that has receded from memory, but had a major influence not just on Brubeck, but so many records at that time. Brubeck joined Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie on a musical tour that reached many countries behind the Iron Curtain, and were able to critique America’s racist history while also promoting its musical culture. (There’s a fine PBS documentary on the mission available here, if your region supports the video.)

But for the purposes of this video essay, and regarding Brubeck’s career, it was the polyrhythms and folk music that he heard while traveling through countries like Turkey (from which he developed “Blue Rondo a la Turk”) that remained with him on his return.

Time Out was Brubeck’s fourteenth album for Columbia Records, but his breakthrough. Up to that point he and his quartet had released a number of live albums recorded at colleges (which promoted a safe but hip studious kind of jazz) and several albums of jazz covers, such as Dave Digs Disney. But Time Out was a fully formed concept album of sorts: an exploration into time signatures that jazz hadn’t really touched yet.

As Polyphonic points out, Joe Morello, Brubeck’s drummer, was indeed well versed in complicated time signatures from his classical background as a violinist. It was Morello who experimented with a groove in 5/4 time that became the backbone of “Take Five.” Brubeck knew a good thing when he heard it and gives Morello one of the best solos of the entire LP.

Best of all, Time Out is one those classic albums because of how it mixes the experimental with the commercial, a hard feat in any era, but even more impressive in that best of all jazz years, 1959. (Brubeck continued to explore time signatures on this album’s sequel Time Further Out, which is also recommended).

Related Content:

Pakistani Musicians Play an Enchanting Version of Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Classic, “Take Five”

Louis Armstrong Plays Historic Cold War Concerts in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Remembering Jazz Legend Dave Brubeck (RIP) with a Very Touching Musical Moment

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Mister Rogers Demonstrates How to Cut a Record

When I was a little boy, I thought the greatest thing in the world would be to be able to make records. — Fred Rogers

By 1972, when the above episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired, host Fred Rogers had already cut four records, including the hit-filled A Place of Our Own.

But a childlike curiosity compelled him to explore on camera how a virgin disc could become that most wondrous thing—a record.

So he borrowed a “special machine”—a Rek-O-Kut M12S overhead with an Audax mono head, for those keeping score at home—so he could show his friends, on camera, “how one makes records.”

This technology was already in decline, ousted by the vastly more portable home cassette recorder, but the record cutter held far more visual interest, yielding hair-like remnants that also became objects of fascination to Mister Rogers.

What we wouldn’t give to stumble across one of those machines and a stash of blank discs in a thrift store...

Wait, scratch that, imagine running across the actual platter Rogers cut that day!

Though we’d be remiss if we failed to mention that a member of The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, a forum devoted to “record-cutting deviants, renegades, professionals & experimenters,” claims to have had an aunt who worked on the show, and according to her, the "reproduction" was faked in post.

(“It sounded like they recorded the repro on like an old Stenorette rim drive reel to reel or something and then piped that back in,” another commenter promptly responds.)

The Trolls’ episode discussion offers a lot of vintage audio nerd nitty gritty, as well as an interesting history of the one-off self-recoded disc craze.

The mid-century general public could go to a coin-operated portable sound booth to record a track or two. Spoken word messages were popular, though singers and bands also took the opportunity to lay down some grooves.

Radio stations and recording studios also kept machines similar to the one Rogers is seen using. Sun Records’ secretary, Marion Keisker, operated the cutting lathe the day an unknown named Elvis Presley showed up to cut a lacquered disc for a fee of $3.25.

The rest is history.

More recently, The ShinsThe Kills, and Seasick Steve, below, recorded live direct-to-acetate records on a modified 1953 Scully Lathe at Nashville's Third Man Records.

(Legend has it that James Brown's "It's A Man's World" was cut on that same lathe… Cut a hit of your own during a tour of Third Man's direct-to-acetate recording facilities.)

via @wfmu

Related Content:

How Old School Records Were Made, From Start to Finish: A 1937 Video Featuring Duke Ellington

Watch a Needle Ride Through LP Record Grooves Under an Electron Microscope

How Vinyl Records Are Made: A Primer from 1956

An Interactive Map of Every Record Shop in the World

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine, current issue the just-released #60.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insomniac in a morning person’s world, I wince at sleep news, especially from Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, Berkeley professor, and author of Why We Sleep. Something of a “sleep evangelist,” as Berkeley News calls him (he prefers "sleep diplomat"), Walker has taken his message on the road—or the 21st century equivalent: the TED Talk stages and animated explainer videos.

One such video has Walker saying that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mortally unwise advice… short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Or as he elaborates in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”

Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he's got the evidence and wants to scare us straight. It's a psychological tactic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” sermons, there’s good news: sleep, when harnessed properly (yes, somewhere in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “superpower." Sleep does “wonderfully good things… for your brain and for your body,” boosting memory, concentration, and immunity, just for starters.

But back to the bad....

In the Tech Insider video above, Walker delivers the grim facts. As he frequently points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep deprivation is a serious epidemic—brought on by a complex of socio-economic-politico-technological factors you can probably imagine. See Walker’s comparisons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage system) animated, and learn about how lack of sleep contributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numerous forms of cancer. (The World Health Organization has recently “classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health science so unambiguous. If nutritionists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we'd take it is another question. Learn more about the multiple, and sometimes fatal, consequences of sleep deprivation in the animated TED-Ed video above.

Related Content:

Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

10 Hours of Ambient Arctic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Meditate, Study & Sleep

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

Marilyn Monroe Recounts Her Harrowing Experience in a Psychiatric Ward (1961)

By the end of 1960, Marilyn Monroe was coming apart.

She spent much of that year shooting what would be her final completed movie – The Misfits (see a still from the trailer above). Arthur Miller penned the film, which is about a beautiful, fragile woman who falls in love with a much older man. The script was pretty clearly based on his own troubled marriage with Monroe. The production was by all accounts spectacularly punishing. Shot in the deserts of Nevada, the temperature on set would regularly climb north of 100 degrees. Director John Huston spent much of the shoot ragingly drunk. Star Clark Gable dropped dead from a heart attack less than a week after production wrapped. And Monroe watched as her husband, who was on set, fell in love with photographer Inge Morath. Never one blessed with confidence or a thick skin, Monroe retreated into a daze of prescription drugs. Monroe and Miller announced their divorce on November 11, 1960.

A few months later, the emotionally exhausted movie star was committed by her psychoanalyst Dr. Marianne Kris to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. Monroe thought she was going in for a rest cure. Instead, she was escorted to a padded cell. The four days she spent in the psych ward proved to be among the most distressing of her life.

In a riveting 6-page letter to her other shrink, Dr. Ralph Greenson, written soon after her release, she detailed her terrifying experience.

There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney -- it had a very bad effect -- they asked me after putting me in a "cell" (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn't committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn't happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows -- the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: "Well, I'd have to be nuts if I like it here.”

Monroe quickly became desperate.

I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it's a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called "Don't Bother to Knock". I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life -- against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass - so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them "If you are going to treat me like a nut I'll act like a nut". I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn't let me out I would harm myself -- the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I'm an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself. I'm just that vain.

During her four days there, she was subjected to forced baths and a complete loss of privacy and personal freedom. The more she sobbed and resisted, the more the doctors there thought she might actually be psychotic. Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, rescued her by getting her released early, over the objections of the staff.

You can read the full letter (where she also talks about reading the letters of Sigmund Freud) over at Letters of Note. And while there, make sure you pick up a copy of the very elegant Letters of Note book.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in August 2015.

Related Content:

The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

Marilyn Monroe Reads Joyce’s Ulysses at the Playground (1955)

Marilyn Monroe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

Marilyn Monroe Explains Relativity to Albert Einstein (in a Nicolas Roeg Movie)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Where Zombies Come From: A Video Essay on the Origin of the Horrifying, Satirical Monsters

Will zombies ever die? To zombie enthusiasts, of course, that question makes no sense: zombies are already dead, drained of life and reanimated by some magical, biological, or even technological force. Most of us have never known a world without zombies, in the sense of zombies as a presence in film, television, literature, and video games. In the video essay "Where Zombies Come From," video essayist Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, goes back to the dawn of these dead figures to pinpoint the origin of this robust "modern myth."

The first mention of zombies appears in 1929's The Magic Island, a book on Haiti by "journalist, occultist, and generally eccentric minor celebrity" William Seabrook. "The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life — it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive."

That 90-year-old description may sound more or less like the zombies that continue to scare and amuse us today, but the modern image of the zombie didn't emerge fully formed; 1932's Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie, the very first zombie film, may not strike us today as fully representative of the genre it founded.

But "in 1968 everything changed." That year, the young filmmaker George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (watch it online) laid down the rules for zombies: they "devour living human beings. They hobble forward awkwardly but relentlessly. They're dumb, able to use objects as blunt-force instruments but nothing else. They can only be killed by being shot in the head or burned, and if one bites or scratches you, you'll die not long after, then transform into one and pursue whomever is nearby, family or not." To Puschak's mind, the film holds up not just as a zombie movie, but as a movie: "In its neorealist, black-and-white style, it is a smart, tightly crafted story made on a shoestring budget with a third act that is absolutely brutal and punishing even now, 50 years later."

Night of the Living Dead didn't call its zombies zombies, but its sequel, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, put the label of zombie on not just them but us: "The film, which takes place almost entirely in a mall, uses zombies to critique consumerism: as the zombies lumber through this familiar place, we see our own behavior as a grotesque reflection. A zombie's thoughtlessness, Romero understood, is the perfect mirror for our own." Dawn of the Dead bolstered the potential of zombies not just as as "creative, primal monsters," but as satirical devices, and the finest zombie movies know how to use them as both at once. (So far I've seen that balance no more impressively struck than in a Korean zombie movie, Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan.)

Over the past half-century, post-Night of the Living Dead zombie stories have made all manner of tweaks on and variations to the standard zombie formula. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, for example, popularized the fast-moving zombie, and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead pioneered the full-on zombie comedy. Most recently, no less astute an observer of American culture and re-animator of seemingly dead cinematic tropes than Jim Jarmusch has offered us his own entry into the zombie canon, The Dead Don't Die. Jarmuschian zombies shamble compulsively toward that which they desired in life: coffee, wi-fi, chardonnay, Xanax. As long as we can still see these ourselves in these both funny and terrifying creatures, the zombie apocalypse will always seem dead ahead.

Related Content:

Watch Night of the Living Dead, the Seminal Zombie Movie, Free Online

How to Survive the Coming Zombie Apocalypse: An Online Course by Michigan State

Decay: Zombies Invade the Large Hadron Collider in Movie Made by Ph.D. Students

Martin Scorsese Creates a List of the 11 Scariest Horror Films

What Makes a Good Horror Movie? The Answer Revealed with a Journey Through Classic Horror Films Clips

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders: A Tokyo Restaurant Where All the Servers Are People Living with Dementia

If you've ever been to Japan, you'll know that in Japanese restaurants, mistakes are not made. And on the off chance that a mistake is made, even a trivial one, the lengths that proprietors will go to make things right with their customers must, in the eyes of a Westerner, be seen to be believed. But as its name suggests, the Tokyo pop-up Restaurant of Mistaken Orders does things a bit differently. "You might think it's crazy. A restaurant that can't even get your order right," says its English introduction page. "All of our servers are people living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right."

Un-Japanese though that concept may seem at first, it actually reflects realities of Japanese society in the 21st century: Japan has an aging population with an already high proportion of elderly people, and that puts it on track to have the fastest growing number of prevalent cases of Alzheimer's Disease.

Whole towns have already begun to structure their services around a growing number of citizens with dementia. But dementia itself remains "widely misunderstood," says Restaurant of Mistaken Orders producer Shiro Oguni in the "concept movie" at the top of the post. "People believe you can't do anything for yourself, and the condition will often mean isolation from society. We want to change society to become more easy-going so, dementia or no dementia, we can live together in harmony."

You can see more of the Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in last year's "report movie" just above, which shows its team of servers with dementia in action. Some shown are in middle age, some are in their tenth decade of life, but all seem to have a knack for building rapport with their customers — a skill that anyone who has ever worked front-of-the-house in a restaurant will agree is essential, especially when mistakes happen. We see them deliver orders both correct and incorrect, but the diners seem to enjoy the experience either way: "37% of our orders were mistaken," the restaurant reports, "but 99% of our customers said they were happy." This contains another truth about Japanese food culture that anyone who has eaten in Japan will acknowledge: whatever you order, the chance of its being delicious is approximately 100%.

via Kottke

Related Content;

The French Village Designed to Promote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visual Introduction to the Pioneering Experiment

In Touching Video, People with Alzheimer’s Tell Us Which Memories They Never Want to Forget

How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Dementia Patients Find Some Eternal Youth in the Sounds of AC/DC

In Japanese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learning As It’s About Eating

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

See How Zildjian Cymbals Are Made In a Fascinating 10-Minute Short Film

In terms of brand recognition, one has to admit it is remarkable that the name Zildjian—stamped on millions of cymbals worldwide—has such wide cultural currency. The product this company makes is not one most people get very close to outside of a drum kit in a grade school music room. You never see Zildjian advertisements, unless you are a musician, and you won’t encounter a Zildjian cymbal at your local all-in-one big box store. Yet Zildjian cymbals might even be more famous than iconic brands of electric guitars like Fender and Gibson or amps like Marshall and Vox.

Why is that? It’s easy, the company was founded 400 years ago in Constantinople and has remained in the Zildjian family since an alchemist named Avedis was given the surname by Sultan Osman II in the early 17th century. In all that time, Mozart praised Zildjians (then just called “Turkish cymbals”), they appeared at London’s Great Exhibition, and they have been essential to the kits of jazz and rock drummers for as long as both genres have existed. It will never be possible to buy this kind of publicity.

How has Zildjian, who incorporated in the U.S. in 1929, stayed in business so long and continued to maintain such a reputation for quality? It’s all down, they say, to a secret recipe, passed down from generation to generation, descended from Avedis himself, whose name graces the Avedis Varteresian Melting Room, where Zildjian castings are made. You can watch what happens to those castings in the fascinating 10-minute video above. “Only 4 factory employees and the owners of the company are allowed inside” the Melting Room, notes the video’s YouTube page, “due to their knowledge of the ‘Zildjian Secret.’”

We do not learn the secret recipe, nor do we learn how a trade secret can be kept for 400 years, but we do see Zildjians heated, rolled out, shaped, cut, hammered, lathed, finished, and, finally, “stamped with the Zildjian Logo as well as the model/size of the cymbal.” It’s generally pretty cool to watch unremarkable, everyday products go through the many stages of a factory production process. Watching the Zildjian process adds a layer of historical legend and intrigue, and the allure of seeing raw materials transformed into objects of visual and aural beauty.

See Zildjian’s YouTube page for a timestamped commentary on each step in the production.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

How Zildjian Cymbals Were Created by an Alchemist in the Ottoman Empire, Circa 1618

Visit an Online Collection of 61,761 Musical Instruments from Across the World

The Neuroscience of Drumming: Researchers Discover the Secrets of Drumming & The Human Brain

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

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue at 60: A New Video Essay Celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Iconic Album

As Josh Jones observed yesterday, Miles Davis' legendary jazz album Kind of Blue turns 60 this week. Today, we want to keep the party going a little longer and feature this video essay from Sweetwater. They write:

In 1959, Miles Davis went to Columbia Records in Manhattan to forge a new style of music improvisation. With the company of other legendary musicians, like John Coltrane and Bill Evans, Kind of Blue was recorded; the greatest selling jazz album of all time. Miles chose to take an interpretive dance approach to improvisation, developing ideas and using space to create his unique style. This new style of modal jazz pushed musicians to express themselves through melodic creativity. Take a look into the history and music theory of Kind of Blue with Sweetwater's Jacob Dupre (piano/trumpet), accompanied by Michael Patterson (bass) and Sean Parr (drums). Karl Stabnau (alto sax) performs the solo on "Blues For Alice," as played by Charlie Parker.

For a more in-depth study of the timeless album, read Ashley Kahn's well-reviewed book, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Related Content:

Miles Davis Iconic 1959 Album Kind of Blue Turns 60: Revisit the Album That Changed American Music

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz

Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

Herbie Hancock Explains the Big Lesson He Learned From Miles Davis: Every Mistake in Music, as in Life, Is an Opportunity

The Influence of Miles Davis Revealed with Data Visualization: For His 90th Birthday Today

Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music: An Interactive, Encyclopedic Data Visualization of 120 Years of Electronic Music

In a very short span of time, the descriptor “electronic music” has come to sound as overly broad as “classical.” But where what we (often incorrectly) call classical developed over hundreds of years, electronic music proliferated into hundreds of fractal forms in only decades. A far steeper quality curve may have to do with the ease of its creation, but it’s also a factor of this accelerated evolution.

Music made by machines has transformed since its early 20th-century beginnings from obscure avant-garde experiments to massively popular genres of global dance and pop. This proliferation, notes Ishkur—designer of Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music—hasn't always been to the good. Take what he calls “trendwhoring,” a phenomenon that spawns dozens of new works and subgenera in short order, though it’s arguable whether many of them should exist.

Ishkur, describes this process below in an excerpt from his erudite, sardonic “Frequently Unasked Questions”:

If fart noises were suddenly popular, each scene would trendwhore it with fartstep, fartcore, techfart, farthouse, fart trance, etc. It is especially noticeable in classic tracks that are remixed into modern genres, which some might consider sacreligious. A good example is the Dream Trance hit Robert Miles - Children, in which there is now a Hardstyle version, a Dutch House version, a McProg version, a Eurotrance version, a Goa Trance version, and even a Snap version and a shitty Brostep version. None of these genres existed when the original song came out in 1995.

Viciously irreverent tone and completist attention to detail are typical throughout this encyclopedia, an interactive Flash flowchart that chronicles the development of 100s of genres, subgenres, microgenres, etc., with streaming musical examples of every one. It’s a deeply researched, and continually expanding project first created by Ishkur, aka Kenneth John Taylor, in 1999. In 2003, Taylor updated and expanded the project and moved it to its current location. He has continuously updated it since then.

The recorded examples on Taylor’s timeline currently span around 80 years, from 1937 to 2019—a tiny drop in the great ocean of musical history. Nonetheless, the music shows how rich and complex electronic music history truly is, despite its potential—as its developmental speed (and tempos) increased—to produce disposable, derivative compositions as much as chart-burning classics and innovative, mind-expanding creative work.

As you zoom into the chart and click on the dots next to each genre, you’ll have the option to pull up Taylor’s witty guides, as informative as they are unsparingly critical. He explains “Chill Out,” for example, as a grab-bag term for electronic easy listening that “goes down easy like a fresh glass of cool lemonade or lightly sprinkled vanilla sundae…. Not only did it appeal to post-comedown party kids but their moms too, as heard in movie soundtracks, advertisement jingles, or played over the radio while shopping at the market.”

Does he approve of any forms of electronic music? Obviously. No one would spend this much time and effort and amass “30 years of back issues of Electronic Music and Keyboard magazine” and “an ungodly number of books” on a subject they despised. It’s just that he’s… well, a purist, you might say. Any media, for example, of any kind, that “uses the acronym ‘EDM,’” he writes “is complete donkey balls and should not be relied on as a source for anything.” He's also ambitiously comprehensive, including Hip Hop and all of its variants in the mix, a move most historians of electronic music do not make, for fear of getting it wrong, perhaps, or because of cultural biases and narrow ideas about what electronic music is.

The data visualization crossed with extensive pop musicology crossed with an almost quaint kind of ultra-nerdy online snark has something for everyone. But don’t call it art, as one interviewer did. “I feel uneasy about this,” Ishkur answered. “It’s a joke more than anything. Very funny. Very silly. I poke fun at a lot of genres. It’s meant to be entertainment.” This is the standard internet disclaimer, but if you follow the guide’s branching streams through hundreds of expanding genres and scenes, you might just find you’ve become a serious student of electronic music yourself, while learning not to take any of it too seriously.

Ishkur's guide has recently been updated for 2019. He's also released a "15 hour DJ set of electronic music," he announced on Twitter, "spanning several eras and a wide range of genres, all mixed in that inimitable Ishkur style." Get the mix here.

Related Content:

The History of Electronic Music in 476 Tracks (1937-2001)

Hear Seven Hours of Women Making Electronic Music (1938-2014)

Pioneering Electronic Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen Presents “Four Criteria of Electronic Music” & Other Lectures in English (1972)

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

  • Great Lectures



    Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.


  • About Us

    Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.

    Advertise With Us

  • Archives

  • Quantcast