See Ancient Greek Music Accurately Reconstructed for the First Time

Imagine trying to reconstruct the music of the Beatles 2,500 years from now, if nothing survived but a few fragments of the lyrics. Or the operas of Mozart and Verdi if all we had were pieces of the librettos. In a 2013 BBC article, musician and classics professor at Oxford Armand D’Angour used these comparisons to illustrate the difficulty of reconstructing ancient Greek song, a task to which he has set himself for the past five years.

The comparison is not entirely apt. Scholars have long had clues to help them interpret the ancient songs that served as vehicles for Homeric and Sapphic verse or the later drama of Aeschylus, almost all of which was sung with musical accompaniment. In a recent article at The Conversation, D’Angour points out that many literary texts of antiquity “provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used,” the latter including the lyre and the aulos, “two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer.”




But these musical instructions have proved elusive; “the terms and notations found in ancient sources—mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on—are complicated and unfamiliar,” D’Angour writes. Nonetheless, using recreations of ancient instruments, close analysis of poetic meter, and careful interpretation of ancient texts that discuss melody and harmony, he claims to have accurately deciphered the sound of ancient Greek music.

D’Angour has worked to turn the “new revelations about ancient Greek music” that he wrote of five years ago into performances that reconstruct the sound of Euripides and other ancient literary artists. In the video at the top, see a choral and aulos performance of Athanaeus’ “Paean” from 127 BC and Euripides Orestes chorus from 408 BC. D’Angour and his colleagues break in periodically to talk about their methodology.

In the 2017 interview above from the Greek television channel ERT1, D’Angour discusses his research into the music of ancient Greek verse, from epic, to lyric, to tragedy, to comedy, “all of which,” he says, “was sung music, either entirely or partly.” Central to the insights scholars have gained in the past five years are “some very well preserved auloi,” he notes, that “have been reconstructed by expert technicians” and which “provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.”

Determining tempo can be tricky, as it can with any music composed before “the invention of mechanical chronometers,” when “tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances.” Here, he relies on poetic meter, which gives indications through the patterns of long and short syllables. “It remains for me to realize,” D’Angour writes, “in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete drama with historically informed music in an ancient theater such as that of Epidaurus.” We’ll be sure to bring you video of that extraordinary event.

via The Conversation

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

See Albert Camus’ Historic Lecture, “The Human Crisis,” Performed by Actor Viggo Mortensen

Back in 2016, New York City staged a month-long festival celebrating Albert Camus' historic visit to NYC in 1946. One event in the festival featured actor Viggo Mortensen giving a reading of Camus' lecture,“La Crise de l’homme” ("The Human Crisis") at Columbia University--the very same place where Camus delivered the lecture 70 years earlier--down to the very day (March 28, 1946). The reading was initially captured on a cell phone, and broadcast live using Facebook live video. But then came a more polished recording, courtesy of Columbia's Maison Française. Note that Mortensen takes the stage around the 11:45 mark.

"The Human Crisis" will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free. You can download major works by Camus as free audiobooks if you sign up for a 30-Day Free Trial with Audible.com. Find more information on that program here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in April, 2016.

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The “Weird Objects” in the New York Public Library’s Collections: Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Letter Opener, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf took her final walk, into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. She did it with her trusty cane in hand, the very cane you can see laid out alongside other Woolf-related artifacts in the New Yorker video above. Its five minutes provide a short introduction to the "weird objects" of the New York Public Library's Berg Collection, an archive containing, in the words of the New Yorker's Gareth Smit, "roughly two thousand linear feet of manuscripts and archival materials" donated in 1940 by the brothers Henry W. and Albert A. Berg, doctors who were also "avid collectors of English and American literature — and of literary paraphernalia."

The NYPL labels as "realia" such non-paper items as  Woolf's cane as well as "Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; trinkets belonging to Jack Kerouac, including his harmonicas, and a card upon which he wrote 'blood' in his own blood; typewriters belonging to S. J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glasses; Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings; and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings." We've previously featured Nabokov-drawn butterflies here on Open Culture, as well the letter opener seen in the video that Charles Dickens had made from the foot of his beloved cat Bob.

All this may sound on the grim side, but these objects bring their beholders that much closer to the long-passed literary figures who once possessed them. "If you are looking at, say, Jack Kerouac's lighter or his boots, you're seeing the man, in a sense," the NYPL's director of exhibitions Declan Kiely says in the video. "What you're trying to get closest to is the creative spirit at work, and I think that's why these objects are so evocative." Though visitors to the Berg Collection can only do so by appointment, the library, as Kiely told Smit, "does intend to have an exhibition to present these and other treasures in the Gottesman Hall by 2020." Something to look forward to for anyone who yearns to approach the creative spirit — and who among us doesn't?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

orwell huxley

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”




Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley's seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like "enhanced interrogation" and "surgical drone strikes."

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note

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

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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 badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Hunter S. Thompson Sends a Letter to the Indianapolis Colts, Urging Them to Pick Ryan Leaf Over That “Peyton Manning Kid” (1998)

The 1998 NFL draft was a memorable one. A debate raged around whether the Indianapolis Colts should use their first round pick to select Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning. Everyone had an opinion about these two quarterbacks, including Hunter S. Thompson. The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell's Angels sent a letter to Colts owner Jim Irsay, urging him to select the highly-touted Leaf.

Dear James,

In response to yr addled request for a quick $30M loan to secure the services of the Manning kid — I have to say No, (sic) at this time

But the Leaf boy is another matter. He looks strong & Manning doesn’t — or at least not strong enough to handle that “Welcome to the NFL” business for two years without a world-class offensive line.

How are you fixed at left OT for the next few years, James? Think about it. You don’t want a china (sic) doll back there when that freak [Warren] Sapp comes crashing in.

Okay. Let me know if you need some money for Leaf. I expect to be very rich when this [Johnny] depp (sic) movie comes out.

Yr. faithful consultant,

HUNTER

Twenty years later, we know how things played out. The Colts ultimately picked Manning, who became one of the most productive and celebrated quarterbacks ever. As for Leaf, he played four seasons and exited the sport, considered by some the No. 1 "draft bust" in NFL history. But he's certainly a good sport. Leaf posted Thompson's letter (above) on his Twitter stream last month

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An Asbestos-Bound, Fireproof Edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Even by the extreme standards of dystopian fiction, the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 can seem a little absurd. Firemen whose job is to set fires? A society that bans all books? Written less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, which announced its evil intentions with book burnings, the novel explicitly evokes the kind of totalitarianism that seeks to destroy culture—and whole peoples—with fire. But not even the Nazis banned all books. Not a few academics and writers survived or thrived in Nazi Germany by hewing to the ideological orthodoxy (or at least not challenging it), which, for all its terrifying irrationalism, kept up some semblance of an intellectual veneer.

The novel also recalls the Soviet variety of state repression. But the Party apparatus also allowed a publishing industry to operate, under its strict constraints. Nonetheless, Soviet censorship is legendary, as is the survival of banned literature through self-publishing and memorization, vividly represented by the famous line in Mikhail Bulgokov’s The Master and Margarita, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”




Bulgakov, writes Nathaniel Rich at Guernica, is saying that “great literature… is fireproof. It survives its critics, its censors, and even the passage of time.” Bulgakov wrote from painful experience. When his diary was discovered by the NKVD in 1929, then returned to him, he “promptly burned it.” Sometime afterward, during the long composition of his posthumously published novel, he burned the manuscript, then later reconstructed it from memory.

These examples bring to mind the exiled intellectuals in Bradbury’s novel, who have memorized whole books in order to one day reconstruct literary culture. Europe’s totalitarian regimes provide essential background for the novel’s plot and imagery, but its key context, Bradbury himself noted in a 1956 radio interview, was the anti-Communist paranoia of the U.S. in the early 1950s. “Too many people were afraid of their shadows,” he said, “there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time.” Reading the novel as a chilling vision of a future when all books are banned and burned makes the artifact pictured above particularly poignant—an edition of Fahrenheit 451 bound in fireproof asbestos.

Released in 1953 by Ballantine in a limited run of two-hundred signed copies, the books were “bound in Johns-Manville Qinterra,” notes Lauren Davis at io9, “a chrysolite asbestos material.” Now the fireproof covers, with their “exceptional resistance to pyrolysis,” are “much sought after by collectors” and go for upwards of $20,000. A fireproof Fahrenheit 451, on the one hand, can seem a little gimmicky (its pages still burn, after all). But it’s also the perfect manifestation of a literal interpretation of the novel as a story about banning and book burning. All of us who have read the novel have likely read it this way, as a vision of a repressive totalitarian nightmare. As such, it feels like a product of mid-twentieth century fears.

Rather than fearing mass book burnings, we seem, in the 21st century, on the verge of being washed away in a sea of information (and dis- and mis-information). We are inundated with writing—in print and online—such that some of us despair of ever finding time to read the accumulating piles of books and articles that daily surround us, physically and virtually. But although books are still published in the millions, with sales rising, falling, then rising again, the number of people who actually read seems in danger of rapidly diminishing. And this, Bradbury also said, was his real fear. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he claimed, “just get people to stop reading them.”

We’ve misread Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury told us in his later years. It is an allegory, a symbolic representation of a grossly dumbed-down society, hugely oppressive and destructive in its own way. The firemen are not literal government agents but symbolic of the forces of mass distraction, which disseminate "factoids," lies, and half-truths as substitutes for knowledge. The novel, he said, is actually about people “being turned into morons by TV.” Add to this the proliferating amusements of the online world, video games, etc. and we can see Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 not as a dated representation of 40s fascism or 50s repression, but as a too-relevant warning to a distractible society that devalues and destroys education and factual knowledge even as we have more access than ever to literature of every kind.

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

Who Was Joan Vollmer, the Wife William Burroughs Allegedly Shot While Playing William Tell?

Popular culture knows William S. Burroughs primarily for three of the things he did in life: using drugs, writing Naked Lunch, and killing his wife. If popular culture remembers that wife, Joan Vollmer, it mostly remembers her for the manner of her death: shot, they say, as a result of Burroughs' drunken imitation of William Tell. But in life she played an important role in the intellectual development of not just Burroughs but other major Beat writers as well, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As Brenda Knight writes in Women of the Beat Generation, Vollmer "was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse."

When her first husband Paul Adams was drafted into World War II, Vollmer moved in with her fellow future woman of the Beat Generation, and future wife of Jack Kerouac, Edie Parker. Into their series of Upper West Side apartments came a wide variety of substance-abusing artists, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg included. Vollmer's new coterie, as well as her own amphetamine addiction, so appalled Adams that he left her upon his return from the military. She took up with Burroughs in 1946, later becoming his common-law wife and the mother of their child, William Burroughs, Jr.. In seemingly constant flight from the law, they moved from New York to Texas to New Orleans to Mexico City, where the fateful game of William Tell would happen in 1951.




But did that game of William Tell happen? History has recorded that Vollmer did indeed die by gunshot, but as to exactly how or why it happened, nobody quite knows. Hence the investigations that academics, Beat Generation enthusiasts, and others have conducted since. The Burroughs-themed site RealityStudio has one page on Burroughs and the William Tell Legend and another gathering documents on the death of Joan Vollmer. You can get further in depth by reading "The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?", a 70-page research paper by James Grauerholz, Burroughs' biographer and the executor of his literary estate.

Despite his considerable interest in Burroughs, Grauerholz doesn't show an outsized interest in absolving the writer of his crime. But he does know more than enough to cast doubt on, or at least add nuance to, the simple story everyone "knows." Burroughs himself, though he gave contradictory accounts of the event at different times, never denied shooting Vollmer. He did, however, blame a kind of demonic possession for it: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death,"  he wrote in the introduction to a 1985 edition of his novel Queer. "I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control."

Vollmer's death, in Burroughs' view, "brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out." Sound like self-justification though that may, the fact remains that Burroughs' life freighted him with plenty of conditions to write his way out of. It also went on for 46 years after the end of Vollmer's which, though short, saw her become, as Knight writes, "the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

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