Finding Meaning in Music: A Short Documentary on How a Young Tech Pioneer, Confronting His Mortality, Prepared for His Final Violin Performance

The doctor breaks the news. You have terminal cancer, and you might have only a few months to live. How would you spend those final days? That's a question that Eric Sun had to confront when doctors told him he had a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2016. Only 32 years old, Sun had studied computer science and economics at Stanford, then went to work at Facebook in 2008. Everything was on track. Until it wasn't. Then big decisions had to be made.

Last month, the New Yorker published a poignant profile on Sun, documenting how, facing mortality, he found refuge--and maybe some kind of deeper meaning--in music. The related video above, "Finding Meaning in Music," lets you see Sun returning to his lifelong passion--playing violin--and getting ready for his final performance. In the end, it's art that nourishes the soul.

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Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Played With 167 Theremins Placed Inside Matryoshka Dolls in Japan

Back in 2011, in Tokyo, 167 musicians performed some classic Beethoven with the "Matryomin," a new-fangled instrument that lodges a theremin inside a matryoshka. A matryoshka, of course, is one of those Russian nested dolls where you find wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. As for the theremin, it's a century-old electronic musical instrument that requires no physical contact from the player. You can watch its inventor, Leon Theremin, give it a demo in the vintage video below. Or via these links you can see the Matryomin Ensemble performing versions of Amazing Grace and Memory of Russia. Enjoy.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on Open Culture in July, 2013. It's like the Olympics. It comes back once every four years.

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Ian McKellen Chokes Up While Reading a Poignant Coming-Out Letter

"In 1977, Armistead Maupin wrote a letter to his parents that he had been composing for half his life," writes the Guardian's Tim Adams. "He addressed it directly to his mother, but rather than send it to her, he published it in the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper in which he had made his name with his loosely fictionalised Tales of the City, the daily serial written from the alternative, gay world in which he lived." The late 1970s saw a final flowering of newspaper-serialized novels, the same form in which Charles Dickens had grown famous nearly a century and a half before. But of all the zeitgeisty stories then told a day at a time in urban centers across America, none has had anything like the lasting impact of San Francisco as envisioned by Maupin.

Much of Tales of the City's now-acknowledged importance comes from the manner in which Maupin populated that San Francisco with a sexually diverse cast of characters — gay, straight, and everything in between — and presented their lives without moral judgment.




He saved his condemnation for the likes of Anita Bryant, the singer and Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman who inspired Maupin to write that veiled letter to his own parents when she headed up the anti-homosexual "Save Our Children" political campaign. When Michael Tolliver, one of the series' main gay characters, discovers that his folks back in Florida have thrown in their lot with Bryant, he responds with an eloquent and long-delayed coming-out that begins thus:

Dear Mama,

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I realize I'm not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I'm foolish to write this letter. I hope they're wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope especially that you'll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn't have written, I guess, if you hadn't told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant.

I'm sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief — rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the color of my eyes.

You can hear Michael's, and Maupin's, full letter read aloud by Sir Ian McKellen in the Letters Live video above. In response to its initial publication, Adams writes, "Maupin had received hundreds of other letters, nearly all of them from readers who had cut out the column, substituted their own names for Michael’s and sent it verbatim to their own parents. Maupin’s Letter to Mama has since been set to music three times and become 'a standard for gay men’s choruses around the world.'"

Those words come from a piece on Maupin's autobiography Logical Family, published just last year, in which the Tales of the City author tells of his own coming out as well as his friendships with other non-straight cultural icons, one such icon being McKellen himself. "I have many regrets about not having come out earlier," McKellen told BOMB magazine in 1998, "but one of them might be that I didn't engage myself in the politicking." He'd come out ten years before, as a stand in opposition to Section 28 of the Local Government Bill, then under consideration in the British Parliament, which prohibited local authorities from depicting homosexuality "as a kind of pretended family relationship."

McKellen entered the realm of activism in earnest after choosing that moment to reveal his sexual orientation on the BBC, which he did on the advice of Maupin and other friends. A few years later he appeared in the television miniseries adaptation of Tales of the City as Archibald Anson-Gidde, a wealthy real-estate and cultural impresario (one, as Maupin puts it, of the city's "A-gays"). In the novels, Archibald Anson-Gidde dies closeted, of AIDS, provoking the ire of certain other characters for not having done enough for the cause in life — a charge, thanks in part to the words of Michael Tolliver, that neither Maupin nor McKellen will surely never face.

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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.

New “Women of NASA” Lego Immortalizes the STEM Contributions of Sally Ride, Margaret Hamilton, Mae Jemison & Nancy Grace Roman

Earlier this year, the Lego company announced that it would produce a Women of NASA Lego set, based on a proposal it received from science writer Maia Weinstock. In that proposal, Weinstock wrote: "Women have played critical roles throughout the history of the U.S. space program, a.k.a. NASA or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated — especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)."

Now on the market, the new Lego set immortalizes the contributions of NASA astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison; astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who we featured here this past summer. The video above gives you a complete walk-through, showing you, for example, Hamilton standing next to the large pile of source code that powered the Apollo mission (just as she did in this historic photo). Or you'll see Nancy Grace Roman accompanied by a posable Hubble Space Telescope and a projected image of a planetary nebula. The video closes with some commentary on the social merits of this new Lego set, which you may or may not agree with.

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John Ashbery Reads “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Poet John Ashbery has passed away, at the age of 90. About the poet, Harold Bloom once said. “No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgment of time. He is joining the American sequence that includes Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens and Hart Crane.” In 1976, Ashbery won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Above, you can hear him read the title poem, his masterpiece. The Guardian calls "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," a densely written epic about art, time and consciousness that was inspired by the 16th century Italian painting of the same name." The text of the poem appears on the Poetry Foundation website.

Find other poetry readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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. 

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Watch “Adam,” an Award-Winning Short Claymation That Wonderfully Re-Tells the Story of Creation

Above, watch 'Adam,' a short claymation made by Evelyn Jane Ross while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. As she points out in a recent interview, 'Adam' is "nothing like Wallace and Gromit; it’s neither a children’s story nor does it have a distinct character. Instead, it’s a poetic narrative depicting love and emotional sincerity. It uses the malleable nature of clay to emphasize the main idea, creation. 'Adam' also defies the perception that animation is a children’s medium. The film could easily be rated “R” for “MATURE” audiences only." She then adds:

I read a quote by Stanley Kubrick, 'A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later'. This quote really guided my progression. It seemed like a wonderful way to think of structure and timing. The meaning, yes, came later.

Although Ross made the film mainly to fulfill some senior year requirements at RISD, she got some extra mileage out of the claymation. Among other awards, it won Best Animated Film at the Yale Student Film Festival, the Berlin Flash Film Festival, and Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. And it was a BAFTA Student Awards Finalist. Enjoy.

"Adam" will be added to our list, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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How Doors Open onto Philosophical Mysteries in Robert Bresson’s Films: A Short Video Essay by Kogonada

FYI: Last Friday, Colin Marshall highlighted for you the new feature film by kogonada, whose many video essays--on Ozu, Linklater, Malick, Anderson, etc.--we've shown you here before. Rather by coincidence, The Criterion Collection just posted kogonada's latest video essay, this one examining how "doors open onto philosophical mysteries in the films of French master Robert Bresson." Watch "Once There Was Everything" above, and pair it with his other Bresson essay ("Hands of Bresson") from three years ago. It appears right below.

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