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.

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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

Hear the Pieces Mozart Composed When He Was Only Five Years Old

A preternaturally talented, precocious child, barely out of toddlerhood, in powdered wig and knee-breeches, capering around the great houses of 18th century Europe between virtuoso performances on the harpsichord. A young boy who can play any piece anyone puts in front of him, and compose symphonies extemporaneously with ease…. Few scenes better capture the mythos of the child prodigy than those reported from the childhood of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

If Milos Forman’s Amadeus is any reliable guide to his character, if not his history, Mozart may never have lost his boyish charm and exuberance, but his musical ability seemed to mature exponentially as he composed hundreds of sonatas, quartets, concertos, and operas, ending with the Requiem, an astonishing piece of work by any measure, despite remaining unfinished in the year of his death, 1791, at the age of 35.

While those feverish scenes of Requiem’s composition in Forman’s film may be tenuously attached to the truth, the stories of Mozart the preschool and boyhood genius are well attested. Not only did he play with unbelievable skill for “emperors and empresses in the courts of Europe,” but “by the time he was six he had composed dozens of remarkable pieces for the keyboard as well as for other instruments,” notes Willard Palmer in an introduction to Mozart’s most popular works. “His first efforts at composition began when he was only four years old.”

He composed several short pieces the following year, and you can hear them all performed above. At the Morgan Library’s site you can also see a scanned manuscript image of four of those compositions, written in Mozart’s father’s hand. Leopold Mozart—the driving stage-parental force, as we know, behind Wolfgang’s childhood career as a touring marvel—notated these first attempts, crediting them to “Wolfgangerl,” in what is known as the Nannerl Notebook, from the nickname of Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna.

Leopold, Kapellmeister of the Salzburg court orchestra, recognized not only Wolfgang’s musical talents, but also those of Nannerl, and he devoted his time to overseeing both his children’s training. For sadly obvious reasons, the elder Mozart did not continue to perform, and the notebook named for her does not contain any of her compositions, only Leopold's exercises for the children and her brother's first original work. In addition to Mozart’s earliest pieces, it may also contain music composed by him at 7 or 8 years old—more extensive works that might, says Mozarteum researcher Ulrich Leisinger, bridge the short, simple first pieces and his first major compositions.

Nonetheless, we have dozens of Mozart’s compositions throughout his childhood and teenage years. Several of those earlier pieces come from the so-called London Notebook, a sketchbook kept during Mozart’s time in England between 1764-65. Here, writes Elena Abend, we find him “extending his musical themes compared to his earlier compositions.” And yet the music “almost always has a playfulness about it.” It’s a quality that never left Mozart’s work, excluding the awesome Requiem, of course, but then this final masterwork was completed by other composers, none of them with Mozart’s lightness of spirit, which we can trace all the way back to that first piece, “a courtly little composition.” Writes Abend, “gracefulness is essential in performing the piece.”

via Cmuse

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

 

Laurie Anderson Introduces Her Virtual Reality Installation That Lets You Fly Magically Through Stories

While the sci-fi dreams of virtual and “augmented” reality are now within the grasp of artists and game designers, the technology of the adult human brain remains rooted in the stone age—we still need a good story to accompany the flickering shadows on the cave wall. An artist as wise as Laurie Anderson understands this, but—given that it’s Laurie Anderson—she isn’t going to retread familiar narrative paths, especially when working in the vehicle of VR, as she has in her new piece Chalkroom, created in a collaboration with Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang.

The piece allows viewers the opportunity to travel not only into the space of imagination a story creates, but into the very architecture of story itself—to walk, or rather float, through its passageways as words and letters drift by like tufts of dandelion, stars, or, as Anderson puts it, like snow. “They’re there to define the space and to show you a little bit about what it is,” says the artist in the interview above, “But they’re actually fractured languages, so it’s kind of exploded things.” She explains the “chalkroom” concept as resisting the “perfect, slick and shiny” aesthetic that characterizes most computer-generated images. “It has a certain tactility and made-by-hand kind of thing… this is gritty and drippy and filled with dust and dirt.”

Chalkroom, she says, "is a library of stories, and no one will ever find them all.” It sounds to me, at least, more intriguing than the premise of most video games, but the audience for this piece will be limited, not only to those willing to give it a chance, but to those who can experience the piece firsthand, as it were, by visiting the physical space of one of Anderson’s exhibitions and strapping on the VR goggles. Once they do, she says, they will be able to fly, a disorienting experience that sends some people falling out of their chair. Last spring, Chalkroom became part of an ongoing exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a “Laurie Anderson pilgrimage,” as Mass MoCA director Joseph C. Thompson describes it, that also features a VR experience called Aloft.

In August, Chalkroom appeared at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where the interview above took place. Watching it, you’ll see why the piece has generated so much buzz, winning “Best VR Experience” at the Venice Film Festival and visiting major museums around Europe and the U.S. “Mostly VR is kind of task-oriented,” she says, “you get that, you do that, you shoot that.” Chalkroom feels more like navigating catacombs, traversing dark labyrinths punctuated by brilliant constellations of light made out of words, as Anderson’s voice provides enigmatic narration against a backdrop of three-dimensional sound design. It’s an immersive journey that seems, as promised, like the one we take as readers, pursuing elusive meanings that can seem tantalizingly just out of reach.

via @WFMU

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

Watch Björk’s Hypnotic Music Video for Her New Song, “The Gate”

FYI. Björk has just released a new track, "The Gate," from her forthcoming album. And, with it, comes a hypnotic new video, the product of a collaboration between Björk, artist Andrew Thomas Huang, and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.

About the video, Andrew Thomas Huang has this to say:

The Gate picks up where 2015's Vulnicura left off. It is the first glimpse into Björk's utopia. The doorway lies within the wound from Vulnicura, which now appears transformed into a prismatic portal channeled between the chests of two lovers. Not lovers in the quotidian romantic sense, but in a broader cosmological way. As a throughway into Bjork's new album, The Gate is a declaration of hope sung by a woman refracted and re-formed into a luminous whole.

Björk's new album, Utopia, is due out in November. The new video is made available by Nowness.

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How a Simple Email Survey Pulled Scripts Out of Hollywood Purgatory & Turned Them Into Award-Winning Films

How did the Black List get started? Not the Hollywood blacklist that ruined the careers of countless directors, actors and actresses during the 1940s and 1950s. No, we mean the Black List, created by Franklin Leonard in 2005, which has allowed more than 300 scripts, once stuck in Hollywood purgatory, to get turned into feature films--films like Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, Argo and Spotlight.  This all started when Leonard created a simple survey, asking nearly 100 movies executives to name their favorite scripts that had not yet been made as feature films. The new Vox video above tells the rest of the story.

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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