150 Courses Starting at Stanford Continuing Studies Next Week: Explore the Catalogue of Campus and Online Courses

Quick fyi: I spend my days at Stanford Continuing Studies, where we've developed a rich lineup of online courses for lifelong learners, many of which will get started next week. The courses aren't free. But they're first rate, giving adult students--no matter where they live--the chance to work with dedicated teachers and students.

The catalogue includes a large number of online Creative Writing courses, covering the Novel, the Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Travel Writing, Poetry and more. For the professional, the program offers online business courses in subjects like Fundamentals of Project ManagementValue Investing: An IntroductionHow to Build Successful Startups: Learn Lessons Straight from Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs and Leadership by Design: Using Design Thinking to Transform Companies and CareersAnd there's a growing number of online Liberal Arts courses too. Take for example The Geology and Wines of California and FranceDrawing Inspiration: Developing a Creative Practice, and The Daily Photograph: Developing Your Creative Intuition.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the larger catalogue. Stanford Continuing Studies has 150 courses getting started this Winter quarter (next week), many taking place in Stanford's classrooms. The two flagship courses of the quarter include: Pivotal Moments That Shaped the Modern World and The Ethics of Technological Disruption: A Conversation with Silicon Valley Leaders and Beyond.

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Philip Glass Finishes His David Bowie Trilogy, Debuting His Lodger Symphony

Sometimes I feel
The need to move on
So I pack a bag
And move on
Move on

--David Bowie, “Move On”

We might have been calling it the Lake Geneva Trilogy, given David Bowie’s recuperative sojourn in Switzerland after the emptiness he felt in L.A. The first album in the Berlin Trilogy, Low, was mostly recorded in France, and the last album of the trilogy, Lodger, in Montreaux in 1979. But they were almost all written in, around, and about Berlin, where Bowie found what he was looking for—a more rarified form of isolation—or as he puts it, “virtual anonymity…. For some reason Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.”

Bowie’s wife Angela remembers that “he chose to live in a section of the city as bleak, anonymous, and culturally lost as possible…. He took an apartment above an auto parts store and ate at the local workingman’s café. Talk about alienation.” The feeling pervades all three albums to different effect, but Lodger takes things in a far edgier, more cacophonous direction. Removed from Bowie’s time of soaking up krautrock and producing his roommate Iggy Pop’s solo albums, recorded as his marriage dissolved, it is the sound of jaded cultural and relational dislocation.

“A lot more chaos was intended” on Lodger says Tony Visconti, and it is on these rocks that composer Philip Glass foundered for 23 years. In the 90s, he began his own trilogy, of symphonies based on the renowned Bowie/Eno/Visconti collaborations. Lodger hung him up because it “didn’t interest me at all,” he tells the Los Angeles Times. Despite its wild experimentalism, he heard "no original ideas on that record.”

Glass gravitated towards the melodies of the first two albums, releasing his Low symphony in 1993 and the equally inspired Heroes in ’96. Finally, just this week, he premiered Lodger, with venerable American composer John Adams conducting, in Los Angeles on what would have been Bowie’s birthday, January 8th.

Though Glass never shared his thoughts about Lodger with Bowie, he may not have needed to. Bowie himself felt that “Tony [Visconti] lost heart a little” during the recording “because it never came together as easily as both Low and “Heroes” had. This had a lot to do with my being distracted by personal events in my life," he says, though "I would still maintain thought that there are a number of really important ideas on Lodger.” It is on the ideas that Glass seized. “The writing was remarkable. It was someone who had created a political language for themselves.”

While Glass’s other Bowie symphonies drew directly from the albums’ music (the Low symphony opens with the cinematic theme from “Subterraneans”), “What I was going to do on Lodger,” says Glass, “had nothing to do with the music that was on the record.” He realized that he had been given “a whole piece by a very accomplished writer and artist who had a vision of the world” in the lyrics. Employing the unique voice of singer Angélique Kidjo, Glass made what he calls “a song symphony” using seven of the “texts” (he left off “Look Back in Anger,” “D.J.” and “Red Money”).

Glass takes these “poems” as he calls them and weaves them into his own musical fabric. He’s “unconcerned,” writes Randal Roberts at the L.A. Times “with what Bowie would have thought of his method,” but he remembers Bowie was most struck in his other symphonies by “the parts that didn’t sound very much like the original.” At the top of the post, hear “Warszawa” from Glass’s Low symphony and listen to his other Bowie-inspired pieces on Spotify. The Lodger symphony will make its European premier at the Southbank Centre in London in May of this year, and we should hope to see a recording released soon.

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

Marie Kondo v. Tsundoku: Competing Japanese Philosophies on Whether to Keep or Discard Unread Books

By now we've all heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese home-organization guru whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up became an international bestseller in 2011. Her advice about how to straighten up the home, branded the "KonMari" method, has more recently landed her that brass ring of early 21st-century fame, her own Netflix series. A few years ago we featured her tips for dealing with your piles of reading material, which, like all her advice, are based on discarding the items that no longer "spark joy" in one's life. These include "Take your books off the shelves," "Make sure to touch each one," and that you'll never read the books you mean to read "sometime."

But as a big a fan base as Kondo now commands around the world, not everyone agrees with her methods, especially when she applies them to the bookshelf. "Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books," the novelist Anakana Schofield posted to Twitter earlier this month. "Fill your apartment & world with them. I don’t give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves." Furthermore, "the notion that books should spark joy is a LUDICROUS one. I have said it a hundred times: Literature does not exist only to comfort and placate us. It should disturb + perturb us. Life is disturbing."

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles criticizes Kondo's book policy from a different angle. "I have a single cabinet full of chipped mugs, but I have a house full of books — thousands of books. To take every single book into my hands and test it for sparkiness would take years. And during that time, so many more books will pour in." That phenomenon will be familiar to readers of Open Culture, since we've previously featured tsundoku, a punnish Japanese compound word that means the books that amass unread here and there in one's home.

Though they might have emerged from the same wider culture, the KonMari method and the concept of tsundoku could hardly be more directly opposed. But now that Schofield, Charles, and many others have voiced their perspectives, the battle lines are drawn: must books spark joy in the moment to earn their keep, or can they be allowed to pile up in the name of potential future usefulness — or at least useful disturbance and perturbation?

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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 Books That Samuel Beckett Read and Really Liked (1941-1956)

becket list 1

Samuel Beckett, Pic, 1" by Roger Pic. Via Wikimedia Commons

Clad in a black turtleneck and with a shock of white hair, Samuel Beckett was a gaunt, gloomy high priest of modernism. After the 1955 premiere of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (watch him stage a performance here), Kenneth Tynan quipped, ''It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end.'' From there, Beckett’s work only got more austere, bleak and despairing. His 1969 play Breath, for instance, runs just a minute long and features just the sound of breathing.

An intensely private man, he managed to mesmerize the public even as he turned away from the limelight. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1969 (after being rejected in 1968), his wife Suzanne, fearing the onslaught of fame that the award would bring, decried it as a “catastrophe.”

A recently published collection of his letters from 1941-1956, the period leading up to his international success with his play Waiting for Godot, casts some light on at least one corner of the man’s private life – what books were piling up on his bed stand. Below is an annotated list of what he was reading during that time. Not surprisingly, he really dug Albert Camus’s The Stranger. “Try and read it,” he writes. “I think it is important.” He dismisses Agatha Christie’s Crooked House as “very tired Christie” but praises Around the World in 80 Days: “It is lively stuff.” But the book he reserves the most praise for is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. “I liked it very much indeed, more than anything for a long time.”

You can see the full list below. It was originally published online by Cambridge University Press in 2011. Books with an asterisk next to the title can be found in our collection of 700 Free eBooks.

Andromaqueby Jean Racine: “I read Andromaque again with greater admiration than ever and I think more understanding, at least more understanding of the chances of the theatre today.”

Around the World in 80 Days* by Jules Verne: “It is lively stuff.”

The Castle by Franz Kafka: “I felt at home, too much so – perhaps that is what stopped me from reading on. Case closed there and then.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: “I liked it very much indeed, more than anything for a long time.”

Crooked House by Agatha Christie: “very tired Christie”

Effi Briest* by Theodor Fontane: “I read it for the fourth time the other day with the same old tears in the same old places.”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame* by Victor Hugo

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Lautreamont and Sade by Maurice Blanchot: “Some excellent ideas, or rather starting-points for ideas, and a fair bit of verbiage, to be read quickly, not as a translator does. What emerges from it though is a truly gigantic Sade, jealous of Satan and of his eternal torments, and confronting nature more than with humankind.”

Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux

Mosquitoes by William Faulkner: “with a preface by Queneau that would make an ostrich puke”

The Stranger by Albert Camus: “Try and read it, I think it is important.”

The Temptation to Exist by Emil Cioran: “Great stuff here and there. Must reread his first.”

La 628-E8* by Octave Mirbeau: “Damned good piece of work.”

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

via Cambridge University Press

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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.

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Dogs sees us as their masters while cats sees us as their slaves. - Anonymous

The next time your friend’s pet cat sinks its fangs into your wrist, bear in mind that the beast is probably still laboring under the impression that it’s guarding the granaries.

Anthropologist Eva-Maria Geigl’s animated Ted-Ed Lesson, The History of the World According to Cats, above, awards special recognition to Unsinkable Sam, a black-and-white ship’s cat who survived three WWII shipwrecks (on both Axis and Allied sides).

It’s a cute story, but as far as directing the course of history, Felis silvestris lybica, a subspecies of wildcat that can be traced to the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago, emerges as the true star.

In a Neolithic spin of "The Farmer in the Dell," the troughs and urns in which ancient farmers stored surplus grain attracted mice and rats, who in turn attracted these muscular, predatory cats.

They got the job done.

Human and cats’ mutually beneficial relationship spelled bad news for the rodent population, but survival for today’s 600-million-some domestic cats, whose DNA is shockingly similar to that of its prehistoric ancestors.

Having proved their value to the human population in terms of pest control, cats quickly found themselves elevated to welcome companions of soldiers and sailors, celebrated for their ability to knock out rope-destroying vermin, as well as dangerous animals on the order of snakes and scorpions.

Thusly did cats’ influence spread.

Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of domesticity, women's secrets, fertility, and childbirth is unmistakably feline.

Cats draw the chariot of Freya, the Norse goddess of love.

Their popularity dipped briefly in the Late Middle Ages, when humankind mistakenly credited cats as the source of the plague. In truth, that scourge was spread by rodents, who ran unchecked after men rounded up their feline predators for a gruesome slaughter.

Nowadays, a quick glimpse at Instagram is proof enough that cats are back on top.

(Yes, you can haz cheezburger with that.)

Dogs may see our service to them as proof that we are gods, buts cats surely interpret the feeding and upkeep they receive at human hands as evidence they are the ones to be worshipped.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Getty Digital Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Download High Resolution Scans of Paintings, Sculptures, Photographs & Much Much More

J. Paul Getty was not a billionaire known for his generosity. But since his death, the Getty Trust and complex of Getty museums in L.A. have carried forth in a more magnanimous spirit, ostensibly adhering to values that transcend their founder: “service, philanthropy, teaching, and access.”

A collection first gathered for private investment and consumption (sometimes under a cloud of scandal) has expanded into galleries that millions pass through every year; a Conservation Institute dedicated to preserving the world’s art; and a Research Institute proclaiming a social mission: a devotion to expanding “our knowledge of the history of art, of all countries, of all languages,” according to its director Thomas Gaehtgens, who also says, “a society without art cannot really survive.”

Put another way, as one of the Getty’s art market competitors was once quoted as saying, “They just want people to like them.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but if you are an art lover—and not a billionaire art collector—you may genuinely appreciate this quality. And you may like them even more now that their open access digital collections have almost doubled to 135,000 high-resolution images since we last checked in with them five years ago.

Like the Getty museum, it reflects its founder's tastes in Classical, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance art. Download Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (top), for example, at the highest resolution (8557 X 6559) and get closer to a virtual version than you ever could to the real thing. Learn the painting’s provenance and exhibition history, read an informative description and a bibliography. The painting is one of hundreds from European masters and their lesser-known apprentices. You’ll also find several hundred images of sculpture, both classical and modern—like Paul Gaugin’s sandalwood Head with Horns, above—as well as drawings, manuscripts, pottery, jewelry, coins, decorative arts, and much more.

But the bulk of the digital collection consists of photographs, with 112,261 images and counting in the archive. The Getty has “assembled the finest and most comprehensive corpus of photographs on the West Coast” in its photography collection (not to be confused with Getty’s son’s media empire), with “substantial holdings by some of the most significant masters of the 20th century.” The collection is also “particularly rich in works dating from the time of photography’s invention” and its development in the mid-19th century.

Download and study Dorothea Lange’s desolate Abandoned Dust Bowl Home. Or journey back to the early days of the medium, when gentleman amateurs like Scottish nobleman Ronald Ruthven Leslie-Melville took up photography as an avid pursuit, and documented the landscapes, architecture, and personages of their age. (See Ruthven-Melville’s 1860's photograph Roehampton below.)

Like all digital collections, the Getty’s cannot replicate the experience of seeing physical works of art in person, but it does magnanimously expand access to thousands of images usually hidden from the public, as well as thousands of pieces currently on display in one of its many museums. Completely free, the online archive serves as an invaluable teaching and learning tool, a vast repository preserving international art history online.

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

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

russell rules 2

Image by J. F. Horrabin, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertrand Russell saw the history of civilization as being shaped by an unfortunate oscillation between two opposing evils: tyranny and anarchy, each of which contain the seed of the other. The best course for steering clear of either one, Russell maintained, is liberalism.

"The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation," writes Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. "The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma [a feature of tyranny], and insuring stability [which anarchy undermines] without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community."

In 1951 Russell published an article in The New York Times Magazine, "The Best Answer to Fanaticism--Liberalism," with the subtitle: "Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity." In the article, Russell writes that "Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds." He continues:

But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.

Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost. Echoing the philosopher John Locke, who had a profound influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Russell writes:

The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old. He advocates certain limits to the exercise of authority, and he wishes these limits to be observed not only when the authority would support a creed with which he disagrees but also when it would support one with which he is in complete agreement. I am, for my part, a believer in democracy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democracy compulsory.

Russell concludes the New York Times piece by offering a "new decalogue" with advice on how to live one's life in the spirit of liberalism. "The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows," he says:

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Wise words then. Wise words now.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2013.

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via Brain Pickings

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Artist Hand-Cuts an Intricate Octopus From a Single Piece of Paper: Discover the Japanese Art of Kirie

At first glance, the octopus in the video above might appear to be breathing. A second look reveals that it isn't actually breathing, nor is it actually an octopus at all, but seemingly just a highly detailed drawing of one. Only upon the third look, if even then, does it become clear that the octopus has been not drawn but intricately cut, and out of a single large sheet of paper at that. The two-dimensional sea creature represents a recent high point in the work of Japanese artist Masayo Fukuda, who has practiced this curious craft, known as kirie, for more than a quarter of a century now.

"Kirie (切り絵, literally ‘cut picture’) is the Japanese art of paper-cutting," writes Spoon & Tamago's Johnny Waldman. "Variations of kirie can be found in cultures around the world but the Japanese version is said to be derived from religious ceremonies and can be traced back to around the AD 700s.

In its most conventional form, negative space is cut from a single sheet of white paper and then contrasted against a black background to reveal a rendering." Such painstaking work, and the astonishingly impressive artistic results that can come out of it, fit right in with the image of Japanese art and craftsmanship as the world now appreciates it. Bored Panda quotes Fukuda as saying that "cutting pictures has become a way of dissipating all the stress of my daily life.”

If you, too, would like to seek the benefits of a regular kirie practice, you don't need much in the way of equipment: "All the basics you need are TANT paper" — a brand of paper made especially for origami and other paper crafts — "a cutter, matte, and a good light source." Of course, if you look only to the work of an experienced master like Fukuda (which will go on display, Waldman notes, this April at Osaka's Miraie Gallery) for examples, you're likely to get frustrated very quickly indeed.

You might consider first getting a broader overview of kirie as currently practiced, starting with this five-minute documentary showcasing the work of other paper-cutting enthusiasts in Japan. Set aside enough time for it, and approach your sheet of paper with enough patience every day, and — who knows? — one day your octopus, too, may breathe.

via Spoon & Tamago

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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 Art of Creating Special Effects in Silent Movies: Ingenuity Before the Age of CGI

If anyone tries to claim that modern day movies have too many special effects remind them of this. Films have always used special effects to trick the audience, and we’re just using new variations of tools from a century ago. In fact, right from the beginning, creators like Georges Méliès were pushing the boundaries of celluloid and 24 frames per second like the showmen and magicians they were.

By the time we get to the silent comedians as seen in our above video, technology had advanced along with the pure physical comedy of the stars. Yes, they were amazing and nimble athletes, but they weren’t stupid. Camera trickery helped them look superhuman.

The first example shows Harold Lloyd’s iconic stunt from 1923's Safety Last!, where he hung over the streets of Los Angeles from a clock face. Only he wasn’t really. Using forced perspective, a constructed building edifice, and a safe mattress a few feet below shows how Lloyd faced no danger at all. Editing, too, creates so much of the effect, as we have seen how high the clock is compared to the ground in previous shots. The angle on the streets below and in the distance really sell the scene compared to just shooting sky.

In fact, this forced perspective is still used in modern films: Peter Jackson used it a lot in The Lord of the Rings to give the impression that Gandalf was twice as tall as Hobbit Frodo simply by constructing the sets smaller.

And when backgrounds are basic like sand dunes, even the low budget filmmaker can achieve some amazing effects with no money, just a bunch of cool miniatures:

Then again, Jackie Chan one-upped Lloyd for real in his 1983 film Project A, when he dangles from a three-story clock hand only to crash through two canopies onto the ground below. It’s a stunt so nice, they show you it twice!

The other favorite trick of the silent films was matte painting. As long as the camera doesn’t move, a piece of glass with a photo-realistic painting on it can seamlessly fit into the action.

In Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, that allows the comedian to skate very close to a three floor drop without even being in danger. (Technically, the camera *does* move in this shot, but it’s a short pan which wouldn’t affect the illusion.)

This old-school method has gone away, though up through the ‘80s great matte painting artists were working on films like the Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now a digital matte artist works in three dimensions, not two, with endless finesse and tweaking at their disposal, like in Game of Thrones:

The matte is the basis, really, of all modern digital effects. Wherever there is a green screen, you’re seeing the evolution of the matte. You probably have an app on your phone that does something similar, and can magically transport you to where you really want to be...just like film.

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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.

The Hu, a New Breakthrough Band from Mongolia, Plays Heavy Metal with Traditional Folk Instruments and Throat Singing

Maybe you’re jaded, maybe you think it’s time for heavy metal to finally hang up its spikes, maybe you think there’s nowhere else for the world’s most theatrically angry music to go but maybe bluegrass…. Or maybe Mongolia, where folk metal band The Hu have been inventing what they call “Hunnu Rock,” a style combining Western headbanging with instruments like the horsehead fiddle (morin khuur) and Mongolian guitar (tovshuur). “It also involves singing in a guttural way,” Katya Cengel points out at NPR—no, not like this, but in the manner of traditional Mongolian throat singers.

Now YouTube sensations with millions of views of its two videos for “Yuve Yuve Yu” and “Wolf Totem,” the band plans to release its first album this spring, after seven years of hard work. The Hu are not flash-in-the-pan internet fame seekers but serious musicians who didn’t quite expect this degree of attention, or so they say. “When we do this,” said guitarist Temka, “we try to spiritually express this beautiful thing about Mongolian music. We think we will talk to everyone’s soul through our music. But we didn’t expect this fast, people just popping up everywhere.”

University of Wisconsin Kip Hutchins, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology, has taken an interest in the band and thinks their appeal, writes Cengel, has to do with how “the story of Mongolia has been written in the West. Nomadism and horse culture has been romanticized, and the emphasis on freedom and heroes tends to appeal to the stereotypical male heavy metal fan.” The band’s themes focus on past national triumphs, the legendary rule of Genghis Khan, and the glorification of the nomadic warrior’s life.

Or so it would seem to Westerners parsing their lyrics in English. It may also be hard to read “Hey you traitor! Kneel down!” in a song about “taking our Great Mongol ancestors names in vain” and not think about metal’s role in a few violent ultra-nationalist scenes. Some suggest the songs are ironic or translate differently to Mongolian listeners. Or that the band might be a sophisticated satire, like Laibach, using nationalist themes, costumes, and dramatic settings on the steppes to critique nationalist narratives.

One observer who knows the culture suggests it's more complicated. The Hu are not mocking traditional Mongolian culture and history, far from it. “The graphic visuals used in the video certainly evoke pride in our nomadic culture,” writes Batshandas Altansukh, “but the lyric is quite the contrary. It’s very political and highly critical of today’s Mongolian society” and what the band sees as their country’s propensity for “emptily boasting about the past” rather than actually learning about and respecting it (with motorcycle gangs riding across the plains).

The lyrics we read in translation are apparently "too westernized or simplified” to really get their point across and slogans like “taking our great Mongol ancestors names in vain,” Cengel points out, “are almost exactly what was sung in the late 1980s during the transition to democracy”—a means of fiercely asserting an independent cultural identity against the hegemonic Soviet Union. Mongolian folk rock and jazz bands picked up the sentiment and Mongolian hip hop acts promote respect for the country’s traditions with new dance moves.

But whether or not The Hu’s politics get wrongly interpreted, or ignored, by their millions of new fans, it’s clear that people get it at the universal level of metal’s communal frequencies: long hair, leather, guitars, growling, and epic medieval badassery.

via NPR

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

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