Discover the Apprehension Engine: Brian Eno Called It “the Most Terrifying Musical Instrument of All Time”

Apart from the occasional Blair Witch Project, scary movies need scary scores. But much like making a genuinely scary movie, composing genuinely scary music becomes more of a challenge all the time. By now, even the most timid moviegoers among us have surely grown inured to the throbbing bass, the tense strings, and all the other standard, increasingly clichéd instrumental techniques used to generate a sense of ominousness. Given the ever-growing pressure to come up with more effectively dread-inducing music, the invention of the Apprehension Engine was surely inevitable. A part of the studio of film composer Mark Korven, it looks unlike any other musical instrument in existence, and sounds even more so.

With a normal instrument, says Korven in the Great Big Story Video above, "you're expecting it to have a sound that is pleasing." But with the Apprehension Engine, "the goal is to just produce sounds that, in this case, are disturbing." What we hear is less music than a sonic approximation of the abyss itself, which somehow emerges from his manipulation of a variety of strings, bars, wheels, and bows attached to a wooden box — as analog a device as one would ever encounter in the 21st century. "I originally commissioned the Apprehension Engine because I was tired of the same digital samples, which resulted in a lot of sameness," says Korven. "I was looking for something more experimental, more acoustic, that would give me a little more of an original sound."




Luthier Tony Duggan-Smith rose to the challenge of crafting the Apprehension Engine. "You're dealing with things that stir primal emotions and feelings," says Duggan-Smith of the sound of the instrument. Korven thinks of it as "not music in the traditional sense at all," but "it definitely evokes emotion, so I would call it music." In a composition career more than three decades long,  Korven has learned a thing or two about how to evoke emotion with sound. His best-known work so far is the score of Robert Eggers' The Witch, which no less a horror and suspense connoisseur than Stephen King has named as one of his favorite movies of all time. "The Witch scared the hell out of me," King tweeted. "And it's a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral." And as the guitar-playing, music-loving King understands, we react to nothing more viscerally than that which we hear.

Though the first Apprehension Engine was built by its very nature as a unique instrument, it hasn't remained a one-off. The first Apprehension Engine begat an improved second version, or "V2," and now, according to the instrument's official site, "there is an official V2+ model which we are ready to produce in small numbers." Upgrades include custom magnetic pickups, a "Hurdy Gurdy mechanism," and your choice of two different mounting locations for the reverb tank. A handmade Apprehension Engine of your own won't come cheap, and all production runs will no doubt sell out as quickly as the first one did, but if you need to strike true horror into the hearts of your listeners, can you afford not to consider what Brian Eno, no stranger to the outer limits of sonic possibility, has called "the most terrifying musical instrument of all time"?

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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.

Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Celebrating His 1966 Photos of the Sunset Strip

In 1956, the Pop artist Ed Ruscha left Oklahoma City for Los Angeles. “I could see I was just born for the job” of an artist, he would later say, “born to watch paint dry.” The comment encapsulates Ruscha’s ironic use of cliché as a centerpiece of his work. He called himself an “abstract artist… who deals with subject matter.” Much of his subject matter has been commonplace words and phrases—decontextualized and foregrounded in paintings and prints made with careful deliberation, against the trend toward Abstract Expressionism and its gestural freedom.

Another of Ruscha’s subjects comes with somewhat less conceptual baggage. His photographic books capture mid-century America gas stations and the city he has called home for over 50 years. In his 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha “photographed both sides of Sunset Boulevard from the back of a pickup truck,” writes filmmaker Matthew Miller. “He stitched the photos together to make one long book that folded out to 27 feet. That project turned into his larger Streets of Los Angeles series, which spanned decades.”




Miller, inspired by work he did on a 2017 short film called Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words, decided to bring together two of Ruscha’s longstanding inspirations: the city of L.A. and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Kerouac supposedly wrote as a continuous 120-foot long scroll—a format, Miller noticed, much like Every Building on the Sunset Strip. (Ruscha made his own artist’s book version of On the Road in 2009). Miller and editor Sean Leonard cut Ruscha’s photographs together in the montage you see above, commissioned by the Getty Museum, while Ruscha himself read selections from the Kerouac classic.

The connection between their style and their use of language feels really strong, but at the end of the day, I simply thought it’d be great to hear Ed Ruscha read On the Road. Something about Ed’s voice just feels right. Something about his work just feels right. It’s like the images, the words, and the forms he makes were always meant to be together.”

Miller describes the painstaking process of selecting the photos and “constructing a mini narrative that evoked Ed’s sensibilities” at Vimeo. The artist’s “perspective seemed to speak to the signage and architecture of the city, while Kerouac’s voice felt like it was pulling in all the lively characters of the street.” It’s easy to see why Ruscha would be so drawn to Kerouac. Both share a fascination with vernacular American speech and iconic American subjects of advertising, the automobile, and the freedoms of the road.

But where Ruscha turns to words for their visual impact, Kerouac relished them for their music. “For a while,” Miller writes of his project, “it felt like the footage wanted one thing and the voiceover wanted another.” But he and Leonard, who also did the sound design, were able to bring image and voice together in a short film that frames both artists as mid-century visionaries who turned the ordinary and seemingly unremarkable into an experience of the ecstatic.

173 works by Ruscha can be viewed on MoMA's website.

via Aeon

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

The First & Last Time Mister Rogers Sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (1968-2001)

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the iconic television series that ran from 1968 to 2001, is a major childhood touchstone for so many.

Raise your hand if you have a Pavlovian response to the familiar opening segment, in which Fred Rogers opens the front door to his humble living room set, heads to the closet, singing, to exchange his jacket for a comfy cardigan sweater, and then sits on a wooden deacon’s bench to swap out his street shoes for a pair of canvas sneakers.

As per the show's website, this routine was a promise of sorts to viewers:

I care about you, no matter who you are and no matter what you can or cannot do... Let’s spend this time together. We’ll build a relationship and talk and imagine and sing about things that matter to you.

Fans of all ages—some too young to have caught the show in its original run—have posted over 28,000 grateful, emotional comments on the video, above, which teams the opening segment of the first episode, February 19, 1968, with that of the last episode, August 31, 2001.




The biggest change seems to be the move from black-and-white to color.

Otherwise, the tweaks are decidedly minor.

The wooden doors are replaced with similar models sporting cast iron hinges.

The window seat gets some pillows.

The shutters give way to cafe curtains, open to reveal a bit of studio foliage.

A fish tank is installed near the traffic light that signaled the start of every episode.

The closet fills with bright sweaters, many hand knit by Mr. Rogers’ mom—at some point, these transitioned from buttons to zippers, which were easier to manipulate and were quieter near his body mic.

(Once, Mr. Rogers buttoned his sweater wrong, but opted not to reshoot. Cast member David “Mr. McFeely” Newell recalled that his friend saw the on-camera boo boo as an opportunity “to show children that people make mistakes.”)

There are the framed trolley prints and Picture Picture, as constant and unfashionable as the braided rug and Bicentennial rocking chairs that were a feature of my grandparents' house.

It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, to see how loyal Rogers and his producers were to these familiar elements throughout the decades.

Brace yourself, friends.

Mr. Rogers was kind of over these openers.

As his wife, Joanne Rogers, told The New York Times in 2001, a few months before the final episode aired:

He doesn't miss the show. I think he misses the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because he enjoyed working with people around him. He really loves all of them, and he'll keep in touch. But he did not enjoy what he called 'interiors,' the beginning and endings of the programs. He had gotten where he had really dreaded it so.

It wasn’t so much the repetitive nature of the greeting as the need to put on makeup and contact lenses, a telegenic consideration that didn’t factor in to the old black-and-white days. Mr Rogers said that he would have preferred presenting himself to the camera—and to the neighbors watching at home—exactly as he did to his friends and neighbors in real life.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

14 Paris Museums Put 300,000 Works of Art Online: Download Classics by Monet, Cézanne & More

First trips to Paris all run the same risk: that of the museums consuming all of one's time in the city. What those new to Paris need is a museum-going strategy, not that one size will fit all. Tailoring such a strategy to one's own interests and pursuits requires a sense of each museum's collection, something difficult to attain remotely before Paris Musées opened up its online collections portal.

There, a counter tracks the number of artworks from the museums of Paris digitized and uploaded for all the world to see, which as of this writing comes in at 321,055. 150,222 images, notes a counter below, are in the public domain, and below that, another counter reveals that the archive now contains 621,075 pieces of digital media in total.

Among these, writes Hyperallergic's Valentina Di Liscia, "masterpieces by renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, and Anthony van Dyck, among many other familiar and lesser-known names, can now be accessed and enjoyed digitally."




She highlights "Paul Cézanne’s enchanting 1899 portrait of the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard," pictures taken by "Eugène Atget, the French photographer known for documenting and immortalizing old Paris," and Gustave Courbet’s Les demoiselles des bords de la Seine, which became "the subject of controversy at the Paris Salon of 1857 for what some deemed an indecorous and even sensual portrayal of working class women."

Paris Musées oversees the fourteen City of Paris Museums, including the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Petit Palais as well as the Maison de Balzac and Maison de Victor Hugo. That last now has a virtual exhibition up called "Light and Shade," which, through the illustrations of Hugo's literary works, reveals the "frenzy of images that adorned 19th century literature," from "the blossoming of the romantic vignette, to the flood of popular editions, and the swansong of those collectors’ editions celebrating the glories of the Third Republic." The "thematic discovering" section of Paris Musées portal also features sections on caricatures of Victor Hugo, on the 18th century, on portraits, and on Paris in the year 1900, when Art Nouveau made it "the capital of Europe."

"Users can download a file that contains a high definition (300 DPI) image, a document with details about the selected work, and a guide of best practices for using and citing the sources of the image," writes Di Liscia. Shown here are Claude Monet Soleil couchant sur la Seine à Lavacourt, effet d’hiver, Célestin Nanteuil's La Cour des Miracles, Léon Bonnat's Portrait de M. Victor Hugo, Cézanne’s Rochers et branches à Bibémus, and a postcard for the Exposition universelle de Paris 1889. These images are released under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license, and "works still in copyright will be available as low definition files, so users can still get a feel for the museums’ collections online." Do bear in mind that Paris Musées does not have under its umbrella that most famous museum of all, the Louvre. If you're looking to get a feel for that world-renowned destination's formidable collection, you may just have to visit it — a cultural task that necessitates a battle plan of its own.

via Hyperallergic

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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.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” & Other Bob Dylan Classics, Sung Beautifully by Kids

New Zealander David Antony Clark grew up with the music of Bob Dylan, and, like many his age, felt sad that the youngun’s had no idea who that was. Instead of moaning, he decided to produce Kids Sing Bob Dylan, an 11-track CD of covers sung by the Starbugs, Clark’s children’s group.

Before you flinch, check the YouTube clip above. These kids can actually sing, right? The harmonies are there...I mean possibly cleaned up a bit with technology, I can’t say for sure.

Here’s “Forever Young,” from Dylan’s 1974 Planet Waves. An appropriate song for this quintet: Jessie Hillel, Rebecca Jenkins, Sarah Whitaker, Ben Anderson, and Roisin Anderson, all from Wellington, NZ, and raging in age from 7 to 15.




According to a Stuff.nz article on the release, Jessie Hillel said about the recording: "Hearing and listening to him was really fun. But you can do whatever you want to the songs, but at the same time I really wanted to have his standard because he did such a good job. I feel proud of myself, it's just so good."

Ben Anderson, age 12, was the only one with previous knowledge of Dylan: “"I'd heard about him a few times before, I was really excited. He's a really good singer, just the emotion that he puts into his songs, I was really excited to sing them. I was really nervous that I wouldn't live up to it, and do it right, but it got easier as the song went on."

Now, you might have noticed two things from a quick listen. One of the younger kids, Jessie Hillel, might be small, but she packs a voice from someone twice her age. (She handles the lower range in the harmonies.) The other thing: these videos are from 2011.

Where is Jessie now? Funny you ask:

In 2012 she made her way onto the finals of New Zealand’s Got Talent, and in 2016 she sang Puccini in Melbourne. She’s currently studying music in Melbourne and is in a jazz-fusion band called Jakal.

Sarah Whitaker also has her own music channel on YouTube.

Funny about kids--they grow up right in front of your eyes.

via Boing Boing

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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.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Below, you can hear journalist David Epstein talks with Recode's Kara Swisher about his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In it, "he argues that the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists are more likely to be dabblers, rather than people who set out to do what they do best from a young age — and, in fact, the people who have highly specialized training from an early age tend to have lower lifetime earnings overall." The #1 New York Times bestselling book makes the case that "in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see."

You can pick up a copy of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World in print, or get it as a free audio book if you sign up for a 30-day free trial with Audible.com.

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. 

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How Dick Cavett Brought Sophistication to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Classic Interviews Online

Just as the avuncular presence of Ed Sullivan helped ease middle America into accepting Elvis Presley and The Beatles, the aw-shucks midwestern charm of Dick Cavett made Woodstock hippies seem downright cuddly when he had Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell on just after the legendary music festival in 1969. He had a way of making everyone around him comfortable enough to reveal just a little more than they might otherwise. (See Jimi Hendrix talk about his National Anthem performance, below.)

Born in Nebraska in 1937, “the only persona [Cavett] bothered to, or needed to, develop for working on camera was of a boy from Nebraska dazzled by the bright lights of New York,” as Clive James writes in an appreciation of the TV host. As he interviewed the biggest stars of late sixties, seventies, and eighties on the long-running Dick Cavett Show, Cavett’s easygoing Midwestern demeanor disarmed both his guests and audiences. He kept them engaged with his erudition, quick wit, and breadth of cultural knowledge.

Cavett, writes James, was “the most distinguished talk-show host in America… a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range.” He was also an empathic interviewer who could lead his guests beyond the stock responses they were used to giving in TV interviews. (David Bowie, below, reveals how he was influenced by his fans.)

A trained gymnast and self-taught magician—Cavett met fellow magician Johnny Carson in the early 50s at a magic convention—the talk-show host left Nebraska for Yale and never looked back. (He once joked, quoting Abe Burrows, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the farm?”) After college, he moved to New York to pursue acting. There, he got his first comedy writing job, when he handed some of his jokes to Tonight Show host Jack Paar in an elevator. He befriended Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx, and all the biggest names in comedy, and wrote for Jerry Lewis and Merv Griffin.




Once he had his own late-night talk show, however, which ran opposite Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, it became clear that he was doing something very different. “Cavett never mugged, never whooped it up for the audience, rarely told a formally constructed joke, and listened to the guest,” writes James. He became “famous enough not to be able to go out except in disguise,” but “his style did not suit a mass audience.” This is what made—and still makes—Cavett worth watching.

He had Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese on to talk about how they’re each other’s best critics, and Scorsese revealed that he did additional shooting for The Last Waltz after De Palma saw it.

Robin Williams came on to demonstrate his developing Popeye voice during the shooting of the Robert Altman film in 1979. In the clip above, he talks about feeling like “a monkey on a string” and working through his depression.

Lucille Ball told the story of her early years in show business, and her time working as a model, and Dick Van Dyke talked frankly about his alcoholism and the stigma surrounding addiction.

These are just a few of the 270+ surprising clips you'll find on the Dick Cavett Show YouTube channel, where George Carlin, Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ian McKellen, Julie Andrews, and too many more stars to name say things they rarely said anywhere else, as Cavett draws them out and keeps them talking.

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

The Magic of Chess: Kids Share Their Uninhibited, Philosophical Insights about the Benefits of Chess

From the US Chess Federation and director Jenny Schweitzer comes the short documentary, The Magic of Chess. "Filmed at the 2019 Elementary Chess Championships at the Nashville Opryland resort, a group of children share their uninhibited, philosophical insights about the benefits of chess." Jenny Schweitzer added: “For me, as a mother of a child who simply loves the game, it was my intention to focus not on the competitive aspects of the chess world, but rather what a deep commitment to chess can potentially offer someone, young or old.” If this whets your appetite, explore some of our chess resources below.

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. 

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Vincent Van Gogh’s Favorite Books

Piles of French Novels, Vincent Van Gogh, 1887

Among lovers of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist is as well known for his letter writing as for his extraordinary painting. “The personal tone, evocative style and lively language” of his correspondence, writes the Van Gogh Museum, “prompted some people who were in a position to know to accord the correspondence the status of literature. The poet W.H. Auden, who published an anthology with a brief introduction, wrote: ‘there is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I, who am certainly no expert, do not find fascinating.’”

Auden was, of course, an expert on the written word, though maybe not on Van Gogh, and he refined his literary expertise the same way the painter did: by reading as copiously as he wrote. “When it was too dark to paint,” writes University of Puerto Rico professor of humanities Jeffrey Herlihy Mera at the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tremendous amount of personal correspondence.” Much of his writing, especially his letters to his brother Theo, was in French, a language he learned in his teens and spoke in Belgium, Paris, and Arles.




Van Gogh’s command of written French, however, came from his reading of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. “Vincent loved literature,” the Van Gogh Museum writes. “In general, the books he read reflected what was going on in his own life. When he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister, he read books of a religious nature. He devoured Parisian novels when he was considering moving to the French capital."

In his letters to Theo, he weaves together the sacred and profane, describing his spiritual and creative strivings and his unrequited obsessions. In his reading, he tested his values and desires. We get a sense of how Van Gogh's reading complemented his pious, yet romantic nature in the list of some of his favorites, below, compiled by the Van Gogh Museum.

  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Jules Michelet, L'amour (1858)
  • Émile Zola, L'Oeuvre (1886)
  • Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin de Tarascon (1887)
  • The Bible
  • John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes (1820)
  • George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1887)
  • Hans Christian Andersen, What the Moon Saw (1862)
  • Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1471-1472)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852)
  • Edmond de Goncourt, Chérie (1884)
  • Victor Hugo, Les misérables (1862)
  • Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot (1835)
  • Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami (1885)
  • Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème (1888)
  • Voltaire, Candide (1759)
  • Shakespeare, Macbeth (c. 1606-1607)
  • Shakespeare, King Lear (1606-1607)
  • Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
  • Emile Zola, Nana (1880)
  • Emile Zola, La joie de vivre (1884)

“Vincent read moralistic books often favoured among members of the Protestant Christian community” in which he was raised by his minister father. He looked also to the morality of Charles Dickens, whose works he “read and reread… throughout his life.” Zola’s “rough, direct naturalism” appealed to Van Gogh’s desire “to give an honest depiction of what he saw around him: farm labourers, a weathered little old man, dejected or working women, a soup kitchen, a tree, dunes and fields.”

In Alphonse Daudet’s 1887 Tartarin de Tarascon, “an entertaining caricature of the southern Frenchman,” Van Gogh satisfied his “need for humor and satire.” Despite the stereotype of the artist as perpetually tortured, his letters consistently reveal his good-natured sense of humor. From French historian Jules Michelet’s 1858 L’amour, the artist “found wisdom he could apply to his own love life,” tumultuous as it was. He used Michelet’s insights “to justify his choices,” such as “when he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos.”

In a letter to Theo, Vincent expressed his emotional struggles over Vos's rejection of him as “a great many ‘petty miseries of human life,’ which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself.” He is at a loss for what to do with himself, he writes, but "‘wandering we find our way,’ and not by sitting still.” For Van Gogh, “wandering” just as often took the form of sitting still with a good book.

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

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

We all know what to think of when we hear the term bonsai: dwarf trees. Or so Shinobu Nozaki titled his book, the very first major publication on the subject in English. Dwarf Trees came out in the 1930s, not long after the Japanese art of bonsai started drawing serious international attention. But the art itself goes back as far as the sixth century, when Japanese embassy employees and students of Buddhism returning from sojourns in China brought back all the latest things Chinese, including plants growing in containers. By six or seven centuries later, as scrolls show us today, Japan had taken that horticultural technique and refined it into a practice based on not just miniaturization but proportion, asymmetry, poignancy, and erasure of the artist's traces, one that produces the kind of trees-in-miniature we recognize as artworks, and even masterworks, today.

It hardly needs saying that bonsai trees don't take shape by themselves. As the name, which means "tray planting" (盆栽), suggests, a work of bonsai must begin by planting a specimen in a small container. From then on, it demands daily attention in not just the provision of the proper amounts of water and sunlight but also careful trimming and adjustment with trimmers, hooks, wire, and everything else in the bonsai cultivator's surprisingly large suite of tools.




You can see a Japanese master of the art named Chiako Yamamoto in action in "Bonsai: The Endless Ritual," the BBC Earth Unplugged video at the top of the post. "Shaping nature in this way demands everlasting devotion without the prospect of completion," says its narrator, a point underscored by one bonsai under Yamamoto's care, originally planted by her grandfather over a century ago.

You'll find even older bonsai at the National Bonsai Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. In the video "Bonsai Will Make You a Better Person," curator Jack Sustic — an American first exposed to bonsai in the military, while stationed in Korea — shows off a Japanese white pine "in training" since the year 1625. That unusual terminology reflects the fact that no work of bonsai even attains a state of completeness. "They're always growing," say Sustic. "They're always changing. It's never a finished artwork." In National Geographic's "American Shokunin" just above, the titular bonsai cultivator (shokunin has a meaning similar to "craftsman" or "artisan"), Japan-trained, Oregon-based Ryan Neil, expands on what bonsai teaches: not just how to artistically grow small trees that resemble big ones, but what it takes to commune with nature and attain mastery.

"A master is somebody who, every single day, tries to pursue perfection at their chosen endeavor," says Neil. "A master doesn't retire. A master doesn't stop. They do it until they're dead." And as a work of bonsai literally outlives its creator, the pursuit continues long after they're dead. The bonsai master must be aware of the aesthetic and philosophical values held by the generations who came before them as well as the generations that will come after. Wabi sabi, as bonsai practitioner Pam Woythal defines it, is "the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death." Shibumi (or in its adjectival form shibui) is, in the words of I Am Bonsai's Jonathan Rodriguez, "the simple subtle details of the subject," manifest for example in "the apparent simple texture that balances simplicity and complexity." Looked at correctly, a bonsai tree — leaves, branches, pot, and all — reminds us of the important elements of life and the important elements of art, and of the fact that those elements aren't as far apart as we assume.

Related Content:

This 392-Year-Old Bonsai Tree Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Blast & Still Flourishes Today: The Power of Resilience

Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beauty of Traditional Japan

Discover the Japanese Museum Dedicated to Collecting Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

Watch Japanese Woodworking Masters Create Elegant & Elaborate Geometric Patterns with Wood

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.





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