The Two Fridas: An Introduction to Frida Kahlo’s Famous Large-Scale Painting (1939)

One can appreciate the art of Frida Kahlo while knowing nothing of the art of her onetime husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But the experience of certain of her paintings can be greatly enriched by some knowledge of their relationship, the clearest example being The Two Fridas, which Kahlo painted in 1939 after their divorce. The largest of her numerous self-portraits, it presents the artist as a set of doppelgängers set apart by their attire: one wears a European dress, and the other a traditional Mexican one. The resulting tableau could, on one level, reflect her dual heritage; it also, as Kahlo herself put it, shows “the Frida Diego loved, and the one he didn’t.”

The Two Fridas is the subject of the video essay above from Great Art Explained. “The darker-skinned Frida on the right is the indigenous Mexican Frida that was adored by her husband,” explains its host, gallerist James Payne.

“The lighter-skinned Frida on the left is the European Frida that he rejected.” Presenting herself in the former fashion “sent a clear message of cultural identity, nationalism, and feminism” — but it also concealed the “broken body” that resulted from a bus crash in her youth as well as various other physical disorders later in life. This portrait, however, exposes the heart of “Mexican Frida” in order to show that it “remains intact, sustained by the small portrait of Diego” in her hand.

The heart of “European Frida,” however, is rendered as “disconnected from her beloved Diego,” and it “bleeds profusely onto her dress, a Victorian lace dress similar to the one her mother wore.” The two Fridas are connected through their exposed hearts by a single artery, one connected to the portrait of Rivera. Payne points out the particular symbolic power of a bleeding heart, a “fundamental symbol of Catholicism” that “can also be seen as symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice,” in the case of a culturally conflicted artist such as Kahlo. In retrospect, The Two Fridas also seems to express the inevitability of Kahlo and Rivera’s remarriage, which would come the following year. They had “one of the most obsessive and tumultuous relationships in art history,” as Payne puts it, but while both lived, they knew they couldn’t do without each other.

Related content:

Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Artist

A Brief Animated Introduction to the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo

The Intimacy of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits: A Video Essay

Home Movies of Frida Kahlo (and a Side Order of Romantic Entanglements)

Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings Collects the Painter’s Entire Body of Work in a 600-Page, Large-Format Book

Discover Frida Kahlo’s Wildly-Illustrated Diary: It Chronicled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

An Immersive, Architectural Tour of New York City’s Iconic Grand Central Terminal

New Yorkers can be a maddeningly closed-mouth bunch, selfishly guarding our secret haunts lest they be overrun with newcomers and tourists…

But there’s not much we can do to deflect interest from Grand Central Teminal’s whispering gallery, a wildly popular acoustic anomaly in the tiled passageway just outside its famous Oyster Bar.

So we invite you to bring a friend, position yourselves in opposite corners, facing away from each other, and murmur your secrets to the wall.

Your friend will hear you as clearly as if you’d been whispering directly into their ear…and 9 times out of 10, a curious onlooker will approach to ask what exactly is going on.

Initiate them!

Sharing secrets of this order cultivates civic pride, a powerful force that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis harnessed when developers threatened to obscure Grand Central’s beauty with a towering addition designed by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer.

Onassis wrote to Mayor Abraham Beame in 1975, hoping to enlist him in the fight to spare midtown Manhattan’s jewel from an affront that the Landmarks Preservation Commission called an “aesthetic joke:”

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?

The Supreme Court sealed the deal in Grand Central’s favor in Penn Central Transportation Co. vs. New York City, a (pardon the pun) landmark decision that ensured future generations could discover  the Beaux-Arts treats historian Anthony Robins, author of Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark, divulges above.

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to budget a few extra minutes to hunt for Caducei and Vanderbilt family acorns next time you’re grabbing a Metro-North commuter train.

(Amtrak’s long distance lines operate out of Penn Station…)

Spend some time in Grand Central’s iconic Main Concourse.

Gaze up toward the great arched windows to see if you can catch a tiny human figure behind the glass bricks, passing along one of the high up hidden catwalks connecting office buildings anchoring Grand Central’s corners.

Perhaps you’ll be privy to some intrigue near the famous four-sided clock, a time-honored rendez-vous spot that’s appeared in numerous films, including The Godfather, Men in Black, and North by Northwest.

Admire the upside down and backwards constellations adorning the vaulted ceiling, marveling that it not only took five men – architect Whitney Warren, artist Paul Helleu, muralist J. Monroe Hewlett, painter Charles Basing, and astronomer Harold Jacoby – to get it wrong, their celestial boo-boo has been embraced during subsequent renovations.

If your wallet’s as fat as a Park Avenue swell’s, head to the Campbell Apartment atop the West Staircase. Formerly the private office of Jazz Age financier, John W. Campbell, it’s now a glamorous venue for blowing $20 on a martini.

(Hot tip – that same $20 can fetch you sixteen Long Island Blue Points during Happy Hour at the Oyster Bar.)

As for the East Staircase, nearly 100 years younger than its seeming fraternal twin across the Concourse’s marble expanse, that one leads to an Apple Store.

Browse various options for Grand Central Terminal guided and self-guided tours here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Stream 385,000 Vintage 78 RPM Records at the Internet Archive: Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday & More

We may have yet to develop the technology of time travel, but recorded music comes pretty close. Those who listen to it have experienced how a song or an album can, in some sense, transport them right back to the time they first heard it. But older records also have the much stranger power to conjure up eras we never experienced. You can musically send yourself as far back as the nineteen-twenties with the above Youtube playlist of digitized 78 RPM records from the George Blood collection.

George Blood is the head of the audio-visual digitization company George Blood Audio, which has been participating in the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project. “The brainchild of the Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, the project is dedicated to the preservation and discovery of 78rpm records,” writes The Vinyl Factory’s Will Pritchard.

The piece quotes Blood himself as saying that his company has been digitizing five to six thousand records per month with the ambitious goal of creating a “reference collection of sound recordings from the period of approximately 1880 to 1960.” He said that five years ago. Today, the Internet Archive’s George Blood collection contains more than 385,000 records free to stream and download.

The 78 having been the most popular recorded-music format in the first few decades of the twentieth century, George Blood L.P. and the Great 78 Project as a whole have had plenty of material to work with. In the large archive built up so far you’ll find plenty of obscurities — the Youtube playlist at the top of the post can get you acquainted with the likes of Eric Whitley and the Green Sisters, Tin Ear Tanner and His Back Room Boys, and Douglas Venable and His Bar X Ranch Hands — but also the work of musicians who remain beloved today. For the 78 was the medium through which many listeners enjoyed the big-band hit of Glenn Miller, or discovered jazz as performed by legends like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. To know their music most intimately, one would perhaps have needed to hear them in the actual nineteen-thirties, but this is surely the next best thing.

Related content:

How the Internet Archive Has Digitized More than 250,000 78 R.P.M. Records: See the Painstaking Process Up-Close

Massive Archive of 78RPM Records Now Digitized & Put Online: Stream 78,000 Early 20th Century Records from Around the World

200,000+ Vintage Records Being Digitized & Put Online by the Boston Public Library

Rare Arabic 78 RPM Records Enter the Public Domain

Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Courtesy of the University of California-Santa Barbara

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Liam Neeson Stars as Raymond Chandler’s Legendary Detective Philip Marlowe: Watch the Trailer for the New Film

Behold the new trailer for Marlowe, a new film directed by Neil Jordan. As the title suggests, the film centers around Philip Marlowe, the gumshoe detective that Raymond Chandler first unveiled in The Big Sleep in 1939. Between then and now, Marlowe has been portrayed in films by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, and James Garner. Now, Liam Neeson takes his turn. Here’s how the producers pitch the film:

MARLOWE, a gripping noir crime thriller set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, centers around a street-wise, down on his luck detective; Philip Marlowe, played by Liam Neeson, who is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress (Diane Kruger), daughter of a well-known movie star (Jessica Lange). The disappearance unearths a web of lies, and soon Marlowe is involved in a dangerous, deadly investigation where everyone involved has something to hide.

Marlowe arrives in theaters on February 15.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, 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. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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Watch Raymond Chandler’s Long-Unnoticed Cameo in Double Indemnity

via BoingBoing

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When Orson Welles Denounced Elia Kazan as a Traitor for Giving Other Filmmakers’ Names to Joe McCarthy (1982)

As we’ve previously noted here on Open Culture, Orson Welles was not given to mincing words about his colleagues. And the older he got, the fewer words he minced, as evidenced by the clip above from a talk he gave at a Paris film school in 1982. During the Q&A, he took a question that quoted Elia Kazan’s remarks on the difficulty of raising money in America for a film about Puerto Ricans. Or rather, he heard part of the question and launched right into his thundering response: “Mademoiselle, you have chosen the wrong metteur en scene, because Elia Kazan is a traitor.”

Welles took a minute to elaborate: “He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his companions at a time when he could continue to work in New York at high salary. And having sold all of his people to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Waterfront which was a celebration of the informer. And therefore, no question which uses him as an example can be answered by me.” Welles made a habit of publicly demonstrating his principles, both artistic or political. It was the latter that had decades before got his name into the journal Red Channels, one element of the larger American anti-Communist movement personified by Welles’ fellow Wisconsinite, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“When Stalinism was fashionable, movie people became Stalinists,” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. “They performed propaganda services for the various shifts in Russia’s foreign policy and, as long as the needs of American and Russian policy coincided, this took the form of super-patriotism. When the war was over and the Cold War began, history left them stranded, and McCarthy moved in on them. The shame of McCarthyism was not only ‘the shame of America’ but the shame of a bunch of newly rich people who were eager to advise the world on moral and political matters and who, faced with a test, informed on their friends — and, as Orson Welles put it, not even to save their lives but to save their swimming pools.”

This passage comes from “Raising Kane,” Kael’s well-known essay on Citizen Kane that plays down Welles’ influence on the film and plays up that of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. But whatever ground Welles had to resent Kael, he had more to resent Kazan, who gave testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. That marked the height of the “Hollywood blacklist” that put a temporary hold on, or permanent end to, the careers of suspected Communists or sympathizers in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, Welles possesses sound enough artistic and political judgment never to let the one interfere with the other, as evidenced by what he said of Kazan after receiving a round of applause from the audience: “I have to add that he is a very good director.”

via Michael Warburton

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What Happened Hazel Scott? Meet the Brilliant Jazz Musician & Activist Who Disappeared into Obscurity When She Was Blacklisted During the McCarthy Era

Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1947)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Courtesy of the University of California-Santa Barbara 


Three minutes with the minstrels / Arthur Collins, S. H. Dudley & Ancient City. Edison Record. 1899.

Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s came along, people first experienced audio recordings through another medium — through cylinders made of tin foil, wax and plastic. In recent years, we’ve featured cylinder recordings from the 19th century that allow you to hear the voices of Leo Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Walt WhitmanOtto von Bismarck and other historic figures. Those recordings were originally recorded and played on a cylinder phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. But those were obviously just a handful of the cylinder recordings produced at the beginning of the recorded sound era.

Thanks to the University of California-Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, you can now download or stream a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings. “This searchable database,” says UCSB, “features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.” You can also find in the archive a number of “personal recordings,” or “home wax recordings,” made by everyday people at home (as opposed to by record companies).

If you go to this page, the recordings are neatly categorized by genre, instrument, subject/theme and ethnicity/nation of origin. You can listen, for example, to recordings of JazzHawaiian MusicOperas, and Fiddle Tunes. Or hear recordings featuring the MandolinGuitarBagpipes and Banjo. Plus there are thematically-arranged playlists here.

Hosted by University of California-Santa Barbara, the archive is supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and other donors.

Above, hear a recording called “Three minutes with the minstrels,” by Arthur Collins, released in 1899. Below that is “Alexander’s ragtime band medley,” featuring the banjo playing of Fred Van Eps, released in 1913.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, 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. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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

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Bell Telephone Launched a Mobile Phone During the 1940s: Watch Bell’s Film Showing How It Worked

“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway, miles from the nearest town,” says the narrator of the short film above. Suddenly, it becomes “important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can it be done?” Any modern-day viewer would respond to this question in the same way: you just call the guys. But Mobile Telephones dates from the nineteen-forties, well before the eponymous devices were in wide use — about four decades, in fact, before even the massive Motorola DynaTAC 8000X came on the market. The idea of calling someone not at home or the office, let alone a trucker on the road, would have seemed the stuff of science fiction.

Yet the engineers at Bell had made it possible, using a system that transmits conversations “partway by radio, partway by telephone lines.” This necessitated “a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines,” installed “at intervals along the highway so that one will always be in range of the moving vehicle.”

As dramatized in Mobile Telephones, the process of actually ringing up the driver of a vehicle involves calling a classic forties switchboard operator and asking her to make the connection. But otherwise, the process won’t feel entirely unfamiliar to the mobile phone users today — that is, to the majority of the people in the world.

Cellphones have become such an integral part of life in the twenty-first century that few of us really feel the need to understand just how they work. But three quarters of a century ago, the idea of taking or making calls on the go was unfamiliar enough that viewers of a film like this would have wanted the mechanics laid out in some detail. Surely that held especially true for the industrial clients of Bell’s early mobile-telephone system, for whom its reliable functionality would translate into greater profits. Taking the longer view, this technological development marks, as the narrator reminds us over swelling music, “one more step toward telephone service for anyone, any time, anywhere”: a once-futuristic vision that now sounds practically mundane.

Related content:

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

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A 1947 French Film Accurately Predicted Our 21st-Century Addiction to Smartphones

In 1953, a Telephone-Company Executive Predicts the Rise of Modern Smartphones and Video Calls

The First Cellphone: Discover Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2-Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Robots Are Carving Replicas of the Elgin Marbles: Could They Help the Real Ancient Sculptures Return to Greece?

Art forgery is a sturdy trope of film and fiction. We’re all familiar with the spectacle of a rarified expert examining a work, while a wealthy collector anxiously wrings their hands nearby.

As Maggie Cao observes in the Guardian:

Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.

But what if art forgery can be used for good?

That’s the hope of Roger Michel, founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, who employs technological advances to preserve culturally significant objects and offer accessible tactile experiences to those with vision impairment.

Shortly after ISIS destroyed the Monumental Arch of Palymyra, he harnessed 3D technology to recreate the 1800-year old landmark in two-thirds scale Egyptian marble.

The public was able to get up close and personal with the model in various locations around the world, including New York’s City Hall Park, Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, and London’s Trafalgar Square, where Michel enjoyed watching passersby touching and photographing the replica Arch:

There are guys in Carnaby Street suits mixed with young people in hip-hop clothes and Syrians in traditional dress. It’s the crossroads of humanity, and that was what Palymra was.

Michel is also striving to convince the British Museum that all will not be lost, should it choose to repatriate the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles to Greece, much as the Smithsonian returned 29 Benin bronzes taken during an 1897 British raid to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.

Michel made his case with a robotically carved facsimile of the head of the Horse of Selene, above, which is all the more remarkable when one learns that he was working from photos taken on an iPhone and iPad while visiting the gallery in which it is displayed, after the museum refused his request for an official scan.

The item description on the museum’s collection’s portal notes that the Horse of Selene was purchased from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who took possession of it while serving as Britain’s ambassador to Ottoman Turkey from 1799-1803.

(The description neglects to mention that rather than allow him to adorn his home with this and other ill-gotten antiquities, a parliamentary committee ordered Lord Elgin to sell his vast collection to the British government for £35,000, which is how they wound up in the museum.)

Originally a part of the Parthenon’s east pediment, the Horse of Selene is such a fan favorite that the museum shop sells an “exquisite” hand-cast resin replica for £1,650, promising that it will make “a show-stopping point of focus in any home.”

Perhaps…though we’re willing to bet it can’t match the verisimilitude of the tiny chips and chisel marks painstakingly captured by the robot carver, which took about about 8 days to create a rough model once it received the scans, followed by some 3 weeks of refining. The robot got an assist at the very end from human artisans, whose handiwork Michel calls “the crucial 3 to 5 percent.”

Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, who partnered with Michel on this recreation, vaunts the precision technology makes possible:

You can recognize every scratch. You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years ago were facing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the struggles of the artist.

The museum brass appears unmoved by the prospect of swapping replicas, no matter how excellent, for the frieze panels, sculptures, architectural fragments and other treasures of antiquity Elgin shipped home from the Acropolis in the early 1800s, though the New York Times reported last week that secret talks with Greece’s prime minister may indicate the two parties are edging closer to resolution.

This collection has been a cultural hot potato since Lord Byron, touring the Parthenon shortly after Elgin made off with so many its treasures, denounced his avarice in a poem titled The Curse of Minerva:

Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,

I saw successive Tyrannies expire;

‘Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,

Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.

Survey this vacant, violated fane;

Recount the relics torn that yet remain:

‘These’ Cecrops placed, ‘this’ Pericles adorned,

‘That’ Adrian reared when drooping Science mourned.

What more I owe let Gratitude attest—

Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.

That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,

The insulted wall sustains his hated name:

For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,

Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!

The New York Times quoted a middle-aged London bus driver who voiced the opinion, as did the vast majority of respondents to a British survey, that the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to their land of origin, remarking, “It’s like the Crown Jewels. If someone took those, you’d want them back, wouldn’t you?”

His argument is a hard one to refute in an age when the innovative technical solutions promoted by Michel and the Institute for Digital Archaeology create opportunities that Lord Elgin and museum visitors of yore could never have envisioned.

The public invitation to the November 2022 unveiling of the Selene Horse replica stated that “Britain’s stewardship of the Elgin marbles embodies a psychologically complex story of obsession, possession, and assimilation – so far without resolution”, asking:

Might perfect copies, rendered in sacred Pentelic marble, suggest a possible path forward?

Readers, what say you?

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Coursera Offers $200 Off of Coursera Plus (Until January 31), Giving You Unlimited Access to Courses & Certificates

A new deal to start a new year: Between now and January 31, 2023, Coursera is offering a $200 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $199) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $199 annual fee–which translates roughly to 55 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2023, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before January 31, 2023) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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The Only Footage of Mark Twain: The Original & Digitally Restored Films Shot by Thomas Edison

We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sounded like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Stormfield, his house in Redding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loosely around his frame, signature cigar puffing white smoke between his fingers. After Twain’s leisurely walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daughters, Clara and Jean, seated indoors. Below you can see the original murky version, featured on our site way back in 2010. A digital restoration (top) does wonders for the watchability of this priceless silent artifact, so vividly capturing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find yourself reaching to turn the volume up, expecting to hear that familiar curmudgeonly drawl.

Shot by Thomas Edison in 1909, the short film is most likely the only moving image of Twain in existence. We might assume that Edison also recorded Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from portrayals of the great American humorist in pop cultural touchstones like Star Trek: The Next Generation and parodies by Alec Baldwin and Val Kilmer.

Kilmer’s surprisingly funny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch perfect impersonation Hal Holbrook had given us for the better part of sixty years in his masterful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal mannerisms have become a definitive model for actors playing Twain on stage and screen.

Given the number of Twain vocal impersonations out there, and Edison’s interest in documenting the author, we might be surprised to learn that no original recordings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film below, experimented with audio recording technology, but abandoned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylinders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them himself.

As narrator Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain impersonator and aficionado—informs us, what we do have is a recording made in 1934 by actor and playwright William Gillette,  an able mimic of Twain, his patron and longtime neighbor. Like Holbrook, Gillette spent a good part of his career traveling from town to town playing Mark Twain. Below, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of students at Harvard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, reading from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Gillette’s performance is likely the closest we’ll ever come to hearing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our collection of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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

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Watch Classic Performances by Yellow Magic Orchestra, the Japanese Band That Became One of the Most Innovative Electronic Music Acts of All Time

Music changes when technology changes. Few musicians have demonstrated as keen an awareness of that fact as Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who together as Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) burst onto the scene making sounds that most listeners of the late nineteen-seventies had never heard before — never heard in a musical context, at least. They’d never seen a band employ a computer programmer, nor bring onstage a device like Roland’s MC-8 Microcomposer, an early musical sequencer designed strictly for studio use. That YMO didn’t hesitate to make these unconventional choices, and many others besides, won them years as the most popular band in their native Japan.

It would be unimaginable for YMO to have emerged in any other place or time. “Japan had long since remade itself as a postwar economic engine, but by the late 1970s it was becoming something else: a global emblem of techno-utopianism and futuristic cool,” writes the New York Times‘ Clay Risen. “Sony released the Walkman in 1979, just as Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake were taking over Paris fashion runways with their playful, visionary designs.”

Japan had become economically, technologically, and culturally formidable on a global scale, and YMO were placed to become its ideal representatives: they had the askew hipness and the cutting-edge sounds, but it was their sense of humor, evident in the playfulness of their music, that took the rest of the world by surprise.

You’ll find no better introduction to YMO’s work than the hour-long YMO concert at the Nippon Budokan at the top of the post. It took place in 1983, not long before Hosono, Takahashi, and Sakamoto packed the band up and returned to their already well-established solo careers. As a unit they’d achieved global stardom, playing foreign venues like Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre in 1979 and, unbelievably, going on Soul Train in 1980. Their early hit “Behind the Mask” even caught the attention of Michael Jackson, who recorded his own version of the song for Thriller but left it unreleased until 2010 — by which time YMO had reunited to perform in Japan, Europe, and America, playing for new generations of listeners who had grown up immersed in their music, directly or indirectly.

Influences on YMO included the work of Brian Wilson and Giorgio Moroder, as well as music from India, China, the Caribbean, the late-fifties-early-sixties “exotica” fad, and even arcade games. But their own influence has spread out farther still, shaping not just various subgenres of electronic music but also certain formative works of hip hop. If you listen to YMO’s albums today — nearly 45 years after their commercial debut, and just a few weeks after the death of co-founder Takahashi — their music still, somehow, sounds thoroughly Japanese. Like Isao Tomita (whose assistant became their computer programmer), YMO understood not just that music changes with technology, but also that it emerges from a specific culture, and in their discography we hear those principles pushed to their thrilling limits.

Related content:

Infinite Escher: A High-Tech Tribute to M.C. Escher, Featuring Sean Lennon, Nam June Paik & Ryuichi Sakamoto (1990)

How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit: Discover Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”

Hear the Greatest Hits of Isao Tomita (RIP), the Father of Japanese Electronic Music

Pink Lady and Jeff: Japan’s Biggest Pop Musicians Star in One of America’s Worst-Reviewed TV Shows (1980)

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music Forever, Is Back! And It’s Now Affordable & Compact

Kraftwerk’s First Concert: The Beginning of the Endlessly Influential Band (1970)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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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