When we think of silence, we think of meditative stretches of calm: hikes through deserted forest paths, an early morning sunset before the world awakes, a staycation at home with a good book. But we know other silences: awkward silences, ominous silences, and—in the case of John Cage’s infamous conceptual piece 4’33”—a mystifying silence that asks us to listen, not to nothing, but to everything. Instead of focusing our aural attention, Cage’s formalized exercise in listening disperses it, to the nervous coughs and squeaking shoes of a restless audience, the ceaseless ebb and flow of traffic and breathing, the ambient white noise of heating and AC…
and the suspended black noise of death metal….
We’re used to seeing 4’33” “performed” as a classical exercise, with a dignified pianist seated at the bench, ostentatiously turning the pages of Cage’s “score.” But there’s no reason at all the exercise—or hoax, some insist—can’t work in any genre, including metal. NPR’s All Songs TV brings us the video above, in which “64 years after its debut performance by pianist David Tudor,” death metal band Dead Territory lines behind their instruments, tunes up, and takes on Cage: “There’s a setup, earplugs go in, a brief guitar chug, a drum-stick count-off and… silence.”
As in every performance of 4’33”, we’re drawn not only to what we hear, in this case the sounds in whatever room we watch the video, but also to what we see. And watching these five metalheads, who are so used to delivering a continuous assault, nod their heads solemnly in silence for over four minutes adds yet another interpretive layer to Cage’s experiment, asking us to consider the performative avant-garde as a domain fit not only for rarified classical and art house audiences but for everyone and anyone.
Also, despite their seriousness, NPR reminds us that Dead Territory’s take is “another in a long line of 4’33” performances that understand Cage had a sense of humor while expanding our musical universe.” Cage happily gave his experiments to the world to adapt and improvise as it sees fit, and—as we see in his own performance of 4’33” in Harvard Square—he was happy to make his own changes to silence as well.
Edgar Allan Poe: anyone with an interest in scary stories—and not just scary, but deeply, whole-other-level scary stories—quickly learns the name. Presumably they also learn the proper spelling of the name: “Allan” with two As, not “Allen” with an E. But despite using the incorrect latter, the good people at Spotify have still managed to craft the most expansive Poeian playlist currently available on the internet, whose fourteen hours constitute “the essential Poe listening experience, from vintage radio versions to contemporary readings.” (If you don’t have Spotify’s free software, download it here.)
Though he composed his entire body of work in the first half of the nineteenth century, Poe lives on, for those who like their cocktails of mystery and the macabre with a long-lasting (and long-troubling) psychological aftertaste, as the storyteller to beat. As impressive a number of his writings—“The Tell-Tale Heart,”“The Fall of the House of Usher,”“The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”—have taken a permanent place in not just the American but human consciousness, none have attained as much universality as “The Raven,” the poem of loneliness and the supernatural which justifiably begins the playlist.
Given its sheer length, Spotify’s Essential Edgar Allen Allan Poe doesn’t just play the hits: even avowed Poe appreciators will likely hear a few intriguing literary B-sides they never have before. They’ll certainly hear more than a few productions and interpretations of their favorite pieces from the Poe canon. The playlist would also make a fine, if intense, introduction for those who have yet settled in with the work of the man who defined modern psychological horror. If you crave more afterward—and getting his readership hooked ranked not least among Poe’s concerns—do delve into the copious amount of Poe material we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, a few selections from which appear below. You’ll find it all enduringly and dreadfully compelling, no matter how you spell its author’s name.
You’ll be directed to a shelf—possibly an entire section—brimming with prompts, exercises, formulae, and Jedi mind tricks. Round out your purchase with a journal, a fancy pen, or an inspirational quote in bookmark form.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
Not surprisingly, given his prodigious output, he also believes that writers must write daily. Practice helps shape a writer’s voice. Daily practice keeps him or her on intimate terms with characters and plot.
Nose to the grindstone, young writer! Quit looking for fairy godmothers and making excuses! Though you might be able to fast track to the magical moment King revealed in a 2003 speech at Yale, above.
Go back to the bookstore.
Ask the clerk to point you toward the shelves of whatever genre has traditionally made your flesh crawl. Chick lit…vampire erotica…manly airplane reads. Select the most odious seeming title. Buy it. Read it. And heed the words of King:
There’s a magic moment, a really magic moment if you read enough, it will always come to you if you want to be a writer, when you put down some book and say, This really sucks. I can do better than this, and this got published!
(It’s really more of a spontaneously occurring rite of passage than magic moment, but who are we to fault Stephen King for giving it a crowd-pleasing supernatural spin?)
Ray Bradbury had it all thought out. Behind his captivating works of science fiction, there were subtle theories about what literature was meant to do. The retro clip above takes you back to the 1970s and it shows Bradbury giving a rather intriguing take on the role of literature and art. For the author of Fahrenheit 451andThe Martian Chronicles, literature has more than an aesthetic purpose. It has an important sociological/psychoanalytic role to play. Stories are a safety valve. They keep society collectively, and us individually, from coming apart at the seams. Which is to say–if you’ve been following the news lately–we need a helluva lot more literature these days. And a few new Ray Bradburys.
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In 1958, Link Wray released his bluesy instrumental “Rumble,” known for its pioneering use of reverb and distortion. The gritty, seductive tune became a huge hit with the kids, but grown-ups found the sound threatening, reminiscent of scary gang scenes in West Side Story and growing fears over “Juvenile Delinquency”—a national anxiety marked by the 1955 release of Blackboard Jungle and its introduction of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”
Just three years later, “Rumble” made middle class citizens so nervous that the song has the distinction of being the only instrumental ever banned from radio play in the U.S. And yet, that honor is somewhat misleading. It’s true many radio stations refused to play the song, or any rock and roll records at all, but it did receive enough exposure—from people like American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, no less—to remain in the top 40 for ten weeks in 1958.
Fast-forward thirty years from Blackboard Jungle panic, and we find the country in the midst of another national freakout about the kids and their music, this one spearheaded by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), formed by Tipper Gore and three other so-called “Washington Wives” who sought to place warning labels on “explicit” popular albums and otherwise impose moralistic guidelines on music and movies. Congressional hearings in 1985 saw the odd trio of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, mild-mannered folk star John Denver, and virtuoso prog-weirdo Frank Zappa testifying before the Senate against censorship. The fiercely libertarian Zappa’s opposition to the PMRC became something of a crusade, and the following year he appeared on Crossfire to argue his case.
PMRC backlash from musicians everywhere began to clutter the pop cultural landscape. Glenn Danzig released his anti-PMRC anthem, “Mother”; Ice-T’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speechviciously attacked Gore and her organization; NOFX released their E.P. The P.M.R.C. Can Suck on This… just a small sampling of dozens of anti-PMRC songs/albums/messages after those infamous hearings. But we can credit Zappa with founding the musical subgenera in his 1985 Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which included “Porn Wars,” above, a mashup of distorted samples from the hearings.
But did Zappa’s Grammy-award-winning instrumental record (above) really get the explicit content label? And was such labeling retaliation from the PMRC, as some believed? These claims have circulated for years on message boards, in books like Peter Blecha’s Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs, and on Wikipedia. And the answer is both yes, and no. Jazz from Hell did not get the familiar “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label, nor was it specifically targeted by Gore’s organization.
The album was, however, stickered in 1990—notes Dave Thompson’s The Music Lover’s Guide to Record Collecting—by “the Pacific Northwest chain of Fred Meyer department stores,” who gave it “the retailer’s own ‘Explicit Lyrics’ warning, despite the fact that the album was wholly instrumental.” This is likely due to the word “hell” and the title of the song “G-Spot Tornado.” So it may be fair to say that Zappa’s Jazz from Hell is the only fully instrumental album to receive an “Explicit Lyrics” warning, inspired by, if not directly ordered by, the PMRC. Like the radio censorship of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” this regional seal of disapproval did not in the least prevent the record from receiving due recognition. But it makes for a curious historical example of the absurd lengths people have gone to in their fear of modern pop music.
“The part of the site that draws the most attention is the underground burial chamber of a Nubian king who conquered Egypt in 715 B.C.,” writes National Geographic‘s Nora Rappaport. She quotes Turchik on the benefits of his chosen photographic technology, which allows him to “fly over and gain this connection between all the other burial sites, between the pyramid and the temple, and get an understanding of what that is from the air.”
Just as you’ll visit the pyramids if you take a trip to Cairo, you’ll visit the pyramids if you take a trip to Mexico City — but the pyramids of the still-impressive, still-mysterious ancient city of Teotihuacán. “Helicopters illegally fly over this area for foreign dignitaries, but we were told we might be the first to have filmed the pyramids with a drone,” writes the uploader of the video just above. He and his collaborators shot it early one morning for a Boston University research project on “what the ruins of a pre-Aztec metropolis can teach us about today’s cities.” History and urbanism buffs alike will want to read the accompanying article, but even just a glance at these clips tells you one thing for sure: whether old and long-ruined or relatively new and thriving, every city looks good from above.
It may sound like an effects menu in a computer rendering program, and indeed some of these videos look so beautiful in terms of lighting and color that CGI could be suspected. (Some commenters have added the videos to their VFX/Computer Graphics viewing lists.) But according to the site, this is not the case.
For an example of the beauty, just check out at the six-second mark when Cobalt Chloride and Sodium Silicate meet, resulting in bulbous blue and purple growths:
Or look at the wintry fractal forests that spawn when zinc meets silver nitrate (AgNO3), copper sulfate (CuSO4), and lead nitrate (Pb(NO3)2):
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
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