John Cage’s Silent, Avant-Garde Piece 4’33” Gets Covered by a Death Metal Band

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.

Related Content:

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See the Curious Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Composition 4’33”

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

Hear the 14-Hour “Essential Edgar Allan Poe” Playlist: “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” & Much More

poe cause of death

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.

The “Essential Edgar Allan Poe” Playlist will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Stephen King on the Magic Moment When a Young Writer Reads a Published Book and Says: “This Sucks. I Can Do Better.”

Go to a bookstore.

Tell the clerk you’re an aspiring writer.

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.

Few of author Stephen King’s books would be at home in this section, but his 2000 memoir, On Writing, a combination of personal history and practical advice, certainly is. The writing rules listed therein are numerous enough to yield a top 20. He makes no bones about reading being a mandatory activity:

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.

Got that?

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 litvampire eroticamanly 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?)

Related Content:

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Stephen King Creates a List of 82 Books for Aspiring Writers (to Supplement an Earlier List of 96 Recommend Books)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ray Bradbury Explains Why Literature is the Safety Valve of Civilization (in Which Case We Need More Literature!)

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 451 and The 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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Father Writes a Great Letter About Censorship When Son Brings Home Permission Slip to Read Ray Bradbury’s Censored Book, Fahrenheit 451

The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entirely Instrumental Album Received an “Explicit Lyrics” Sticker

zappa lyrics

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 Speech viciously 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.

All of these records received the requisite “Good Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval,” the now-familiar stark black-and-white parental warning label (top). Zappa’s album cover pre-empted the inevitable stickering with a bright yellow and red box reading “Warning Guarantee,” full of tongue-in-cheek small print like  “GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.” All this incessant needling of the PMRC must have really got to them, fans figured, when Zappa’s 1986 record Jazz from Hell began appearing, it’s said, in record stores with a parental advisory label—on an album without lyrics of any kind.

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.

Related Content:

Frank Zappa Debates Censorship on CNN’s Crossfire (1986)

Frank Zappa’s Experimental Advertisements For Luden’s Cough Drops, Remington Razors & Portland General Electric

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

A Drone’s Eye View of the Ancient Pyramids of Egypt, Sudan & Mexico

A couple years ago we featured drone footage shot above Los Angeles, New York, London, Bangkok, and Mexico City, the sort of metropolises that rank among the greatest works of modern man. But the pilot-photographers of small, unmanned, camera-bearing aircraft have produced equally fascinating visual revelations of the great works of not-so-modern-man. Just above, for instance, we have a drone flyover of the Nubian pyramids of Meroë, Sudan. You can see more such footage at National Geographic, whose engineer Alan Turchik has taken his own quadcopter out there.

“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.”

That holds just as true for other sites of interest, such as the famous pyramids of Giza, captured just above by a traveler-drone photographer from China. (Flying drones in Egypt, we should note, has recently become a more difficult proposition; an enthusiast called Izzy Drones made a video on the complexities of his own mission to shoot the pyramids last year.)

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.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Beautiful Chemical Reactions Captured in Stunning Microphotography

You don’t have to know your Zn(NO3)2 from your CuSO4 to appreciate these absolutely beautiful videos of chemical reactions created for a site called Beautiful Chemistry.

Professor Yan Liang of the University of Science and Technology of China, along with co-creators Xiangang Tao and Wei Huang, and in collaboration with Tsinghua University Press, are all behind the project, which focuses a hi-def microscopic camera on chemical reactions like bubbling, metal displacement, crystallization, smoke and liquids.

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):

The Beautiful Chemistry site has several other interesting series to check out for the science lover, including an ongoing introduction to the elements in cartoon form and a photo gallery of chemistry instruments from history. They are, as the site says, beautiful. More videos can be found on their Vimeo channel.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Brian Eno Explains the Loss of Humanity in Modern Music

In music, as in film, we have reached a point where every element of every composition can be fully produced and automated by computers. This is a breakthrough that allows producers with little or no musical training the ability to rapidly turn out hits. It also allows talented musicians without access to expensive equipment to record their music with little more than their laptops. But the ease of digital recording technology has encouraged producers, musicians, and engineers at all levels to smooth out every rough edge and correct every mistake, even in recordings of real humans playing old-fashioned analogue instruments. After all, if you could make the drummer play in perfect time every measure, the singer hit every note on key, or the guitarist play every note perfectly, why wouldn’t you?

One answer comes in a succinct quotation from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which Ted Mills referenced in a recent post here on Miles Davis: “Honor Your Mistakes as a Hidden Intention.” (The advice is similar to that Davis gave to Herbie Hancock, “There are no mistakes, just chances to improvise.”) In the short clip at the top, Eno elaborates in the context of digital production, saying “the temptation of the technology is to smooth everything out.”

But the net effect of correcting every perceived mistake is to “homogenize the whole song,” he says, “till every bar sounds the same… until there’s no evidence of human life at all in there.” There is a reason, after all, that even purely digital, “in the box” sequencers and drum machines have functions to “humanize” their beats—to make them correspond more to the looseness and occasional hesitancy of real human players.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as singing or playing well or badly—it means there is no such thing as perfection. Or rather, that perfection is not a worthy goal in music. The real hooks, the moments that we most connect with and return to again and again, are often happy accidents. Mills points to a whole Reddit thread devoted to mistakes left in recordings that became part of the song. And when it comes to playing perfectly in time or in tune, I think of what an atrocity would have resulted from running all of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street through a digital audio workstation to sand down the sharp edges and “fix” the mistakes. All of its shambling, mumbling, drunken barroom charm would be completely lost. That goes also for the entire recorded output of The Band, or most of Dylan’s albums (such as my personal favorite, John Wesley Harding).

To take a somewhat more modern example, listen to “Sirena” from Australian instrumental trio Dirty Three, above. This is a band that sounds forever on the verge of collapse, and it’s absolutely beautiful to hear (or see, if you get the chance to experience them live). This recording, from their album Ocean Songs, was made in 1998, before most production went fully digital, and there are very few records that sound like it anymore. Even dance music has the potential to be much more raw and organic, instead of having singers’ voices run through so much pitch correction software that they sound like machines. (witness the obscure disco hit “Miss Broadway,” for example, or LCD Soundsystem’s career.)

There is a lot more to say about the way the albums represented above were recorded, but the overall point is that just as too much CGI has often ruined the excitement of cinema (we’re looking at you, George Lucas) —or as the digital “loudness wars” sapped much recorded music of its dynamic peaks and valleys—overzealous use of software to correct imperfections can ruin the human appeal of music, and render it sterile and disposable like so many cheap, plastic mass-produced toys. As with all of our use of advanced technology, questions about what we can do should always be followed by questions about what we’re really gaining, or losing, in the process.

Related Content:

Brian Eno on Creating Music and Art As Imaginary Landscapes (1989)

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Brian Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Download His 2015 John Peel Lecture

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

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