Conversation with a Swiftie: Pretty Much Pop #58 Addresses the Taylor Swift Phenomenon

Prompt­ed by the release of new album Folk­lore and the 2020 doc­u­men­tary Miss Amer­i­cana, your hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er, Eri­ca Spyres, and Bri­an Hirt speak with guest Amber Pad­gett about her love of Tay­lor, rank­ing the albums/eras, Tay­lor as songwriter/puppetmaster, why the hate, weird lev­els of fan engage­ment, dou­ble stan­dards in expec­ta­tions for female artists, and more. Like all of our dis­cus­sions, this one is should be inter­est­ing to fans, haters, and folks who’re just curi­ous as to what all the fuss is about.

A few of the sources we scanned to pre­pare:

Amber rec­om­mends Tay­lor’s Tiny Desk Con­cert. Watch Eri­ca and Drew cov­er “Exile.” Here’s that album of Ryan Adams’ 1989 cov­ers that Eri­ca men­tions. And yes, we’re open to a com­pa­ra­ble Bey­on­cé episode if we can find a guest super-fan and lis­ten­ers want more of this kind of thing.

Learn more at This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts.

The Massive Harrods Catalogue from 1912 Gets Digitized: Before Amazon, Harrods Offered “Everything for Everyone, Everywhere”

A cou­ple years ago, obit­u­ar­ies began appear­ing online for the depart­ment store Sears after the 130-year-old Amer­i­can com­pa­ny announced its bank­rupt­cy. Many of the trib­utes focused on Sears, Roe­buck & Co’s cat­a­log, and for good rea­son. Their mas­sive mail-order busi­ness, the Ama­zon of its day, trans­formed the U.S., sell­ing gui­tars to Delta blues and rock and roll musi­cians and ship­ping thou­sands of build-it-your­self hous­es to rur­al home­stead­ers and sub­ur­ban­ites. The sheer reach and scope of the Sears’ cat­a­log can seem over­whelm­ing…. That is, until we turn to the 1912 Har­rods for Every­thing.

This 1,525-page cat­a­logue from London’s world-famous depart­ment store, Har­rods, does seem to mean every­thing, with over 15,000 prod­ucts avail­able for pur­chase at the store’s loca­tion, by mail, or by phone (“any­thing, at any time, day or night”).

You can see the enor­mous mon­u­ment to com­merce for your­self at Project Guten­berg. The cat­a­logue took 13 years to scan. “Some idea of the vast quan­ti­ty of items that Har­rods stocked or had avail­able can be tak­en from the gen­er­al index,” notes Eric Hut­ton, one of the vol­un­teer edi­tors on the project, “which runs for 68 pages, five columns to a page.”

Men and women could order cus­tom-tai­lored cloth­ing, fine jew­el­ry, clocks, watch­es, fur­ni­ture. Nat­u­ral­ists and hunters could have their tro­phies dressed and mount­ed. Police­men and, well, any­one, could order pis­tols, “knuck­le dusters,” and hand­cuffs. “You could also hire bands or musi­cians, plus tents or mar­quees for out­door gath­er­ings. You could rent steam, elec­tric, or petrol launch­es to go down a riv­er, or, if you set your sights fur­ther afield, there were ‘explor­ing, sci­en­tif­ic and shoot­ing expe­di­tions… com­plete­ly equipped and pro­vi­sioned for any part of the world”… per­haps the Edwar­dian British ver­sion of the Sears House.

A MetaFil­ter user points out how much glob­al­iza­tion and empire play into the mar­ket­ing. These are “not just lux­u­ry goods but com­modi­ties. I noticed wheat could come from at least three con­ti­nents…. Over and over it explains how Har­rods will out­fit any­one abroad who needs a social or mil­i­tary or explorato­ry uni­form: tele­graph Har­rods for shoe buck­les appro­pri­ate to your sta­tions.” Har­rods also repeat­ed­ly empha­sizes they will ship any­where in the world. Colo­nial offi­cials in India or Ugan­da could live like kings. We must con­fess, we doubt this mer­chan­dise was tru­ly meant for every­one.

This was also a time when mir­a­cle cures and var­i­ous unsci­en­tif­ic treat­ments abound­ed. “You could buy things like chlo­ro­form or throat pastilles in dozens of vari­eties,” notes Hut­ton, “even those con­tain­ing cocaine!”

A few of the com­modi­ties fea­tured in Har­rods for Every­thing are a lot hard­er to come by these days. Some of them, like the pages of guns, are easy to get in the US but not so read­i­ly avail­able in the UK and many of its for­mer colonies. (Though you can find cat­a­logues for just about any­thing if you look hard enough.)

But aside from cer­tain obvi­ous his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences, the cat­a­logue isn’t that much dif­fer­ent from the pages of online retail­ers who will also sell you almost any­thing, at any time of day, and ship it to you any­where in the world. What we thought of as unprece­dent­ed inno­va­tion was com­mon­place in the days of Queen Vic­to­ria, only ship­ping took a lot longer. Har­rods’ uni­ver­sal­iz­ing Latin mot­to even sounds par­tic­u­lar­ly mod­ern, in Eng­lish, at least: Omnia Omnibus Ubique, or “every­thing for every­one, every­where.” Yet much, too, has changed. Har­rods, out­fit­ter of the British Empire, is now owned by the state of Qatar.

See the ful­ly scanned 1,525-page Har­rods for Every­thing cat­a­logue at Project Guten­berg.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Trans­formed Amer­i­can Life

How the Sears Cat­a­log Dis­rupt­ed the Jim Crow South and Helped Give Birth to the Delta Blues & Rock and Roll

What It Cost to Shop at the Gro­cery Store in 1836, and What Goods You Could Buy

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

Take a Virtual Tour of Frida Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

No first trip to Mex­i­co City is com­plete with­out a vis­it to the Fri­da Kahlo Muse­um. Locat­ed in the vil­lage-turned-bor­ough of Coyoacán south of the city’s cen­ter, it requires a short trip-with­in-a-trip to get there. But even for trav­el­ers who know noth­ing of Kahlo’s art, it’s worth the effort — espe­cial­ly since they’ll come away know­ing quite a bit about not just Kahlo’s art and life but the cul­tur­al­ly rich place and time she inhab­it­ed. For the build­ing occu­pied by the Fri­da Kahlo Muse­um was, in fact, the home in which the artist was born and spent most of her life, mak­ing her one of Coyoacán’s many notable res­i­dents. (Oth­ers include writer Octavio Paz, icon­ic com­ic actor Mario “Can­ti­n­flas” Moreno, and actress-singer Dolores del Río.)

Though I’ve long want­ed to return to the Blue House, as the Fri­da Kahlo Muse­um is col­lo­qui­al­ly known, I some­how haven’t made it back again on any of my sub­se­quent trips to Mex­i­co City. And giv­en the state of world trav­el at the moment, I doubt I’ll get the chance to make anoth­er vis­it any time soon.

For­tu­nate­ly, the Muse­um has become vir­tu­al­ly explorable online, with 360-degree views of all its rooms as well as its grounds. Even vir­tu­al­ly, writes Vogue’s Manon Gar­rigues, “Frida’s spir­it can be felt every­where. In her ate­lier are care­ful­ly arranged pig­ments fac­ing her easel, while in the kitchen, which once wel­comed the couple’s friends to the house, includ­ing their renowned neigh­bor, Trot­sky, who lived next door with his wife, are play­ful ceram­ics.”

For those with com­pat­i­ble head­sets, all of this is also view­able in Web­VR mode —  even Kahlo’s bed­room, where “an urn in the form of her face lies on her bed, hold­ing her ash­es. Beside is the mir­ror in which Fri­da, bedrid­den, observed her­self to paint her famous self-por­traits, such as The Two Fridas and Fri­da y la cesarea, now on dis­play in the vil­la.”

The home-turned-muse­um’s ten rooms dis­play a great deal of Kahlo’s art, of course, but also works by her hus­band, the painter Diego Rivera, as well as the cou­ple’s cloth­ing and per­son­al effects. You’ll find paint­ings by oth­er artists of Kahlo’s day like Paul Klee and José María Velas­co, and also hand­craft­ed items from oth­er regions of Mex­i­co. The only thing miss­ing in the vir­tu­al Fri­da Kahlo Muse­um expe­ri­ence is the req­ui­site cafe de olla enjoyed after­ward, back out on the streets of Coyoacán. Enter the vir­tu­al tour here.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Watch Mov­ing Short Films of Fri­da Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the “Blue House”

Artists Fri­da Kahlo & Diego Rivera Vis­it Leon Trot­sky in Mex­i­co: Vin­tage Footage from 1938

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 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Sylvia Beach Tells the Story of Founding Shakespeare and Company, Publishing Joyce’s Ulysses, Selling Copies of Hemingway’s First Book & More (1962)

Revis­it­ing Ernest Hemingway’s A Move­able Feast a cou­ple of decades after I read it last, I notice a few things right away: I am still moved by the prose and think it’s as impres­sive as ever; I am less moved by the machis­mo and alco­holism and more inter­est­ed in char­ac­ters like Sylvia Beach, founder of Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny, the book­store that served as a base of oper­a­tions for the famed Lost Gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers in Paris.

“Sylvia had a live­ly, sharply sculp­tured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s,” Hem­ing­way wrote of her in his mem­oir. “She was kind, cheer­ful and inter­est­ed, and loved to make jokes and gos­sip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Indeed, Hem­ing­way also “recounts being giv­en access to the whole of Sylvia Beach’s library at Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny for free after his first vis­it,” notes writer RJ Smith.

Beach found­ed the shop in 1919, encour­aged (and fund­ed) by her part­ner Adri­enne Mon­nier, who owned a French-lan­guage book­store. Beach’s most­ly Eng­lish-lan­guage Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny would become a lend­ing-library, post office, bank, and even hotel for authors who con­gre­gat­ed there. She sup­port­ed the great expa­tri­ate mod­ernists and host­ed French writ­ers like André Gide and Paul Valéry. She also pub­lished James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would, after ear­li­er pub­lished excerpts were deemed “obscene.”

Joyce was shaped by Paris, and owed a huge debt of grat­i­tude to Beach, just as read­ers of Ulysses do almost 100 years lat­er. Forty years after the novel’s pub­li­ca­tion, Beach trav­eled to Ire­land to cel­e­brate and sat down for the long inter­view above in which she remem­bers those heady times. She also tells the sto­ry of how a Pres­by­ter­ian minister’s daughter—who went to church in Prince­ton, NJ with Grover Cleve­land and Woodrow Wilson—became a pio­neer­ing out les­bian mod­ernist book­seller in Paris.

Beach remem­bers meet­ing “all the French writ­ers” at Monnier’s shop after her time study­ing at the Sor­bonne and how Amer­i­can writ­ers all came to Paris to escape pro­hi­bi­tion at home. “For Hem­ing­way and his most of his friends,” says Har­vard his­to­ri­an Patrice Higonnet, “Paris was one long binge, all the more enjoy­able because it wasn’t very expen­sive.” For Beach, Paris became home, and Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny a home away from home for waves of expats until the Nazis shut it down in 1941. (Ten years lat­er, a dif­fer­ent Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny was opened by book­seller George Whit­man.)

“They were dis­gust­ed in Amer­i­ca because they couldn’t get a drink,” Beach says, “and they couldn’t get Ulysses. I used to think those were the two great caus­es of their dis­con­tent.” Her inter­views, let­ters, and her own mem­oir, Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny, tell the sto­ry of the Lost Gen­er­a­tion from her point of view, one ani­mat­ed by an absolute devo­tion to lit­er­a­ture, and in par­tic­u­lar, to Joyce, who did not rec­i­p­ro­cate. When Ulysses sold to Ran­dom House in 1932, he offered her no share of his very large advance.

Beach was for­giv­ing. “I under­stood from the first,” she said, “that work­ing with or for Mr. Joyce, the plea­sure was mine—an infi­nite plea­sure: the prof­its were for him.” She was doing some­thing oth­er than run­ning a busi­ness. She was “cross-fer­til­iz­ing,” as French writer Andre Cham­son put it. “She did more to link Eng­land, the Unit­ed States, Ire­land, and France than four great ambas­sadors com­bined.” She did so by giv­ing writ­ers what they need­ed to make the work she knew they could, at a very rare time and place in which such a thing was briefly pos­si­ble.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Begin­nings Pro­files Shake­speare and Company’s Sylvia Beach Whit­man

The Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny Project Dig­i­tizes the Records of the Famous Book­store, Show­ing the Read­ing Habits of the Lost Gen­er­a­tion

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Has a Strange Din­ner with James Joyce & Draws a Cute Sketch of It (1928)

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

How Stevie Nicks Wrote “Rhiannon” & Embodied the Medieval Witch Character Onstage

It seems as inevitable as bell bot­toms and shoul­der-wide col­lars that Ste­vie Nicks would trans­form into the New Age priest­ess who greet­ed the 70s with a wave of a bil­lowy, shawl-draped arm. “It makes sense,” Bill DeMain writes at Clas­sic Rock, that her “sig­na­ture song was inspired by a kind of ancient mag­ic” of the kind that every­body was get­ting into. That song, “Rhi­an­non,” takes its name from “an old Welsh witch,” as Nicks would often announce onstage. Dur­ing Fleet­wood Mac’s Nicks/Buckingham hey­day, Nicks embod­ied the char­ac­ter as though pos­sessed, her per­for­mances of the song “like an exor­cism,” Mick Fleet­wood recalled.

The sto­ry of how “Rhi­an­non” came to be, how­ev­er, is not as straight­for­ward as Nicks’ reach­ing into the pages of the Mabino­gion, the Welsh prose cycle in which Rhi­an­non first appears. The name came to her sev­er­al steps removed from its myth­i­cal ori­gins, from a nov­el by Mary Leader called Tri­ad.

“It was just a stu­pid lit­tle paper­back that I found some­where at somebody’s house,” she recalls of the uncan­ny 1974 com­po­si­tion. “And it was all about this girl who becomes pos­sessed by a spir­it named Rhi­an­non. I read the book, but I was so tak­en with that name that I thought: ‘I’ve got to write some­thing about this.’ So I sat down at the piano and start­ed this song about a woman that was all involved with these birds and mag­ic.”

“I come to find out,” she says, “after I’ve writ­ten the song, that in fact Rhi­an­non was the god­dess of steeds, mak­er of birds.” The per­fect anthem for a singer on the thresh­old of turn­ing the already famous Fleet­wood Mac into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They were in a kind of wilder­ness peri­od, hav­ing fired long­time gui­tarist and musi­cal linch­pin Dan­ny Kir­wan and lost gui­tarist Bob Welch. When Lind­say Buck­ing­ham, his replace­ment, insist­ed that Nicks join with him, she brought the song “about an old Welsh witch” along with the pair’s col­lec­tion of shawls, capes, and kimonos.

You can learn more about the myths of the Mabino­gion, the old­est known prose sto­ries in Britain, in the Poly­phon­ic video above. The col­lec­tion inspired the epic fan­tasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, and by proxy the epic fan­tasies of Led Zep­pelin and every heavy met­al band there­after. It also fea­tures in Lloyd Alexander’s 1960’s fan­ta­sy series Chron­i­cles of Pry­dain (lat­er poor­ly adapt­ed in Disney’s The Black Caul­dron). The pop cul­ture of the 70s had been infused with ancient Welsh before Rhi­an­non came along, but the god­dess her­self seemed to belong exclu­sive­ly to Ste­vie Nicks, who intu­it­ed a deep mag­ic in the music of her ancient name.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Fleet­wood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Explor­ing the “Son­ic Paint­ings” on the Clas­sic Album, Rumours

Ste­vie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Man­u­al

When Lucy Law­less Imper­son­at­ed Ste­vie Nicks & Imag­ined Her as the Own­er of a Bad Tex-Mex Restau­rant: A Cult Clas­sic SNL Skit

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

Documentaries on the Groundbreaking Work & Life of Ursula K. Le Guin & Four Other Trailblazing Artists, Streaming Free this Week

What sort of art will emerge from this unprece­dent­ed moment in his­to­ry, when the glob­al coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment grew expo­nen­tial­ly, and syn­chro­nous­ly.

And not to pre­sume, but to hope, what will humans think of that lit­er­a­ture in 50 or 100 years’ time?

Over the course of a not quite hour-long Amer­i­can Mas­ters episode devot­ed to author Ursu­la LeGuin, flux emerges as a major theme of the sci­ence fic­tion pioneer’s life and work.

The youngest child of A.L. Kroe­ber, the founder of aca­d­e­m­ic anthro­pol­o­gy, LeGuin, who died in 2018, crit­i­cized her­self for hav­ing been slow to open her eyes to the injus­tice around her.

It became a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in sto­ries like The Ones Who Walk Away from Ome­las, a thought exper­i­ment in which the read­er must con­sid­er the ethics of a pros­per­ous hap­py soci­ety, whose good for­tune depends on the suf­fer­ing of a cap­tive child.

The Dis­pos­sessed arose from her curios­i­ty as to what “a gen­uine, work­ing anar­chist soci­ety (would) be like.”

(Answer: flawed, like every oth­er human soci­ety.)

One of her best known books, The Left Hand of Dark­ness, pub­lished in 1969, pre­fig­ured the com­ing bat­tle for gen­der equal­i­ty, and so much more, by cre­at­ing a tru­ly gen­der flu­id world in which the androg­y­nous inhab­i­tants’ month­ly peri­ods of sex­u­al activ­i­ty con­ferred tem­porar­i­ly male or female bio­log­i­cal sta­tus at ran­dom.

It was hailed as a fem­i­nist ground­break­er, but as time went on, LeGuin found her­self in hot water for hav­ing gone with the mas­cu­line pro­noun as a default way of refer­ring to her androg­y­nous char­ac­ters:

At first, I felt a lit­tle bit defen­sive, but, as I thought about it, I began to see my crit­ics were right. I was com­ing up against how I write about gen­der equal­i­ty.

My job is not to arrive at a final answer and just deliv­er it.

I see my job as hold­ing doors open or open­ing win­dows, but who comes in and out the doors? What do you see out the win­dow? How do I know?

The book is still in print, should new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers feel com­pelled to plumb the text for prob­lem­at­ic pas­sages. Why should the many reflec­tions, essays, and think pieces that marked the 50th anniver­sary of its pub­li­ca­tion be the last word?

Worlds of Ursu­la K. Le Guin is avail­able to stream for free on PBS through Mon­day August 31, along with four oth­er Amer­i­can Mas­ters episodes fea­tur­ing artists who, like Le Guin, broke the exist­ing molds:

Ter­rence McNal­ly: Every Act of Life

Over a six-decade career, four-time Tony-win­ner and out­spo­ken LGBTQ activist Ter­rence McNal­ly wrote dozens of trail­blaz­ing plays, musi­cals, operas and screen­plays about sex­u­al­i­ty, homo­pho­bia, faith, and the pow­er of art.

Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage

The charis­mat­ic actor from Puer­to Rico was cel­e­brat­ed for the range and ver­sa­til­i­ty he brought to roles on stage and screen, from Shake­speare­an plays to the “The Addams Fam­i­ly.” Though his career was cut short by his death at age 54, he paved the way for gen­er­a­tions of Lat­inx actors.

Rothko: Pic­tures Must be Mirac­u­lous

One of the most influ­en­tial artists of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Mark Rothko’s sig­na­ture style helped define Abstract Expres­sion­ism. The cel­e­brat­ed painter’s lumi­nous paint­ings now set records at auc­tion, and are seen by mil­lions in Lon­don, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and at the famous Rothko Chapel in Hous­ton.

Scott Moma­day: Words from a Bear

A for­ma­tive voice of the Native Amer­i­can Renais­sance in art and lit­er­a­ture, author and poet N. Scott Moma­day was the first Native Amer­i­can to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Here’s to ever-evolv­ing worlds, and acknowl­edg­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of those who helped make this change pos­si­ble.

Stream the five PBS Amer­i­can Mas­ters episodes men­tioned above for free through the end of August here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beau­ti­ful, Pro­found Poem by Ursu­la K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birth­day

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

Hear 10 of Bach’s Pieces Played on Original Baroque Instruments

We could say that the music of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach tran­scends instru­men­ta­tion. Wendy Car­los did a great deal to prove that with her 1968 album Switched-On Bach, com­posed entire­ly (and labo­ri­ous­ly) on an ear­ly Moog syn­the­siz­er. Despite its con­tro­ver­sial union of long-revered com­po­si­tions with prac­ti­cal­ly untest­ed musi­cal tech­nol­o­gy, that project won high praise, not least from as famed an inter­preter of Bach as Glenn Gould. Here at Open Cul­ture we’ve fea­tured many of Gould’s own per­for­mances of Bach: of the Key­board Con­cer­to No. 1 in D minor in his 1960 U.S. tele­vi­sion debut, of the can­ta­ta BWV 54 on a 1962 CBC spe­cial, of The Art of Fugue and the Gold­berg Vari­a­tions as played toward the end of his life in the ear­ly 1980s.

Going back to 1959, we find a 27-year-old Gould play­ing Bach in a Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da doc­u­men­tary, and on “the piano he favors above all oth­ers for prac­tic­ing: a 70-year-old Chick­er­ing with a res­o­nant, harp­si­chord qual­i­ty recall­ing the instru­ments of the time of Bach.” But to tru­ly hear Bach’s music as Bach him­self would have heard it, you need to bring out those very same instru­ments.

That’s the man­date of San Fran­cis­co’s Voic­es of Music, an ensem­ble ded­i­cat­ed to “renais­sance and baroque music, draw­ing upon the many and var­ied sources for his­tor­i­cal per­for­mance prac­tice.” We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured their per­for­mances of Pachel­bel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s The Four Sea­sons on orig­i­nal instru­ments; more recent­ly they’ve put togeth­er a Youtube playlist of their orig­i­nal-instru­ment per­for­mances of Bach.

The ten selec­tions on Voic­es of Music’s Bach playlist include the Cel­lo Suite No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1008, Alle­mande and Courante played on the baroque cel­lo by Eva Lymen­stull; the Arioso from Can­ta­ta 156 (Sin­fo­nia) with Marc Schachman on the baroque oboe; the Bran­den­burg Con­cer­to No. 6 in B Flat Major BWV 1051 played by Kati Kyme and Eliz­a­beth Blu­men­stock on baroque vio­la (vio­le da brac­cio), Elis­a­beth Reed and William Skeen on the vio­la da gam­ba, Tanya Tomkins on the baroque cel­lo, Far­ley Pearce on the vio­lone, and Han­neke van Proos­dij on the harp­si­chord; and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major for baroque vio­lin BWV 1005 inter­pret­ed by August and Georgina McK­ay Lodge, the for­mer play­ing the baroque vio­lin and the lat­ter read­ing Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s poem “Hymn to Time.”

This isn’t the first time the work of Le Guin, now remem­bered as an influ­en­tial author of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture, has been set to music. Just after her death in 2018 we fea­tured Rigel 9, the space rock opera she cre­at­ed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with avant-garde com­pos­er David Bed­ford in 1985. If Le Guin’s words suit­ed a tale of the future told with high-tech New Wave sounds, they suit an acoustic return to the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry just as well.

This is a ver­sa­til­i­ty much like Bach’s own, which has guar­an­teed that, more than 250 years after his death, his music retains its pow­er and depth whether expressed through a piano, a syn­the­siz­er, or indeed the instru­ments of his day — not that the play­ers of per­cus­sion tubes or wine glass­es have done him great injus­tice either.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” Played on the Actu­al Instru­ments from His Time

Musi­cians Play Bach on the Octo­bass, the Gar­gan­tu­an String Instru­ment Invent­ed in 1850

Hear the Sounds of the Actu­al Instru­ments for Which Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Han­del Orig­i­nal­ly Com­posed Their Music

The Authen­tic Pachelbel’s Canon: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on the Orig­i­nal Man­u­script & Played with Orig­i­nal 17th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

The Authen­tic Vivaldi’s The Four Sea­sons: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on Orig­i­nal Man­u­scripts & Played with 18th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

All of Bach for Free! New Site Will Put Per­for­mances of 1080 Bach Com­po­si­tions Online

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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Hear Musicians Play the Only Playable Stradivarius Guitar in the World: The “Sabionari”

What makes one arti­san stand out in a field of high­ly skilled com­peti­tors? When we think of clas­si­cal instru­ments, we think of the Stradi­vari fam­i­ly, famed mak­ers of vio­lins, vio­las, cel­los, and oth­er instru­ments. But the Stradi­var­ius’ suc­cess may owe as much to chance as to supe­ri­or crafts­man­ship. A Texas A&M pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of bio­chem­istry, Joseph Nagy­vary (also a vio­lin­ist and vio­lin mak­er), dis­cov­ered that Stradi­var­ius instru­ments were soaked in chem­i­cals “to pro­tect them from a worm infes­ta­tion that was sweep­ing through Italy in the 1700s.”

“By pure acci­dent,” this method of pest con­trol, Texas A&M Today writes, had “the unin­tend­ed result of pro­duc­ing the unique sounds that have been almost impos­si­ble to dupli­cate in the past 400 years.”

So, there you have it, the secret of the Stradi­var­ius sound: borax and brine. There’s more to it than that, of course, but the chem­i­cal bath advan­tage makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing bit of triv­ia. To the ear, it mat­ters lit­tle whether a sound is the result of acci­dent, inten­tion, or some mea­sure of the two.

If it sounds sweet, it is, and Stradi­var­ius instru­ments (in playable con­di­tion, any­way) sound like the voic­es of angels. Hap­pi­ly, the Stradi­var­ius exper­i­ment was repeat­able hun­dreds of times, and not only for the famed orches­tral instru­ments with which we’re famil­iar, if only by rep­u­ta­tion. The fam­i­ly made around 1000 instru­ments, 960 of which are vio­lins. They also made a cou­ple hand­fuls of gui­tars, five of which exist in com­plete form. These are:

The first, and ear­li­est of these instru­ments, the so-called Sabionari, was made by Anto­nio Stradi­vari him­self and hap­pens to be the only playable gui­tar of the five, due to a restora­tion by three mas­ter luthiers. All of the Stradi­vari gui­tars are ten-string (five-course) instru­ments, with dou­bled notes like a mod­ern 12-string gui­tar. But, “as with all Stradi­vari instru­ments,” The Strad points out, “the ‘Sabionari’ was mod­ern­ized,” con­vert­ed to six-string in a process that sounds espe­cial­ly vio­lent in rela­tion to what we now view as a pre­cious muse­um piece (espe­cial­ly as Andrés Segovia signed the gui­tar in 1948).

In the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, Ital­ian luthi­er Giuseppe Mar­conci­ni “changed the neck, peg­head and bridge, and added new lin­ings and braces.” The orig­i­nal parts he removed were long gone, so restor­ers had to fit new ones to the body. Curi­ous­ly, Marconcini’s 150-year-old parts were “infest­ed by wood­worm,” but “the insects spared the orig­i­nal sound­board and brac­ing wood by Stradi­vari.” Effec­tive pest con­trol not only pre­served the wood; it also con­tributed to the sound we hear above in these many videos fea­tur­ing the Sabionari, with play­ers Krish­na­sol Jimenéz, Ugo Nas­ruc­ci, and Rolf Lisl­e­vand, who plays a live­ly Taran­tel­la below and gives us a taste of how the instru­ment was like­ly used to accom­pa­ny dances.

Where it was once “extreme­ly rare” to hear the sound of a Baroque gui­tar, we can now all, thanks to the inter­net, enjoy Stradi­var­ius gui­tar per­for­mances. You can see many more here, and learn much more about the 1679 gui­tar itself, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

What Makes the Stradi­var­ius Spe­cial? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Sopra­no Voice, With Notes Sound­ing Like Vow­els, Says Researcher

Why Stradi­var­ius Vio­lins Are Worth Mil­lions

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

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