They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell Releases an EP of Songs in Latin

Those who know Latin know Wheelock’s Latin as the time-honored resource for learning the language of the Caesars. They also know how many years of intensive study and practice goes into translating the textbook’s hefty classical passages. Reading Latin is one thing — writing in the language is quite another: something very few people do for any reason, other than a perverse kind of enjoyment that is most definitely a niche affair.

What about songwriting in Latin? Professor Wheelock doesn’t offer any specific instructions for composing pop music in the dead language, though classics teacher and former British Labour Party MP Eddie O’Hara once translated Beatles songs (see “O Teneum Manum” and “Dei Duri Nox” here). For a more casual approach, one could turn to a resource more in line with contemporary teaching methods — Duolingo, where you can “learn a language for free. Forever.”

For some reason, John Linnell, one of the two Johns in 90s alt-rock band They Might Be Giants, decided on the Duolingo approach while hunkered down at home during the pandemic, and — because he’s a songwriter, and a right good one, at that — he decided to compose some catchy pop songs in Latin. Catchy, he could do (I’m still singing the chorus of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” thirty-two years later.) But the Latin, not so much.

After taking a short course, Linnell writes, “I figured I could write a few songs… I was soon disabused of the notion. I can barely string two words together in Latin, and to borrow from Mark Twain, I would rather decline two drinks than one Latin noun.” A career Latinist and childhood friend Linnell calls “Schoolmaster Smith” came to his aid, translating his English lyrics into Latin for him. “All credit for any success in this project is due to him,” he avers, “and any mistakes and failures are entirely mine.”

Trapped at home with his son Henry, who played guitar on the 4-track EP, Linnell recorded and released Roman Songs (along with a t-shirt!). Why? “All I can tell you,” he shrugs, “is that I’m deeply jealous of people who are fluent in a second language and can apply that skill to their creative work in a way that doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation of the most offensive and embarrassing kind.”

No ancient Romans around to accuse Linnell of stealing their culture, but they’d be hard pressed to recognize if they were. “HAEC QVOQVE EST RES” (“This is Also the Case”) and “TECVM CIRCVMAMBVLARE NOLO” (“I Don’t Want to Walk Around with You”) sound like classic They Might Be Giants tunes. (The other John, Mr. Flansburgh, “strongly encouraged this project and art directed the package,” Linnell writes.)

In fact, they sound so much like They Might Be Giants songs, I almost wish they were in English, but as a lover of Latin I have to admit, it’s fun to learn these phrases and melodies and walk around singing them like a Roman pop star. Linnell may be a little in the dark about his motivations, but I say, good on him: if there’s any way to make Latin live again, this may be it. Now we just need someone talented and really bored to step up and deliver classical raps to keep momentum going…. Pick up Linnell’s Roman Songs EP here.

via Boing Boing

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Learn Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Classical Greek & Other Ancient Languages in 10 Lessons

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

The Meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s Spellbinding Triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch was born Jheronimus van Aken. We know precious little else about him, not even the year of his birth, which scholar Nicholas Baum guesses must have been right in the middle of the fifteenth century. But we do know that the artist was born in the Dutch town of s-Hertogenbosch, better known as Den Bosch, to which his assumed name pays tribute. It is thus to Den Bosch that Baum travels in the The Mysteries of Hieronymus Bosch, the 1983 BBC TV movie above, in search of clues to an interpretation of Bosch’s mysterious, grotesque, and sometimes hilarious paintings. What manner of place could produce an artistic mind capable of The Garden of Earthly Delights?

“My first reaction was disappointment,” Baum says of Den Bosch. “I wasn’t expecting such a very ordinary, very commercial, very provincial little town. I couldn’t for the life of me fit anybody as extraordinary as Bosch into a sleepy little place like this.” A hardworking everyday Dutchman might laugh at Baum’s English imagination having got away with him; perhaps he’d even quote his country’s well-worn proverb about normal human behavior being crazy enough.

Nevertheless, fueled by a near-lifelong fascination with Bosch’s fantastical and forbidding art, Baum goes deeper: quite literally deeper, in one case, descending to the dank cellar beneath the house where the artist grew up in order to take in “the authentic smell and feel of Bosch’s own day.”

Further insights come when Baum investigates Bosch’s membership in the Catholic fraternity of the Common Life. A few decades later, that same order would also educate northern Renaissance philosopher Erasmus, whose religiosity is well known. Bosch must have been no less pious, but for centuries that didn’t figure as thoroughly into the interpretation of his paintings as it might have. Focused on the vivid images of bacchanalia Bosch incorporated into his work, some speculated on his involvement in orgy-oriented secret societies. But Baum’s journey convinces him that Bosch was “a fierce and pious Christian” who painted with the goal of turning a gluttonous, wealth- and pleasure-obsessed humanity back toward the teachings of the Bible. And half a millennium later, it is his wildly imaginative renderings of sin that continue to compel us — as well as hold out the promise of further secrets yet unexplained.

For anyone interested, Taschen now publishes an Bosch: The Complete Works, a beautiful and exhaustive exploration of the painter’s work. It includes a special chapter on The Garden of Earthly Delights.

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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.

When Rage Against the Machine Interviewed Noam Chomsky (1999)

“The first great [economic] experiment was a ‘bad idea’ for the subjects, but not for the designers and local elites associated with them. This pattern continues until the present: placing profit over people.” — Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People

“A global decomposition is taking place. We call it the Fourth World War: neoliberalism’s globalization attempt to eliminate that multitude of people who are not useful to the powerful — the groups called ‘minorities’ in the mathematics of power, but who happen to be the majority population in the world.” — Subcomandante Marcos

Whether we think of global neoliberalism — to the extent that we think about it — as the inertia of centuries-old economic theory or as deliberate genocide, the effects are the same. The majority of the world’s population suffers under massive inequality, including, now, vaccine inequality, leading to raging COVID epidemics in some parts of the world as other places emerge from lockdowns and resume “normal” operations. The “Capitalist Hydra,” as Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos once called it, always seems to grow more heads.

Indeed, most plans to alleviate global poverty and disease seem to further enrich the architects and immiserate the targets of their purported care. Noam Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly that neoliberal economic rules are only applied to subject populations, since the wealthy ignore the strict conditions they impose by force and coercion on others, calling the outcomes a natural sorting of “winners and losers.” Ongoing global economic practices have accelerated a climate crisis that impacts the majority of the world’s (poor) population, sending millions on a collision course with brutality at the borders as they flee to other parts of the world for bare survival.

The multiple crises we now face were clearly evident at the turn of the millennium, when Rage Against the Machine played Mexico City for the first time in 1999. They released the concert footage in a video titled The Battle of Mexico City in 2001, the same year the indigenous guerrilla force EZLN — popularly known as the Zapatistas — marched on Mexico City. (Concert audio was released on vinyl this past June.) The video release included interviews with Chomsky and then-EZLN military leader Marcos, and you can see them both here.

At the top, Chomsky responds to a question about NAFTA, a “free-trade” agreement that proved his point about how such policies do the opposite of what they propose, benefitting the very few instead of the many. Chomsky, who analyzed the ways that the government and corporate media manufactured consent for their policies during the Vietnam War, wasn’t taken in by the hype. The agreement never had anything to do with free trade, he says, but with locking Mexico into programs of “structural adjustment” that kept people in poverty and the country dependent on economic terms dictated from outside its borders.

From the perspective of the indigenous people in Mexico fighting for an autonomous region in Chiapas, the struggle is not only against the Mexican government, but also an international economic order that imposes its will on the country and its citizens, who then turn on the poorest and most dispossessed among them in conditions of manufactured scarcity. Indigenous Mexicans, like other internally subjected people around the world, are deemed expendable, figured as a “problem” to be solved or eliminated. What is so striking about these perspectives, twenty years after the release of The Battle of Mexico City, is just how prescient, even prophetic, they sound today.

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

Neil Young Plays “Hey, Hey, My, My” with Devo: Watch a Classic Scene from the Improvised Movie Human Highway (1980)

For Neil Young fans, the words “Human Highway” can mean one of three different things, two of which are so unlike the third, it’s as if they came from different artists. First, there’s “Human Highway,” the song, one of Young’s gentle acoustic rags, with Nicolette Larson’s soft vocal harmonies and lots of banjo and fiddle. It landed on 1978’s Comes a Time but debuted five years earlier, nearly becoming the title track for a CSNY album that never materialized, a legendary follow-up to Déjà Vu.

None of this has anything to do with Human Highway, the 1980 film directed by Neil Young (as “Bernard Shakey”) and Dean Stockwell, which tells the “story,” if it can be called, of a crooked diner owner in a small town next to a nuclear power plant staffed by the members of Devo as “nuclear garbagepersons.” The cast is cult film royalty: “Dennis Hopper is a psychotic cook named Crackers,” notes critic Steven Puchalski, “Sally Kirkland is a beleaguered waitress; [Stockwell] is the new owner, Young Otto (son of the late Old Otto); plus Neil Young and Russ Tamblyn are frighteningly convincing as two noodle-headed gas pump operators, Lionel and Fred.”

The film is set on the last day before a nuclear apocalypse, a slapstick take on the time’s nuclear anxiety and Young’s stance against nuclear power. His nerdy Lionel idolizes rock star Frankie Fontaine (also Young), then becomes him in a dream sequence full of “wooden Indians” — his backing band. He then jams out with Devo for ten minutes (top) one of the highlights of the film, a performance of “Hey, Hey, My, My” with Mark Mothersbaugh taking lead vocals as Devo character “Booji Boy” (pronounced “boogie boy”).

“By normal standards,” Puchalski writes, “the movie sucks, but it’s a Mutant Must-See for Rock-‘N’-Schlock Completists.” It could also be one of the most influential indie films of the eighties, argues Den of Geek’s Jim Knipfel, leaving its mark on everything from Alex Cox’s Repo Man to David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet (in which Hopper and Stockwell play somewhat similar characters) and Twin Peaks (in which Russ Tamblyn appears), to Tim Burton’s Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure.

Or maybe Young “was simply cursed to be ten minutes ahead of his time,” given that hardly anyone saw Human Highway in 1982. Shot over four years, and mostly financed by Young himself, Human Highway saw a limited release in L.A. then disappeared until a 1996 VHS edit of the film brought it some renown and critical reappraisal. (Its cover quoted an agent at William Morris saying, “It’s so bad, it’s going to be huge.”) The film has since become a cult classic, warranting special screenings like a reunion in 2016 at L.A.’s Regal Theater featuring Young, Tamblyn, Devo’s Gerald Casale, actress Charlotte Stewart, and Cameron Crowe. (See a trailer for the DVD director’s cut release just above.)

At one point during the Q&A, Young turned to Crowe and asked, “Do you think we could get this movie made today?”. The film was made under unique conditions: “no script, improvised dialogue and a daily routine that began with someone asking him ‘What’s the plan today, Neil?’ to which he always replied ‘The plan today is no plan!'” It could get made, if Neil wanted to finance it (and a younger cast could handle the amount of drugs that clearly went into making the film). Given the number of digital distribution channels and Young’s fame, it could also very likely find a wide audience.

But in 1982, releasing a self-financed film, even if you were Neil Young, proved much more challenging. And in the late seventies and early eighties, one of the few ways for innovative New Wave bands like Devo to get wider notice was to catch the ear of stars like Young, who discovered them on stage in 1977 and knew he had to get them on film — before “Whip It” and their first defining hits came out — and show the rest of us what we were missing.

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The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution

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

Watch 15 Hours of The Pink Panther for Free

Remember Saturday mornings?

If you’re an American of a certain age, you probably spent a good chunk of them sprawled in front of the TV, absorbing a steady stream of network cartoons peppered with ads for toys and sugared cereal.

One of Saturday morning’s animated stars stood out from the crowd, a lanky, bipedal feline of a distinctly rosy hue.

He shared Bugs Bunny’s anarchic streak, without the hopped-up, motormouthed intensity.

In fact, he barely spoke, and soon went entirely mute, relying instead on Henry Mancini’s famous theme, which followed him everywhere he went.

Above all, he was sophisticated, with a minimalist aesthetic and a long cigarette holder.

Director Blake Edwards attributes his lasting appeal to his “promiscuous, fun-loving, devilish” nature.

John Cork’s short documentary Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon, below, details how Edwards charged commercial animators David DePatie and Friz Freleng with creating a cartoon persona for the Pink Panther Diamond in his upcoming jewel heist caper.

DePatie, Freleng and their team drafted over a hundred renderings in response to the character notes Edwards bombarded them with via telegram.

Edward’s favorite, designed by director Hawley Pratt, featured the iconic cigarette holder and appeared in the feature film’s trailer and title sequence, ultimately upstaging a star studded cast including David Niven, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, and Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

The cartoon panther’s sensational debut prompted United Artists to order up another 156 shorts, to be released over a four to five year period. The first of these, The Pink Phink, not only established the tone, it also nabbed the Academy Award for 1964’s best animated short.

Although he was created with an adult audience in mind — the narrator of the original theatrical trailer asks him about bedroom scenes — his wordless torment of the simplified cartoon Inspector proved to be money in the bank on Saturday mornings.

The Pink Panther Show ran from 1969 to 1980, weathering various title tweaks and a jump from NBC to ABC.

Syndication and cable TV ensured a vibrant afterlife, here and in other countries, where the character’s sophistication and reliance on body language continues to be a plus.

The plots unfolded along predictable lines — the groovy panther spends 6 minutes thwarting and bedeviling a less cool, less pink-oriented character, usually the Inspector.

Every episode’s title includes a reference to the star’s signature color, often to groaning degree – Pink of the LitterPink-A-BooThe Hand Is Pinker Than the EyePinkcome TaxThe Scarlet Pinkernel….

We won’t ask you to guess the color of Pink Panther Flakes, manufactured under the auspices of Post, a Pink Panther Show co-sponsor.

“I thought it was just fine for the film,” Edwards says of the animated Pink Panther in Cork’s 2003 documentary, “But I had no idea that it would take off like that, that it would have that kind of a life of its own… that kind of a merchandising life of its own. Thank god it did!”

Stay cool this summer with an 11-hour Pink Panther marathon, comprised of the following free compilations of Seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

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

An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

The English language has adopted kabuki as an adjective, applied to situations where exaggerated appearances and performances are everything. Business, politics, media: name any realm of modernity, and the myriad ways in which its affairs can turn kabuki will spring to mind. A highly stylized form of dance-drama originating in the seventeenth century, it continues to stand today as a pillar of classical Japanese culture — and indeed, according to UNESCO, one piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The worldwide regard for kabuki owes in part to self-promotional efforts on the part of Japan, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned the half-hour introductory film above.

Produced in 1964, Kabuki: The Classic Theatre of Japan holds up as a representation of the art, as well as a view of some of the mid-20th century’s master practitioners. These actors include Jitsukawa Enjaku III, Nakamura Utaemon VI, and Ichikawa Danjūrō XI, whose stage names reflect their place in an unbroken professional lineage.

In fact, Ichikawa Danjūrō XI is a predecessor of Ichikawa Ebizō XI, previously featured here on Open Culture for his work in kabuki Star Wars adaptations. The generations shown here didn’t go in for such pop-cultural hybridization, but rather plays from the traditional kabuki repertoire like ShibarakuMusume Dōjōji, and Sukeroku, scenes from all three of which appear in the film.

“Through elaborate costumes and vivid makeup, through beautifully stylized acting and exaggerated vocalization, and highlighted with picturesque settings and colorful music, the kabuki actors create dramatic effects of extraordinary intensity within a framework of pure entertainment,” explains the narrator. And as in the early performances of Shakespeare, all the roles are played by males, specialists known as onnagata. “Because the emphasis in kabuki is on artistic performance, not realism, the onnagata is considered more capable of expressing true femininity than is possible for an actress.” This may have struck Western viewers in the 1960s as an odd notion, but the sheer foreignness of kabuki — cultural, geographical, and temporal — must have been as captivating back then as it remains today, no matter how long we’ve been throwing its name around.

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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.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Masterpiece, Including “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”

Like most Japanese masters of ukiyo-e woodblock art, Katsushika Hokusai is best known mononymously. But he’s even better known by his work — and by one piece of work in particular, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Even those who’ve never heard the name Hokusai have seen that print, arresting in its somehow calm turbulence, or at least they’ve seen one of its countless modern parodies and tributes (most recently, a large-scale homage in the medium of LEGO). But when he died in 1849, the prolific and long-lived artist left behind a body of work amounting to more than 30,000 paintings, sketches, prints, and illustrations (as well as a how-to-draw book).

None of those 30,000 works are quite as famous as his Great Wave off Kanagawa, but very few indeed are as ambitions as the series to which it belongs, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It is that two-year project, the artistic fruit of an obsession with Fuji and its environs, that Taschen has taken as the material for their new book Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Produced in a 224-page “XXL edition,” it gathers “the finest impressions from institutions and collections worldwide in the complete set of 46 plates alongside 114 color variations” — all sewn together, appropriately, with “Japanese binding.”

Not only does the book reproduce Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with Taschen’s signature attention to image quality, it presents The Great Wave off Kanagawa in a way few actually see it: in context. For that most widely published of all Hokusai prints launched the series, which continued on to Fine Wind, Clear Morning, Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit, and Kajikazawa in Kai Province, that last being an image held in especially high esteem by ukiyo-e enthusiasts. One such enthusiast, east Asian art historian Andreas Marks, has performed this book’s editing and writing, as he did with Taschen’s previous Japanese Woodblock Prints (1680–1938). Experiencing the whole of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, more than one reader will no doubt become as transfixed by Hokusai as Hokusai was by his homeland’s most beloved mountain. You can pick up a copy of Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji here. Find more beautiful Taschen art books here.

Note that Taschen is a partner of ours. So if you purchase a book, it helps support Open Culture.

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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.

A Dancer Pays a Gravity-Defying Tribute to Claude Debussy

Most dancers have an intuitive understanding of physics.

Choreographer Yoann Bourgeois pushes this science beyond the standard lifts, leaps, and pirouettes, drawing on his training at the Centre National Des Arts du Cirque for a piece marking the centenary of composer Claude Debussy’s death, above.

Given the occasion, the choice of Clair de Lune, Debussy’s best loved piano work, feels practically de rigueur, but the trampoline comes as a bit of a shock.

We may not be able to see it, but it plays such an essential role, it’s tempting to call this solo a pas de deux. At the very least, the trampoline is an essential collaborator, along with pianist Alexandre Tharau and filmmaker Raphaël Wertheimer.

Bourgeois’ expressiveness as a performer has earned him comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His choreography shows that he also shares their work ethic, attention to detail, and love of jawdropping visual stunts.

Don’t expect any random boinging around on this tramp’.

For four and a half minutes, Bourgeois’ everyman struggles to get to the top of a stark white staircase. Every time he falls off, the trampoline launches him back onto one of the steps — higher, lower, the very one he fell off of…

Interpret this struggle how you will.

Psyche, a digital magazine that “illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts” found it to be “an abstracted interpretation of a childlike experience of time.” One viewer wondered if the number of steps — twelve — was significant.

It’s no stretch to conceive of it as a comment on the nature of life — a constant cycle of falling down and bouncing back.

It’s lovely to behold because Bourgeois makes it look so easy.

In an interview with NR, he spoke of how his circus studies led to the realization that “the relationship between physical forces” is what he’s most interested in exploring. The stairs and trampoline, like all of his sets (or devices, as he prefers to call them), are there to “amplify specific physical phenomenon”:

In science, we’d call them models – they’re simplifications of our world that enable me to amplify one particular force at a time. Together, this ensemble of devices, this constellation of constructed devices, tentatively approaches the point of suspension. And so, this makes up a body of research; it’s a life’s research that doesn’t have an end in itself. 

The relationship with physical forces has an eloquent capacity that can be very big; it has the kind of expression that is universal.

Watch more of Youann Bourgeois’ physics-based choreography on his YouTube channel.

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

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