Lizzo Plays James Madison’s Priceless, 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute

In the annals of modern popular music, one does not find a surfeit of flautists. Tim Weisberg, in partnership with singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, did score a modest his or two in the seventies. More incongruously, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson set his band apart with his decision to take up the flute not long before their earliest performances. But today, outside the realm of orchestral music, there is surely no higher-profile flautist than Lizzo. Though best known as a pop singer, she continues to put to use the flute skills she honed at the University of Houston, without which she wouldn’t have been able to handle a precious piece of American history.

Last month, writes the Library of Congress’ April Slayton, one of that institution’s librarians Carla Hayden “saw that the one and only Lizzo was coming to D.C. for a concert.” Given that “the Library has the world’s largest flute collection,” Hayden took the opportunity to point out that fact to the pop star on Twitter. “One of about 1,700 flutes in the collection, she teased, is the crystal flute made for President James Madison by Claude Laurent — a priceless instrument that Dolley Madison rescued from the White House in April 1814 as the British entered Washington, DC during the War of 1812.. Might she want to drop by and play a few bars?”

Indeed she did, with results you can see in the video above: at the Library itself, Lizzo tries out one of the collection’s many flutes; then she plays the crystal flute itself on onstage at Capitol One Arena, having been handed it by the instrument’s own security detail. “It’s like playing out of a wine glass,” she tells her thrilled audience. One wonders if the comparison would ever have occurred to its first owner: “It’s not clear if Madison did much with the flute other than admire it,” Slayton writes, “but it became a family heirloom and an artifact of the era.” Now it has become a uniting symbol of American culture past and present: however forward-looking the Founding Fathers were, we can safely say they never imagine twerking.

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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.

The Art of Translating Hamilton into German: “So Kribbeln Schmetterlinge, Wenn Sie Starten”

The city of Hamburg’s nickname is Tor zur Welt– the gateway to the world.

If the German language production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s record breaking hiphop musical now in previews in that city’s St. Pauli Theater is as warmly received as the English original has been in London, Melbourne, and, of course, the US, it may earn itself with an additional one – Hamiltonburg.

Excitement has been building since early summer, when a dual language video mashup of the opening number placed the original Broadway cast alongside their German language counterparts.

One need not speak German to appreciate the similarities in attitude – in both performance, and internal assonances, a lyrical aspect of hip hop that Miranda was intent on preserving.

Translator Kevin Schroeder quipped that he and co-translator rapper Sera Finale embraced the motto “as free as necessary, as close as possible” in approaching the score, which at 46 numbers and over 20,000 words, more than doubles the word count of any other musical:

At least we had all these syllables. It gave us room to play around.

Good thing, as the German language abounds with multisyllabic compound nouns, many of which have no direct English equivalent.

Take schadenfreude which the creators of the musical Avenue Q summed up as “happiness at the misfortune of others.”

Or torschlusspanik – the sense of urgency to achieve or do something before it’s too late.

Might that one speak to a translating team who’ve devoted close to four years of their lives to getting everything – words, syllables, meter, sound, flow, position, musicality, meaning, and double meanings – right?

Before Schroeder and Finale were entrusted with this herculean task, they had to pass muster with Miranda’s wife’s Austrian cousin, who listened to their samples and pronounced them in keeping with the spirit of the original.

As translators have always done, Schroeder and Finale had to take their audience into account, swapping out references, metaphors and turns of phrase that could stump German theatergoers for ones with proven regional resonance.

In a round up demonstrating the German team’s dexterity, the New York Times Michael Paulson points to “Satisfied,” a song wherein Hamilton’s prospective sister-in-law recalls their first encounter:


So this is what it feels like to match wits

With someone at your level! What the hell is the catch?

It’s the feeling of freedom, of seeing the light

It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite

You see it right?



So kribbeln Schmetterlinge, wenn sie starten

Wir beide voll auf einem Level, offene Karten!

Das Herz in den Wolken, ich flieg’ aus der Bahn

Die Füße kommen an den Boden nich’ ran

Mein lieber Schwan!



So that’s how butterflies tingle when they take off

We’re on the same level, all cards on the table!

My heart in the clouds, I’m thrown off track

My feet don’t touch the floor

My dear swan!

Miranda, who participated in shaping the German translation using a 3 column system remarkably similar to the compare and contrast content above, gives this change a glowing review:

That section sounds fantastic, and gives the same feeling of falling in love for the first time.The metaphor may be different, but it keeps its propulsiveness.

And while few German theatergoers can be expected to be conversant in Revolutionary War era American history, Germany’s sizeable immigration population ensures that certain of the musical’s themes will retain their cultural relevance.

The Hamburg production features players from Liberia and Brazil. Other cast members were born in Germany to parents hailing from Ghana, the Philippines, Aruba, Benin, Suriname…and the United States.

For more of Michael Paulson’s insights into the challenges of translating Hamilton, click here.

Hamilton is in previews at Hamburg’s St. Pauli Theater, with opening night scheduled for October 6.

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

The Evolution of the Electric Guitar: An Introduction to Every Major Variety of the Instrument That Made Rock-and-Roll

The past century has seen many stylistic changes in popular culture, none more dramatic than in music. We need only hear a few measures of a song to place it in the right decade. The sound of an era’s music reflects the state of its technology: whenever engineering can make possible tools like multitrack recorders, tape loops, samplers, and synthesizers — to say nothing of listening media like cylinders, vinyl records, and online streaming — the soundtrack of the zeitgeist has been transformed. But in living memory, surely no development has made quite so powerful an impact on popular music as the electric guitar.

“Almost all guitars currently on the market are either a direct descendant of, or very similar to, a handful of instruments that came to life during the span of one decade: the fifties.” With these words, Dutch Youtuber Paul Davids launches into a video journey through the evolution of the electric guitar as we know it, beginning in 1950 with the Fender Telecaster.

Davids doesn’t just explain the components and construction of that venerable instrument, he plays it — just as he does a variety of other electric guitars, each with a sound representative of its era. Even if you don’t know them by name, they’ll all sound familiar from a variety of musical contexts.

The invention of the electric guitar made possible the birth of rock and roll, which shows no few signs of frailty even here in the twenty-first century. The earliest models produced are ever more highly valued for their sound, their feel, and their apparent simplicity, a quality many rockers hold in the utmost regard. But despite long adhering to the same basic form, the electric guitar has incorporated a great variety of innovations — in its pickups, its vibrato systems, and much else besides — whose combinations and permutations have given rise to entire subgenres like surf, heavy metal, rockabilly, and grunge. Like rock itself, the electric guitar arrived having already attained a kind of perfection, but possessed too much vitality to stand still.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch Opera Legend Marian Anderson’s Historic Performance on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

Nearly every Civil Rights icon becomes more of a symbol than a complex human being over time, a consequence of iconography in general. This has certainly been the case with opera singer Marian Anderson. “If Americans know one fact about the legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson,” Kira Thurman writes at The New Yorker, “it’s that she sang in defiance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939.”

We probably also know that Anderson took to the steps of the monument again in 1963 to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. In her official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, she stands regally before the Lincoln Memorial’s columns in her fur coat, gazing resolutely into the middle distance, her hair gray with age and wisdom. It’s the defining image of an artist whose defiance has come to overshadow her art.

The image is an undoubtedly powerful one, a key moment in the seemingly unending struggle for justice in the United States, as well as “one of the most important musical events of the 20th century,” Anastasia Tsioulcas writes at NPR. Anderson “had never faced such an enormous crowd” — 75,000 people of all races and backgrounds. “She was terrified,” and later wrote, “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.” She may have confessed to stage fright that day, but some characterizations do not do justice to her professionalism. Anderson did not fear crowds or bigotry.

When she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson was 42 years old and very much an international star. Four years earlier, she had returned from Europe “as one of the most revered people on the planet” and performed at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who arranged the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert — after resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the all-white group refused to rent the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall to Howard University for their annual concert event for Anderson.

Roosevelt had and would continue to intervene in many such instances of racism, using her power for democratic good. Anderson, while not an activist, was not new to musical protest. In 1935, her application to sing at the Salzburg Festival in Austria had been similarly rejected, on the heels of a Nazi riot over Black baritone Aubrey Pankey’s performance in the city earlier that year. “What Anderson did next illustrates a pattern of behavior that she would deploy as a weapon throughout her career,” Thurman writes. “She showed up anyway.”

Anderson held a small concert for a few devoted listeners at Mozarteum concert hall, then a few days later in a hotel ballroom for “hundreds of elite musicians, who applauded her act of defiance,” and shared in it themselves. After this concert, famed conductor Arturo Toscanini met her backstage and said, “What I heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.” Anderson, “became an international superstar overnight.” She built a reputation through bold acts of defiance, but her greatest contributions were always to music.

The “dignified, stoic, middle-aged Black woman” who appeared at the Lincoln Memorial was young once, writes Thurman, and as much a sensation in Europe as Josephine Baker. She’s been characterized as “modest” and self-effacing, but she was also ambitious, an incredibly talented child prodigy who knew she would find too many doors closed in the U.S. Like many Black artists of the early 20th century, she became a confident, celebrated ex-pat: “Walking down Salzburg’s hilly cobblestone streets during her first day in the Alpine city, in the summer of 1925, Anderson was trailed by a cadre of journalists everywhere she went.”

Ten years later, Anderson would find things very much changed in Europe, and find herself feeling as alienated in formerly welcoming Austria as she had in her home country. (She was mourned by her Austrian fans. One critic wrote of her last performance, “[her] music makes those people happy who have not yet given up their belief that all men are equal.”) By 1939, Anderson was a veteran not only of opera and music hall stages around the world, but of facing up to racism and discrimination.

“A quiet, humble person,” writes NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “Anderson often used ‘we’ when speaking about herself,” referring to the “many people whom we will never know,” she once said, but who make our lives possible. In the first song she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she changed the words of the third line from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing,” a move that “can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility.” It could also imply Anderson’s consciousness of herself and her community as marginalized outsiders in the country of their birth, or her sense of herself as addressing an integrated nation in that chilly, November outdoor crowd.

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

Listen to Music Playlists to Help You Study Like Nietzsche, Socrates, Kant & Other Great Thinkers

The great thinkers of the past knew nothing of Youtube — which, we might be tempted to say today, enabled them to become great thinkers in the first place. This is, of course, uncharitable: surely the rise of streaming media counts among the most important developments in the history of education. Many college students today may genuinely wonder how previous generations got by without Youtube’s background-music mixes engineered, as the New Yorker‘s Amanda Petrusich wrote not long ago, “to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet.”

If Youtube had been available to important minds of previous centuries — indeed, previous millennia — what sort of studying music would it have served to them? This is, in some sense, a philosophical question, and a philosophy channel has been providing answes: a host of answers, in fact, each in the form of a themed Youtube mix.

On Filosofia Acadêmica you’ll find a playlist to study like “a seventeenth-century philosopher” (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Tartini), like “a medieval philosopher having the truth revealed by divine grace” (Gregorian chants), and like “Socrates after discovering from the Oracle of Delphi that he is the wisest” (lots of harp and boat sounds).

Uploaded over the past year, these playlists have proven to be the biggest hits on Filosofia Acadêmica (a Brazilian channel also offering interviews like “Filosofia da Matemática com Oswaldo Chateaubriand” and “Filosofia da Religião com Domingos Faria,”). Its creator Elan Marinho has also put effort into crafting music mixes after particular thinkers in such notable moments as “Newton sticking needles in his eyes to test hypotheses about light,” “Turing inventing the computer” and “Nietzsche over the abyss in a tightrope between the animal and the übermensch” (opening, naturally, with “Ride of the Valkyries”). Many of these selections dispense with period accuracy, departing wildly from the subject’s time and place. But then, hasn’t imaginative license has always been a key component of great thought?

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

All of the Different Kinds of Acoustic Guitars, and the Different Woods They’re Made Of: The Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Guide

If you’re just starting out on acoustic guitar, buying your first instrument might seem simple enough…. Head to your local music shop (or ecommerce retailer), thrust out your hand, and say something like, “Give me a beginner guitar now!” Pay your money, take your lessons, Bob’s your uncle, right?

Ah, but say you encounter one of those things known as a guitar salesperson? And say that person has some questions… “Ok, we’ve got traditional-style dreadnoughts with cutaways or no cutaways. We’ve got concert sized guitars, parlor guitars, classical, all sorts!” And you, formerly confident shopper, now find yourself at sea. What’s the difference?

They’re already on to talking about different materials used in making guitars and you check out. You imagine a pursuit where you know what you’re doing: I could learn harmonica…. How many kinds of those are there?

Fear not, beginner, YouTube guitar educator Paul Davids is here to teach us the types of acoustic guitars we’re likely to encounter in the wild, as well as the different kinds of “tone woods” and why they make a difference.

Tone wood simply means the kinds of trees used to make the guitar – maple, mahogany, rosewood, spruce, etc. – and it’s called “tone wood” instead of just “wood” for a reason. Among makers and players of electric guitars, a never-ending argument persists about how much tone wood matters. There should be little debate when it comes to acoustic guitars.

The sound of an acoustic guitar comes from the pick, or the fingers, and from the neck, where the strings’ contact with the fretboard travels down to the resonating chamber of the body and gets sent out into the world. At each of these contact points, the properties of the wood in question naturally condition the shape of the sound waves.

Enlisting the help of Eastwood Guitars Pepijn ‘t Hart above, who donated the guitars in the first video for demonstration purposes, Davids demonstrates beyond question that different woods used to construct the back, sides, and top of an acoustic guitar have a tremendous effect on the tone.

From brighter to darker, treblier to bassier, or whatever you want to call the range of tones, you’ll hear them in these examples of different materials used to make the same sized guitars. Why is this important? As Hart explains, an acoustic guitar is basically its own amplifier. While you can adjust the tone somewhat with technique, the first thing you need to do as an acoustic guitar player is determine the best type of instrument you’ll need for the kind of music you’re playing.

Guitarists may also need to consider (eventually), the kinds of musicians they’re playing with. A heavy rock ensemble with rumbling bass and drums will require a much brighter guitar to cut through the mix, whereas accompanying a banjo player or violinist will call for more low end.

You can still grab the first beginner acoustic guitar you find online and call it a day. But if you’re serious about learning the instrument – and learning to play in a musical tradition, be it folk, blues, country, classical, rock, or whatever – you’ll need this essential information. Davids and Hart make it fun and easy to acquire in the two-part educational series above.

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

Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert Streaming Live from Wembley Stadium: Watch It Online

The Foo Fighters have teamed up with Taylor Hawkins’ family to stream worldwide their all-star celebration of the legendary drummer. Above you can stream the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert taking place in Wembley Stadium.  Note: if you missed the beginning, you can scroll the video back to the very start.

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 cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Creates Images to Match the Lyrics of Iconic Songs: David Bowie’s “Starman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” & More

Lyricists must write concretely enough to be evocative, yet vaguely enough to allow each listener his personal interpretation. The nineteen-sixties and seventies saw an especially rich balance struck between resonant ambiguity and massive popularity — aided, as many involved parties have admitted, by the use of certain psychoactive substances. Half a century later, the visions induced by those same substances offer the closest comparison to the striking fruits of visual artificial-intelligence projects like Google’s Deep Dream a few years ago or DALL-E today. Only natural, perhaps, that these advanced applications would sooner or later be fed psychedelic song lyrics.

The video at the top of the post presents the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1977 hit “Mr. Blue Sky” illustrated by images generated by artificial intelligence straight from its words. This came as a much-anticipated endeavor for Youtube channel SolarProphet, which has also put up similarly AI-accompanied presentations of such already goofy-image-filled comedy songs as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown” and Neil Cicierega’s “It’s Gonna Get Weird.”

Youtuber Daara has also created ten entries in this new genre, including Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and (the recently-featured-on-Open-Culture) Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”

Jut above appears a video for David Bowie’s “Starman” with AI-visualized lyrics, created by Youtuber Aidontknow. Created isn’t too strong a word, since DALL-E and other applications currently available to the public provide a selection of images for each prompt, leaving it to human users to provide specifics about the aesthetic — and, in the case of these videos, to select the result that best suits each line. One delight of this particular production, apart from the boogieing children, is seeing how the AI imagines various starmen waiting in the sky, all of whom look suspiciously like early-seventies Bowie. Of all his songs of that period, surely “Life on Mars?” would be choice number one for an AI music video — but then, its imagery may well be too bizarre for current technology to handle.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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