Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘David Bowie’

16 JULY, 2014

David Bowie’s Enchanting Isolated Vocal Track for “Ziggy Stardust”

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Because Ziggy didn’t always play guitar.

In June of 1972, David Bowie released his fifth studio record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — the album that gave birth to his legendary alter ego, the fictional rock star Ziggy Stardust, who catapulted Bowie into superstardom and went on to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest pop-culture cults.

This mesmerizing isolated vocal track for the album’s title song reveals as much the intimate beauty of Bowie’s imperfect voice as it does the enormous role instrumentation and performance play in creating the overall effect of the song’s enchantment and exhilaration:

Complement with Bowie’s 75 must-read books, his answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, his narration of the pioneering Soviet children’s symphony “Peter and the Wolf,” and the full story of Ziggy Stardust, then treat yourself to astronaut Chris Hadfield’s magnificent cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station.

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10 JULY, 2014

David Bowie Answers the Famous Proust Questionnaire

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“Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? A: Living in fear.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a charming compendium featuring answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, and Joan Didion. Among the most wonderful answers, equal parts playful and profound, are those by David Bowie — himself a vocal lover of literature — published in the magazine in August of 1998.

Portrait of David Bowie by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Reading.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Getting a word in edgewise.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Discovering morning.

What is your greatest fear?
Converting kilometers to miles.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Santa Claus.

Which living person do you most admire?
Elvis.

Who are your heroes in real life?
The consumer.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
While in New York, tolerance.
Outside New York, intolerance.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Talent.

What is your favorite journey?
The road of artistic excess.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sympathy and originality.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
“Chthonic,” “miasma.”

What is your greatest regret?
That I never wore bellbottoms.

What is your current state of mind?
Pregnant.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My fear of them (wife and son excluded).

What is your most treasured possession?
A photograph held together by cellophane tape of Little Richard that I bought in 1958, and a pressed and dried chrysanthemum picked on my honeymoon in Kyoto.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Living in fear.

Where would you like to live?
Northeast Bali or south Java.

What is your favorite occupation?
Squishing paint on a senseless canvas.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
The ability to return books.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The ability to burp on command.

What are your favorite names?
Sears & Roebuck.

What is your motto?
“What” is my motto.

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire is a treat in its colorful totality. For a similar compendium of wisdom from cultural icons, see LIFE Magazine’s 1991 volume The Meaning of Life, then revisit Bowie’s 75 must-read books.

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02 MAY, 2014

David Bowie Narrates the Pioneering Soviet Children’s Symphony Peter and the Wolf

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How the clarinet cat and the oboe duck lifted the Iron Curtain for a magical performance.

In early 1936, compelled to cultivate a taste for music in young children, Natalya Sats, director of Moscow’s Musical Theater for Children, commissioned the legendary Ukrainian (then-Soviet) composer, pianist and conductor Sergei Prokofiev to create an innovative musical symphony for children. His answer was Peter and the Wolf, which made its debut on May 2 that year — a whimsical fable-like story whose narrator is accompanied by an orchestra of woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument — flute for the bird, oboe for the duck, clarinet for the cat, French horns for the wolf, bassoon for the grandfather, and so forth — with the idea of not only introducing children to classical music but also tickling their metaphor-hungry minds and inviting them to form symbolic auditory associations.

Over the decades that followed, Prokofiev’s fresh and groundbreaking symphony swelled into a cross-cultural classic that attracted dozens of recordings by some of the twentieth century’s greatest performers from all over the world. Among them was David Bowie: In 1978, in the middle of the Cold War, RCA Victor released David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf — a gorgeous recording of the Prokofiev classic, which Bowie made as a present for his 7-year-old son, Duncan, with music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

For a taste of this unusual and immeasurable delight, here is the beginning of the piece:

This is the story of Peter and the wolf.

Each character in the tale is going to be represented by a different instrument of the orchestra. For instance, the bird will be played by the flute. (Like this.) Here’s the duck, played by the oboe. The cat by the clarinet. The bassoon will represent grandfather. The wolf by the French horns. And Peter by the strings. The blast of the hunters’ shotguns played by the kettle drums.

The entire recording of David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf is well worth hearing — sample it below, then complement it with this vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening to music and a wonderful 1954 children’s jazz primer by none other than Langston Hughes.

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