Brain Pickings

East Meets West: From Mao to Mozart

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What Chairman Mao has to do with The Academy Awards and extracting passion from the cello.

It’s been a big week for music here at Brain Pickings. We started with 7 must-read books about music, emotion and the brain, then bowed before the deeply inspiring YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which brought together 101 of the world’s most talented amateur classical musicians in one remarkable performance, followed by a fascinating look at how musicians experience emotion. Today, we turn to a powerful testament to the cross-cultural power of music and a bridge-builder and heart-opener.

In 1979, shortly after the death of Chairman Mao, China reopened its doors to the West and the Chinese government invited iconic American violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to visit for a recital. But his visit soon turned into a full-blown goodwill tour, as Stern ended up playing a formal concert, touring two cities and, driven by his overwhelming love of music, teaching a number of classes to Chinese musicians, many of whom children. From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China tells the amazing story of Stern’s journey with beauty and tenderness as these two cultures collide and caress, from the inspirational encounter with a gifted adolescent cellist to the heartbreaking portrait of violinmaker imprisoned for over a year for the crime of crafting Western instruments. Interwoven with the musical story is a fascinating parallel narrative and rare glimpse of the Chinese countryside, culture and people at a pivotal moment in history after the final dismantling of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Stern’s style — passionate, empathic, lived to the bone — comes in stark contrast with the meticulously technical approach of the Chinese, but the warmth of their transformative exchange and the way in which the music brings them together bespeak a universal human language that transcends geography, politics and credo.

Their approach to Western classical music was somewhat limited. They were not accustomed to playing with passion and variety of color. They had an old-fashioned technical approach towards the manner in which they played their instruments, but with an almost instant understanding and reaction to a given musical stimulus, once they were shown what might be done.” ~ Isaac Stern

The film, which won the 1981 Academy Award for best documentary, is now available online in its entirety and we couldn’t recommend it more as your weekend viewing.

The DVD also features a wonderful postcript, Musical Encounters, chronicling Stern’s return to Beijing two decades later as he catches up with Wang, the young cellist, who by that point had made a name for himself as a successful international recording artist.

For a related cross-cultural bridge via classical music, don’t miss Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang’s incredible collaborative performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which took place exactly two decades after Stern’s visit to China.

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Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini

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137 years ago today, the great Harry Houdini was born. Hovering between magic and stuntsmanship, history’s greatest escape artist captivated hearts and minds by making humans believe that superhuman feats were possible. He made a living out of mystery and his life ended with even more mystery. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero is one of the best books on modern mythology you’ll ever read — a meticulously researched and rivetingly narrated biography of the great magician, equal parts comprehensive and controversial.

Today, we celebrate his birthday with Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini — a fascinating Discovery documentary that investigates the life and contentious death of the iconic escapologist, drawing a striking parallel between Houdini’s tale and the story of early 20th-century America — the modernity, the sleekness, the optimism that made everything seem possible and humanity feel indestructible. From how he hacked the body’s neurochemistry to tolerate incredible pain levels to why he changed his name and forged his birth certificate to what the popular Hollywood myth about his demise got wrong, the film is an absolute gem of modern myth-making. Enjoy:

He made a career out of mystery, and mystery still surrounds his death.”

For a closer look at Houdini’s life and legacy, we really couldn’t recommend The Secret Life of Houdini more strongly — more than a mere historical biography, it tells a timeless story of self-invention, creative entrepreneurship and relentless perseverance, deeply relevant to everyone from the startup founder to the professional athlete to the everyday aspiration-chaser.

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How Musicians Experience and Communicate Emotion

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The interplay between music and emotion, which we explored on Monday with 7 must-read books on the subject, is undeniable. But if most of us ordinary people are so powerfully affected by music, we can only imagine what that experience must be like for professional musicians. That’s exactly what behavioral neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the excellent This Is Your Brain on Music, explores in It’s All In The Timing — a fascinating series of psychology experiments that measure how musicians experience and communicate emotion.

I think this is an important first step in using real music and bringing it into the laboratory, combining rigorous scientific methods with the more expressive aspects, the more artistic aspects, of music.” ~ Daniel Levitin

via Open Culture

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The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession

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What vintage bomb survival suits have to do with Dr. Stragelove and Richard Nixon.

The recent tragedy in Japan has triggered a tsunami of terror, founded and unfounded, about the potential risks of nuclear reactors. While there are people better equipped than us to explain the precise implications of the situation, we thought we’d put things in perspective by examining the flipside of these dystopian fears: The exuberant optimism about nuclear power in mid-century America.

The Atomic Cafe (1982) offers clever satire of America’s atomic culture through a mashup of old newsreels and archival footage from military training films, government propaganda, presidential speeches and pop songs — remix culture long before it became a buzzword. From congressmen pushing for nuclear attacks on China to mind-boggling inventions like the “bomb survival suit,” the darkly humorous film revolves around the newly built atomic bomb and pokes fun at the false optimism of the 1950s, showing how nuclear warfare made its way into American homes and seeped into the collective conscience from the inside out.

Though the collector’s edition DVD is a winner, the film — which became a cult classic often referred to as the “nuclear Reefer Madness” and compared to Kubrick’s Dr. Stragelove — is also available for free online in its entirety:

The Atomic Cafe is a poignant reminder that all social reactions, whatever their polarity, are always a complex function of the era’s cultural concerns, political propaganda and media mongering, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual risks and opportunities at hand.

Please note that none of this is meant as commentary on or an effort to invalidate the debilitating human tragedy in Japan. In fact, we’re diverting Brain Pickings donations this month to the American Red Cross in support of the relief efforts there. Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan as they piece their lives back together.

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