Brain Pickings

East + West + Gershwin: Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang Perform Rhapsody In Blue

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Herbie Hancock, one of America’s great jazz pianists, landed on the jazz scene in the early 1960s, starting out with Miles Davis, and then working as a solo musician who released his great jazz standards — Cantaloupe Island and Watermelon Man. Thirty years later, and across a big ocean, Lang Lang, the Chinese concert pianist, takes the stage. Only 13, he wins the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, and then quickly starts dazzling Western audiences with performances of Chopin, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

Finally, the two musicians, the two musical worlds, meet in 2009. Performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, along with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Hancock and Lang Lang work their way through Debussy, Ravel and then, appropriately enough, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The jazz concerto. Jazz inflections layered onto a classical composition. A perfect meeting in the middle.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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Hide/Seek: Portraits of Gender Identity and Sexual Difference in Art

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What gelatin and silver have to do with the history of art and equality.

Gender identity isn’t something openly discussed and studied as a shaping force in the arts (or , until recently, in science, for that matter), but it is a powerful one. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture takes an ambitious look at the history of sexual difference, published as a companion volume to a Smithsonian exhibition of the same title, but offering a powerful stand-alone piece of visual scholarship charting the hidden impact of gay and lesbian artists on the history of art and portraiture and how they explored the fluidity of gender and sexuality.

The book explores the presence and evolution of same-sex desire in contemporary portraiture through more than 140 full-color drawings, illustrations and photographs by prominent American artists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol. (Including a remarkable silver print of Susan Sontag, with whom I’m hopelessly obsessed.)

In Memory of My Feelings - Frank O'Hara

Jasper Johns, oil on canvas with objects, 1961

James Baldwin

Beauford Delaney, pastel on paper, 1963

A historical account contextualizes the artwork, tracing the influential marginality of LGBT artists from the turn of the 20th century to the gay liberation movement of 1969 to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s to today.

Camouflage Self-Portrait (RED)

Andy Warhol, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas, 1986

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

Hide/Seek comes from authors Jonathan D. Katz, founder of the first department for gay and lesbian studies in the US, and National Portrait Gallery historian David C. Ward. It is both a brilliantly curated anthology of seminal portraiture and an essential piece of cultural history for human rights and equality.

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A Short Illustrated History of Nearly Everything

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What charcoal has to do with democracy, equality and the cultural necessity for absurdity.

A couple of weeks ago, after raving about one of our all-time favorite books, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, reader Ian Shepherd alerted us to the recent publication of an illustrated version of the book. Needless to say, A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition is just as fantastic as you’d expect.

Today, courtesy of Ian’s photographic skills, we take a peek inside as we await our copy in the mail:

For the uninitiated, the book is a captivating exploration of how life evolved and how we humans came to make sense of it all. In 600 pages, Bryson offers a manifesto for scientific thought, written in a way that non-scientists can not merely understand but be swept away by, absorbing the author’s keen insight and chuckling at his well-timed wryness.

“This is a book about how it happened. In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” ~ Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition is currently 34% off on Amazon but wherever you choose to grab it, the important thing is that you do — it’s eye and brain candy of the best kind.

Images by Ian Shepherd

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BBC’s Sherlock: Modernization Done Right

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If Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes let you down — let’s face it, juicy as Robert Downey Jr. may be, the effects-driven blockbusternes of it all robbed the Arthur Conan Doyle classic of some of its original edge — the BBC have your back. Sherlock is a fantastic three-part adaptation by directors Paul McGuigan and co-creator Steven Moffat of Doctor Who fame, recasting the classic detective series in modern-day London, where Sherlock roams as a brilliant yet socially abrasive “high-functioning sociopath” and sidekick Dr. Watson is an introspective injured Afghanistan war veteran. Through a mutual friend, the two become roommates — or, to use the proper Brit-speak, flatmates — at the iconic 221B Baker Street.

Modern Holmes trades in traditional Holmes’ famous deerstalker caps for a fine selection of borderline-hipster scarves and modern Watson tends labors over a blog rather than a journal, but the signature qualities of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic — quick wit, dynamic dialogue, fast-paced adventure — remain intact and come to life in ever more brilliant detail. From McGuigan’s superb visual storytelling to the captivating costumes and cinematography to the keen casting of Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace, Hawking) as Sherlock and Martin Freeman (Love Actually, The Office original) as Dr. Watson, the series is an absolutely treat.

I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” ~ Sherlock

Each of the three episodes — A Study In Pink, The Blind Banker and The Great Game — tackles a different mystery, revealing a new facet of Sherlock’s genius.

What makes the modernization all the greater a feat is the difficulty of believably translating the original concept into a contemporary setting, where forensic science and advances in technology necessitate even more superhuman a level of intelligence and logical deduction to make Sherlock the one-man detective show Arthur Conan Doyle designed him to be.

The series airs on PBS in the US and, for a limited time, you can watch it in its entirety online. The DVD, featuring the original pilot and a fascinating making-of featurette, is out this week and we highly recommend it.

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