An Archive of 8,000 Benjamin Franklin Papers Now Digitized & Put Online

Let me quickly pass along some good news from the Library of Congress: "The papers of American scientist, statesman and diplomat Benjamin Franklin have been digitized and are now available online for the first time.... The Franklin papers consist of approximately 8,000 items mostly dating from the 1770s and 1780s. These include the petition that the First Continental Congress sent to Franklin, then a colonial diplomat in London, to deliver to King George III; letterbooks Franklin kept as he negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War; drafts of the treaty; notes documenting his scientific observations, and correspondence with fellow scientists." Find the digitized collection of papers here.

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Braille Neue: A New Version of Braille That Can Be Simultaneously Read by the Sighted and the Blind

Photo via Kosuke Takahashi

To those of us who've never had reason to learn it, the Braille alphabet can have an appealingly retro-futuristic look, not least because Braille signage in America seems most often installed in pre-2000s public buildings. But it must smack of the past to many of the visually impaired as well, who these days have a host of ever higher-tech reading devices available to them (thanks to which, of course, they can read sites like this one). And though public support for producing materials in Braille exists, the educational programs needed to spread Braille literacy in the first place have fewer champions. Braille itself, perhaps, needs an upgrade for the 21st century.

Kosuke Takahashi may be just the graphic designer to provide that upgrade. He's come up with Braille Neue, "a universal typeface that combines braille with existing characters. This typeface communicates to both the sighted and blind people in the same space." He has, in other words, designed a readable alphabet that allows for the overlaying of English with the corresponding raised Braille dots, keeping both legible at a glance — or at a touch, as the case may be. Other designers have tried their hand at the same project, but unlike Takahashi, none of their alphabets support phonetic Japanese characters as well. "Our aim is to use this universal typeset for [the] Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics 2020 to create a truly universal space where anyone can access information," says Takahashi's Braille Neue page.

Photo via Kosuke Takahashi

Based on the existing Helvetica Neue font, Braille Neue — whose designer, according to My Modern Met, "is still experimenting with cost-effective printing and is refining the font prior to final release" — has the potential to spread not just awareness but literacy of Braille, given that it essentially shows sighted non-Braille readers a key every time they read it. As any non-Japanese person who has lived in Takahashi's native land knows, even if you start with no idea of how to read a character in an unknown writing system, you'll start to get a sense of it almost automatically if you see it often enough in context with your own. They'll also know that if any country can implement retrofuturistic design in a way that fascinates the world, it's Japan.

via Colossal/My Modern Met

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include 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 Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

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

A Cinematic Journey Through Paris, As Seen Through the Lens of Legendary Filmmaker Éric Rohmer: Watch Rohmer in Paris


Note: The film starts around the 30 second mark.

Site of so many historic screenings, cradle of so many innovative auteurs, setting of so many memorable scenes: does any city have a more central place in the cinephile's consciousness than Paris? Filmmaker-professor Richard Misek calls it "the city where cinephilia itself began." It certainly has a place in his own cinephilic journey, beginning with a chance encounter, 24 years ago in the district of Montmartre, with one of the luminaries of French New Wave film: Éric Rohmer, who was then in the middle of shooting his picture Rendezvous in Paris. "I only realized this fourteen years later, when I saw the film late one night on television," Misek says. "It was the first Rohmer film I'd ever seen — and I was in it."

He tells this story early in Rohmer in Paris, his hour-long video essay on all the ways the auteur used the city in the course of his prolific, more than fifty-year-long filmmaking career. Misek describes Rohmer's characters, "always glancing at each other: on trains, on streets, in parks, in the two-way shop windows of cafes where they can see and be seen," as flâneurs, those observant strollers through the city whose type has its origins in the Paris of the 19th century. "But their walks are restricted to lunch hours and evenings out. They form detours from less leisurely trajectories: the lines of a daily commute." With ever-increasing rigor, the director "traces every step of his characters' journeys through the city with topographic precision. His characters follow actual paths through Paris, paths that can be drawn as lines on the city's map."

Though Rohmer did have his differences, aesthetically as well as politically, with his colleagues in the French New Wave, "in one way, at least, he always stayed faithful to the spirit of the nouvelle vague: throughout his life, Rohmer didn't just film Paris, he documented it." Cutting up and deliberately re-arranging thousands of pieces of image and sound in Rohmer's dozens of shorts and features, placing side-by-side shots of the same Parisian spaces years and even decades apart, Misek shows us how Rohmer cinematically illustrates "one of the basic truths about urban existence: in cities, humans' lives intersect every day. But most of these intersections are transitory, crossed paths between two people following different trajectories."

Rohmer didn't always film in Paris. As his career went on, he told more stories that depart from the city, but then, those stories also usually return to it: ultimately, almost all of his characters find that "Paris cannot be transcended." Watch just one of Rohmer's films, and you'll see how little interest he has in romanticizing the City of Light, yet the words of one character in Full Moon in Paris might also be his own: "The air is foul, but I can breathe," he declares. "I need to be at the center, in the center of a country, in a city center that's almost the center of the world."

Just as Rohmer demonstrates the inexhaustibility of Paris with his filmography, Misek demonstrates the inexhaustibility of that filmography with Rohmer in Paris, which he has recently released into the public domain and made free to watch online. It provides real insight into the work of Éric Rohmer, the city in which he became a cinephile and then a filmmaker, and how the two repeatedly intersect with one another over the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. But it also implies an answer, in the affirmative, to another, more general proposition that Misek raises early in the essay: "I can't help but wonder if cinephilia is a journey without end."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include 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.

Igor Stravinsky Remembers the “Riotous” Premiere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stupid People.”

It can be a little hard to take the word “riot” seriously when applied to a contentious ballet performance, given how regularly we now see police with machine guns, shields, and tanks rolling down city streets to overpower protesting citizens. But that is the word that has come down to us for the fracas that greeted the debut of Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. The idea of a riot seems all the more incongruous, and funny, when considered in the light of Jean Cocteau’s description of the crowd:

The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.

This Parisian smart set came together on that evening of May 29th expecting “something potentially outrageous,” writes The Telegraph’s classical critic Ivan Hewett. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes had previously “entranced and shocked Paris.” Stravinsky was acquiring a reputation as a musical provocateur, having built his score for 1910’s The Firebird around the dissonant “Devil’s Interval.” Nonetheless, as the Rocketboom video below, “The Riot of Spring,” explains, audiences packed into the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had no preparation for what they would see, and hear, when the curtain arose.

And what was that? A “high, almost strangled bassoon melody,” Hewett writes, “soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds” set to “pulsating rhythms.” Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s dancers “seemed pulled down to earth. Their strange, jerky movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.” The audience reacted immediately, shouting and attacking one another: “canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” Stravinsky himself remembers the theatergoers reactions with disdain in a short interview excerpt at the top.

“The storm broke,” he says, once the curtain opened on a group of “knock-kneed… Lolitas jumping up and down." The audience "came for Scheherazade or Cleopatra, and they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people.” Did Stravinsky really not anticipate the degree of unrest his weird, dissonant ballet might provoke? It seems not. He hoped it would be a bigger hit than his widely-praised Petrushka of three years earlier. “From all indications,” he had written to set designer Nicholas Roerich, “I can see that this piece is bound to ‘emerge’ in a way that rarely happens.” This proved true, but not at all in the way he meant it.

For his part, writes Hewett, Diaghilev “was hoping for something more than an emergence. He wanted a scandal.” James Wolcott, in his account of the evening, Wild in the Seats, argues that the Russian impresario had “a genius for publicity that wouldn’t be matched until the advent of Andy Warhol and the pop cult of celebrity.” He knew he needed to rattle the “jaded elegants,” who “weren’t going to be stimulated by the same melting, yearning pantomime in pointe shoes.” The Rite of Spring premiere remains the most infamous scandal in the history of ballet to this day.

But while the sophisticates battled it out in the aisles, screaming over the orchestra, pulling down each other’s top hats, it’s said, and challenging each other to duels, a few spectators, Cocteau included, sat entranced by the performance. The work, he later wrote, “is, and will remain, a masterpiece: a symphony impregnated with wild pathos, with earth in the throes of birth, noises of farm and camp, little melodies that come to us out of the depths of the centuries, the panting of cattle, profound convulsions of nature, prehistoric georgics.”

See the opening movements performed above by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, and imagine yourself in the midst of Paris’s highest society convulsing in a riotous outcry. What was so upsetting? “Perhaps the riot was a sign of disquiet,” Hewett speculates, “a feeling that that the world had lost its moorings, and that barbarism was about to be let loose in the streets.” According to eyewitnesses, some disturbed spectators even called in the police. You can learn much more about this fascinating history at the free Harvard edX course, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: Modernism, Ballet, and Riots.”

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

Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov Relives His Four Most Memorable Games

Many consider Garry Kasparov one of the greatest chess players of all time. And for good reason. In 1985, at the age of 22, Kasparov defeated the reigning champion Anatoly Karpov. From that moment, until his retirement in 2005, he dominated. For the next 225 out of 228 months, he was the #1 ranked player in the game. Above, in a video created by The New Yorker, Kasparov "replays some of his most unforgettable games," and "relives the happiest and the most painful moments of his career," including:

  • Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov: World Championship Match 1985
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov: World Championship Match 1987
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Viswanathan Anand: PCA-GP Credit Suisse Rapid Final Blitz Playoff 1996
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue: I.B.M. Man vs. Machine 1997

In recent months, Kasparov has also created an online course for Masterclass, Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess, which--in 29 video lessons--offers a deeper exploration of his chess theory, tactics, and strategy.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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The Science of Beer: A New Free Online Course Promises to Enhance Your Appreciation of the Timeless Beverage

The brewing of beer is as old as agriculture, which is to say as old as settled civilization. The oldest recipe we know of dates to 1800 B.C. Over centuries, beer moved up and down the class ladder depending on its primary consumers. Medieval monks brewed many fine varieties and were renowned for their technique. Beer descended into pubs and rowdy beer halls, whetting the whistles not only of farmers, soldiers, sailors, and pilgrims, but also of burghers and a budding industrial workforce. During the age of modern empire, beer became, on both sides of the Atlantic, the beverage of working-class sports fans in bleachers and La-Z-Boys.

A craft beer Renaissance at the end of last century brought back a monkish mystique to this most ancient beverage, turning beer into wine, so to speak, with comparable levels of connoisseurship. Beer bars became galleries of fine polished brass, pungent, fruity aromas, dark and serious wood appointments. Craft beer is fun—with its quirky names and labels—it is also intimidating, in the breadth of complicated concoctions on offer. (Hipsters and penurious revelers revolted, made a fetish of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Milwaukee’s Best, and ye olde malt liquor.)

“Has craft beer peaked?” wonders The Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel. You can probably guess from the question that most trends point to “yes.” But as long as there is wheat, barley, and hops, we will have beer, no matter who is drinking it and where. One lasting effect of beer’s highbrow few decades remains: a popular scholarly appreciation for its culture and composition. You can study the typography of beer, for example, as Print magazine has done in recent years. A new online course applies the tools of empirical and sociological research to beer drinking.

“The Science of Beer,” taught by a cadre of student teachers from Wageningen University in Holland, explores “how [beer is] made, the raw materials used, its supply chain, how it's marketed and the effect of beer consumption on your body.” (This last point—in a world turned against sugar, carbs, and gluten—being partly the reason for craft beer’s decline.) Should your voice quaver when you approach the upscale reclaimed walnut bar and survey unfamiliar lagers, ales, stouts, bocks, porters, and hefeweizens… should you hesitate at Whole Foods when faced with a wall of beverages with names like incantations, this free class may set you at ease.

Not only will you learn about the different types of beer, but “after this course, tasting a beer will be an entirely new sensation: you will enjoy it even more since you will better understand what’s inside your drink.” Enrollment for the 5-week course began this past Monday and the class is currently open and free. (Make sure you select the "Audit" option for the free version of the course.) You should expect to devote 2 to 4 hours per week to “The Science of Beer.” Please, study responsibly.

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

Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” Played on the Gayageum, a Korean Instrument Dating Back to the 6th Century

Every now and then, we check in on the fascinating musical world of Luna Lee--a musician who performs Western music on the Gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument which dates back to the 6th century. Over the years, we've shown you her adaptations of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile;’ David Bowie's “The Man Who Sold The World;” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah;” blues classics by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King & Muddy Waters; and Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb,” “Another Brick in the Wall” & “Great Gig in the Sky.” To keep the tradition going, today we bring you Luna's virtuoso take on Dire Straits' "Sultans Of Swing."

According to Guitar Player, Mark Knopfler originally wrote the song on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning. “I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat[ocaster] in 1977, the whole thing changed.” "It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat." Above, you can hear Luna play the song on a very vintage Gayageum. Be sure to catch that solo at the 1:28 mark. Enjoy...

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200+ Films by Indigenous Directors Now Free to View Online: A New Archive Launched by the National Film Board of Canada

The struggles of First Nations peoples in Canada have loomed large in the news, showing a far harsher side of a country Americans tend to caricature as a land of bland niceness, hockey fandom, and socialized medicine. Huge numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women, high rates of suicide, a multitude of health crises, and—as in the U.S.—the ongoing encroachment onto Indigenous lands by toxic pipelines and oilsands development…..

As with issues affecting other beleaguered communities across the globe, suffering from the continued depredations of colonialism and capitalism, these problems can seem so overwhelming that we don’t know how to begin to understand them. As always, the arts offer a way in—through humanizing portraits and intimate revelations, through detailed and compassionate stories, through creativity, humor, and beauty.

In March of this year, the National Film Board of Canada launched an “extensive online library of over 200 films by Indigenous directors,” reports the CBC, “part of a three-year Indigenous Action Plan to ‘redefine’ the NFB’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.” You can read the NFB’s plan here, a response to “the work and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.”

Their free online film collection is searchable by subject, director, or Indigenous people or nation, writes Native News Online, and “many of the films in this collection are currently being screened in communities right across Canada as part of the #Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake) Indigenous cinema screening series.”

Some of the highlights of the collection include Alanis Obomsawin’s The People of the Kattawapiskak River (top), a 2012 documentary that Judith Schuyler, of the Toronto-based ImagineNATIVE film organization, describes as “highlighting the government, the diamond mines and the skyrocketing freight costs as the contributing factors keeping the [Kattawapiskak] community in impoverished third world conditions.” Below it, see Lumaajuuq, a beautifully-animated short 2010 film by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril that tells the Inuit story of “The Blind Man and the Loon.”

Further up, see First Stories—Two Spirited, a 2007 film by Sharon A. Desjarlais that filmmaker Bretten Hannam describes as “a message of hope and healing not only for two-spirit people, but for all indigenous people," and, just above, Dennis Allen’s CBQM, a documentary about a radio station in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, which ImagineNative’s Jason Ryle describes as “a tender, intimate portrait of a northern community.”

Native News Online and the CBC list several other recommendations from the collection, or you can simply dive in and start watching here. Also, check out this crash course on rising Indigenous filmmakers. And if at any point you feel inspired to don the garb of a First Nations people and hit the clubs or music festivals, well, maybe heed the ultra-short public service announcement, “Naked Island—Hipster Headdress,” below, and “Just Don’t Do It.”

via @sheerly

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

Apply to Become an Archivist Overseeing Prince’s Artifacts & Archival Materials: Applications Are Being Accepted Now

Image by Ann Althouse, via Flickr Commons

If all of Prince’s official releases somehow disappeared from history—no Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy—you could still make a case for him as a singular, if unheard, musical genius based on his massive trove of unreleased material alone. At least that’s my theory, but the evidence is somewhat lacking since we’ve yet to hear much from the notorious Paisley Park vault. We do know, as Rolling Stone reported in 2016, that it’s full of “thousands of hours of unheard live and studio material—jams, random songs and entire albums”…enough material, it seems, to recreate Prince should his career somehow get erased from the timeline.

One former Paisley Park employee, Scott LeGere, witnessed the Purple One’s manic energy during many a long recording session, as he churned out music at a superhuman rate, then relegated much of it, for reasons known only to Prince, to the Vault—an actual basement bank vault “complete with a time lock and large spinning handle.” Only Prince knew the combination. “At one point,” LeGere remembered, “I was holding tapes and he would beckon me to come in. I said, ‘Actually, sir, I’d rather not. That is your space and your work.’” I don’t know about you, but I probably would have gone in. Then again, I’ve never actually been to Paisley Park and experienced what seems to have been a very humbling atmosphere.

As you must have heard by now, the Vault is open, and unreleased material has begun to trickle out, like the original studio recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” above with previously unreleased rehearsal footage of Prince and his band. He “recorded every part himself,” writes Jon Pareles, as was his custom, “except some backing vocals (by Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin) and a saxophone solo (by Eric Leeds).” It is, without a doubt, “a crescendo of heartache underscored by everyday details, a finished song.”

If you’re a Prince fan (and how could you not be?), you’ll have to wait until September for the first full album of songs from the Vault. But one lucky person with the relevant skills and experience in archival work and conservation will get the chance to work directly with the materials at Paisley Park, now a permanent museum, as the Archives Supervisor reporting to the Director of Archives. “Some knowledge of Prince is helpful,” the job announcement—posted on April 12th—specifies.

You’ll have to be prepared to work weekends, holidays, evenings, and overtime. Benefits are not guaranteed but “may be be offered after successful completion of a sixty (60) day introductory period.” You must have a car and “adhere to a pescatarian environment.” I can’t speak to how these conditions compare to similar kinds of employment, but hey, for the chance to “work in a confidential work area,” including, we might assume, the mysterious Vault itself, some sacrifices may be worth it. You'll likely get to see and hear, before anyone else, the profusion of unreleased film and audio Prince left behind—a lifetime's worth of work that puts most other musicians to shame, stashed away in the basement for future generations to find. You can apply here.

via Rolling Stone

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





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