Music

The last time I was in Ireland I wasn’t blogging yet.  What riches lie here, let’s give it a start:

1. Poetry: I pick Joyce’s Ulysses, then Yeats and also Seamus Heaney, especially if the word “bog” appears in the poem.  A good collection is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty.  Beyond the ranks of the super-famous, you might try Louis MacNeice, from the Auden Group, or perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic but has been translated by other superb Irish poets into English..

2. Novel/literature: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels.  One of the very very best books for social science too, and one of my favorite books period.  After Joyce, there is also Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Lord Dunsany, John Banville (The Untouchable), William Trevor, and Elizabeth Bowen.  Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland, but does she count?  More recently I have enjoyed Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett, with Mike McCormack in my pile to read soon.  Roddy Doyle is probably good, but I don’t find him so readable.  Colum McCann somehow isn’t Irish enough for me, but many enjoy his work.  Can the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith count?  His Citizen of the World remains a neglected work.  The recently published volumes of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence have received rave reviews and I hope to read through them this summer.  Whew!  And for a country of such a small population.

3. Classical music: Hmm…we hit a roadblock here.  I don’t love John Field, so I have to call this category a fail.  I can’t offhand think of many first-rate Irish classical performers, can you?  James Galway?

4. Popular music: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless.  Certainly my favorite album post-1970s, and possibly my favorite of all time.  When the Irish do something well, they do it really really well.  Then there is Van Morrison, Them, Bono and U2, Rory Gallagher, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, The Pogues, The Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor, among others.  I confess to having an inordinate weakness for Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Traditional Irish music would need a post of its own, but it has never commanded much of my attention.

5. Painter: Francis Bacon is the obvious and probably correct choice, but I am no longer excited to see his work.  I don’t find myself seeing new things in it.  Sean Scully wins runner-up.  This is a slightly weak category, at least relative to some of the others.

6. Political philosopher: Edmund Burke, who looks better all the time, I am sorry to say.

7. Philosopher: Bishop Berkeley.  He is also interesting on monetary theory, anticipating some later ideas of Fischer Black on money as an abstract unit of account.

8. Classical economist: Mountifort Longfield and Isaac Butt both had better understandings of supply and demand and marginalism, before the marginal revolution, than almost any other economists except for a few of the French.

9. Theologian: C.S. Lewis, you could list him under fiction as well.  Here is a debate over whether he is British or Irish.  Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia covers Lewis, one of my favorite books from the last decade.

10. Silicon Valley entrepreneur: Patrick Collison (duh), of Stripe and Atlas, here is his superb podcast with Ezra Klein.  Here is further information on the pathbreaking Stripe Atlas project.

11. Movie: There are plenty I don’t like so much, such as My Left Foot, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Waking Ned, and The Commitments.  Most people consider those pretty good.  I think I’ll opt for The Crying Game and also In the Name of the Father.

12: Movie, set in: Other than the movies listed above, there is Odd Man Out (quite good), The Quiet Man, and The Secret of Roan Inish, but my clear first choice is the still-underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

The bottom line: The strengths are quite amazing, and that’s without adjusting for population.

What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?  Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his).  In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?

HITmakers

Here is one good review of the book.  You can buy it here.

In the last two weeks I’ve heard the new George Harrison box set mentioned so often on channel 26 Sirius satellite radio — accompanied by the playing of Harrison songs — that I’ve concluded some form of payola is going on.  In its early days, satellite radio was critical of the mainstream radio stations for this practice, but now it’s jumped on board.  And you know what — no one cares!  Even on the internet, there is hardly anyone complaining.  Hard to believe, I know, but that is maybe one indirect advantage of the current political polarization.

And why should you complain about satellite radio payola?  Without payola, the stations choose songs (directly or indirectly, through dj instructions) to pull in the marginal subscriber.  With payola, payments from IP holders become a separate influence on program content.  Those payments are most likely to come from IP holders whose products show a high elasticity of demand with respect to advertising.  In other words, the influence of producer surplus rises, relative to consumer surplus.

Intuitively, that seems to me “music that a lot of listeners already are familiar with, even if they don’t know that a new boxed set just has been released” is how that category translates into satellite radio circa 2017.  Or, in other words, George Harrison.

Perhaps the most underrated George Harrison song is “You.

Addendum: Interestingly, payola in earlier parts of the 20th century seemed to favor music for the young, black music, and new, previously undiscovered artists.  It’s worth thinking through why this has changed.  For 1950-2000, there is no “marginal subscriber to radio” the way there is for satellite radio, rather most listeners are in the relevant network.  Furthermore, today’s satellite radio listeners are I believe considerably older and somewhat wealthier than the typical radio listener, either now or earlier.  When more or less everyone was on the “free radio network,” the high elasticity of profits with respect to advertising was for the artists who otherwise wouldn’t get much exposure.  In contrast, today it is for “golden oldies,” where the taste for the product already is there but information about availability may be lacking.

Here are previous MR posts on the economics of payola.

But if Book IV fires a warning shot across the bow, Books V and VIII launch an all-out musical assault on convention. For the first time an instrumental basso continuo part appears, providing continuity that allows voices to falter, stop altogether or even sing alone. Suddenly, musical emotion is less a matter of symbolism than of imitation; sighs, moans and shouts of joy can all be rendered truthfully, with each voice unshackled from its fellows. Harmonically, too, things are very different. The knife-twisting dissonances that famously angered the theorist Artusi in ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (‘A tumult of sounds, a confusion of absurdities, an assemblage of imperfections’) turn the poem’s cardboard lover into something of flesh and blood, someone whose thoughts alternately gallop and linger, whose emotions ebb and flow naturally, if unpredictably.

Book VIII is the greatest and widest-ranging volume of secular music of its age — perhaps of any. Composed over a 30-year span, the madrigals tackle not only the erotic charge of love and sexuality, but also for the first time its warring conflicts — the restlessness, agitation and rage that go hand in hand with its pleasures. No single work can represent such a collection, but perhaps the ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ comes closest; if you listen to just one work, make it this one.

That is from Alexandra Coghlan, via Ted Gioia.

1. A Night at the Opera – Queen

2. Queen – Queen

3. Parachutes – Coldplay

In Hawaii it is Bob Marley, AC/DC in Idaho, Alanis Morrisette in Iowa and Maine, Revolver and Coltrane in NY, Michael Jackson in Utah, and the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup does surprisingly well.  Coldplay, Fleetwood Mac, and Arctic Monkeys all have multiple placements.  Here is the link, based on eBay data.

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Best classical music recordings of 2016

by on January 10, 2017 at 12:33 am in Music | Permalink

I found it to be a remarkably deep year for recordings, against all economic odds.  I could easily go twenty deep with little loss of quality, but these are the few that stood out for me:

The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice and Piano, by the Florestan Recital Project.  This release wins the prize for “music I didn’t really know existed before.”  Here is one stellar review.

Inspired by Brahms: Music for Horn Trio, including works by Ewazen, Kellogg, and Brahms.  After German Requiem, the Horn Trio is perhaps my favorite work by Brahms.

Brahms Lieder and Liebeslieder Waltzes, by Andrea Rose, Thomas Quasthoff, et.al.  Finally a rendition as good as the classic Vronsky/Babin recording.

Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas, by Angela Hewitt.  This is the recording I feel most comfortable recommending to most of you.

Franz Liszt, Transcendental Etudes, by Danil Trifonov.  Probably the most widely and best reviewed release of the last year, here is some background information on the etudes.

Rêve d’un Enfant, works by Franck, Ravel, and Ysaÿe, by Sophie Rosa and Benjamin Powell, the Franck is especially fine.

Mozart, Don Giovanni, conducted by Teodor Currentzis.  I never thought I would be swept off my feet by an original instruments performance of this opera, but there you go.  From Gramophone:

…briskly paced, crisp, bristling attacks – it is also unlike anyone else’s take on the great opera. It isn’t weird or eccentric; everything feels just right. What separates it from the crowd is the depth of attention which is applied to every detail, the profoundly imaginative shaping of each and every phrase, and the extraordinary, razor-sharp precision of the ensemble playing. The stuff, in other words, that everyone else would like to do, but doesn’t know how. The singing, in accordance with Currentzis’s beliefs – and others in the HIPP world – is a touch “lighter” than usual: less “operatic”, more “natural”, if there is such a thing. All the roles are superbly sung (including a best-ever Don Ottavio) and the recording is rich, warm and finely detailed.

That’s the one that wins my top prize.

currentzis

Also new on my discovery list were the string quartets of Ben Johnston and also Robert Simpson, although these were not generally new recordings.  I listened to plenty of Haydn, rediscovered Idomeneo, for some reason was a bit bored by Beethoven, and rued the passing of Pierre Boulez.

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

If I were to make a list of the top groups/performers during the critical 1964-1973 period, no doubt the Stones would make the top five handily, perhaps the top three.  They also belong to that select tier with more than six excellent and important albums.  They probably have created more great and memorable riffs than any other rock and roll group, ever.

So I don’t think I am unappreciative.  My favorite cuts are probably the acoustic country songs on “Beggars Banquet’ and “Let It Bleed,” plus the riff-based songs from the mid- to late-1960s, such as “Under My Thumb” or “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

Still, I have not heard anything new in a Rolling Stones song for more than twenty years.  I don’t mean that their later work is worse (though it is, much, for forty plus years running), rather I don’t hear anything new in their very best work and thus repeated re-listening is a waste of time.  I don’t enjoy it.

In contrast, I’ve been listening to Jimi Hendrix for about forty years and still hear new bits in his songs most of the time.  I am almost always excited to hear this work again.

I have two other objections.  First, most (all?) of their blues covers are worse than the originals (the Beatles’ “Money” and “You Really Got a Hold On Me” and “Long Tall Sally” are all improvements, in contrast, not to mention John Lennon’s “Be Bop a Lula” or Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”).  Second, you don’t have to invoke political correctness to feel that a lot of the early misogyny has worn thin and aged poorly.

So the Stones are boring, mostly, though still excellent in the abstract.  It’s hard to imagine classic rock and roll, or the 1960s, without them.  But in terms of lasting overall aesthetic merit they are just a wee bit closer to The Who than you might like to think.

stones

Here is a summary from Politico:

The state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the bills this week during a special session. The new laws reduce the number of positions the governor can hire and fire at will from 1,500 to 300, strip the governor’s party of the power to control the state board of elections, require legislative approval of gubernatorial cabinet appointments, and move the power to appoint trustees for the University of North Carolina to the legislature.

The first sounds like a good change, as in general the professional bureaucracy in American politics should be more powerful, as it is in Western Europe.  The second clause — power over elections — sounds like a simple power grab, but can I say I find it an inferior arrangement to vest this responsibility with the legislature?  No, and note the new deal gives each party equal representation on the election commission (otherwise the Democrats would hold a majority).  The trustee appointment change I find it hard to get worked up about, though it does seem to me more naturally the prerogative of the executive, but the state constitution gives trustee appointment rights to the legislature.

How about “require legislative approval of gubernatorial cabinet appointments,” which sounds pretty severe?

Well, check out the North Carolina state constitution: “Appointments. The Governor shall nominate and by and with the advice and consent of a majority of the Senators appoint all officers whose appointments are not otherwise provided for.”  [Later sections seem to cover the “appointments…otherwise provided for.”]  Furthermore, this seems like pretty standard practice at various levels of American government.

Perhaps the Republicans have good legal advice, and are likely to win this in the courts, as the source behind the last link is suggesting.  As a commentator, a good starting question is whether you have in fact read the North Carolina state constitution.

Overall the story seems to be that the legislature is — within the provisions of the state constitution — seizing more power for the legislature.  (You don’t have to like that, given some of the other Republican stances, but don’t confuse the different issues here.)  Don’t presidents and governors try to do the same?  Succeed in doing the same?  Is it perhaps worth criticizing the state constitution, rather than just condemning the Republicans for exercising constitutional powers?  Here is a link outlining many of the power grabs in previous North Carolina history, including by the Democrats.

Have your feelings about the filibuster changed as of late?

Is it so much worse if such shenanigans are done in a lame duck period?  Would it have been so awful if Clinton had won the presidential election and TPP had passed during the lame duck session, as many people were talking about?  Or if the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court had been approved?  Do we all condemn the flood of “midnight regulations” that come during each federal lame duck session?

I am very willing to consider limiting the power of lame duck sessions.  And I am very willing to believe that the North Carolina legislature made moves in the wrong direction from a utilitarian and also public legitimacy point of view.  Furthermore, I am also no expert in North Carolina constitutional law and I would gladly be set straight if I am overlooking some relevant facts on these issues.

In the meantime, I don’t quite see this as a coup d’etat, it seems like a pretty traditional power grab within established constitutional structures, it’s not the Republicans heralding the end of constitutional government in the United States, and I’m not sure that the critics are being entirely consistent in applying the principles articulated in their shrillness.  The critical commentary here really does need to up its game.  If your argument is simply “I don’t want groups I disagree with to take more power through legitimate means,” well by all means say so!

As for my summary view, the legislative actions do seem unwise to me, they seem to be coming at an especially fraught time, I don’t favor all of the other policy preferences of this legislature, and I think they are extending what is already a series of unwise precedents.

Here are my favorite things North Carolina, none of them refer to politics.

 

#ConfessYourUnpopularOpinion

by on December 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm in History, Music, Uncategorized | Permalink

Stephen Stills is underrated.

He was the driving force behind three of the best (non-Beatles) songs of the 1960s/early 1970s: Bluebird, Wooden Ships, and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes; in the process he anchored two of the major super-groups of that era.  “For What It’s Worth” is one of the most recognizable and oft-used iconic songs of the 1960s.  “Helplessly Hoping” is good too.  He was an underrated guitarist, try Super Session, with Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper.

One of his problems may be that his underlying personal aesthetic is often corny and unappealing (“Love the One You’re With,” “Change Partners”), and that comes out all too strongly when he is removed from monitoring collaborators of equal or greater stature.

On satellite radio the other day I heard the acoustic solo demo version of Suite: Judy Blues Eyes (try “Stephen Stills Suite Judy Blue Eyes” on Spotify) and thought “People don’t praise this guy enough!”  In general, artists should be judged by their best work, and his is very good indeed.  I’d rather hear one of those Stills songs than anything by the Rolling Stones.

…[Theodor] Herzl had the overture to Tannhäuser played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

That is from the quite good Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, p.102.  For one thing, Herzl was attracted by the story line that featured a man wandering without a homeland.

Best albums of 2016

by on December 12, 2016 at 2:34 am in Music, Uncategorized | Permalink

You can’t call it “rock and roll” anymore, because rock and roll is dead for the most part.  Nor is the phrase “popular music” appropriate, because a lot of it isn’t popular, or occasionally other forms are popular too.  I say phrases these days are determined by Google search, and if you google “best albums 2016” you get to the kind of list I am talking about.  My main picks are:

Beyonce, Lemonade as a clear first choice.  Runners-up make it three women at the top:

Mitski, Puberty 2, and Angel Olsen, My Woman.

I thought the contributions by Kanye West and Frank Orange mostly delivered, but were not their very best material, and I don’t think I will be listening to those works two or three years from now.  The albums by the old guys and also by the dead guys were pretty good, but ultimately sentimental picks and I refuse to make these lists about sentiment.  The album from last year I found myself still listening to more than I had expected was Small Town Heroes, Hurray For the Riff Raff.

What am I missing?

Here are my earlier picks for world music in 2016, classical and jazz selections will follow soon.

Best world music, 2016

by on December 10, 2016 at 7:13 am in Music, Uncategorized | Permalink

Habib Galbi (YouTube), an Israeli band adapting Yemeni folk music, here is a good article about them.  They sing in Yemenite, a nearly extinct dialect of Arabic spoken by the Jews of Yemen.

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live, it is remarkable how fresh these guys still sound.

Tanbou Toulou Lou: Meringue, Kompa, Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960-1981, one of the best collections.  And here on YouTube.

Faransiskiyo Somaliland, Sahra Halgan Trio.  And on YouTube.

Miriam Makeba, Indispensable 1955-1962.

Songs to fill the Void, and other works by American composers, most of all Virgil Thomson.

Here are the world music recommendations from Songlines, an excellent magazine by the way.