Music

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.

There is no musical great stagnation

by on December 5, 2016 at 12:42 am in Music, Travel | Permalink

Two years ago, the New Mexico Department of Transportation decided to spice up a particularly desolate stretch of Route 66 between Albuquerque and Tijeras by adding grooves in the road that will play music when you drive over them. If you drive the speed limit of 45 mph for the quarter-mile stretch, you can hear “America the Beautiful” play through the vibrations in your car’s wheels.

The grooves in the road work just like the rumble strips or “drunk bumps” that vibrate your car when you start to drift out of your lane. But these rumble strips are precisely positioned to create different pitches when you drive over them. The result? The notes to “America the Beautiful” rising from the bottom of your car.

Though I guess it means travel speeds are not really going up

The pointer is from Peter Metrinko.

Music apps are for the birds

by on November 14, 2016 at 12:47 pm in Music, Web/Tech | Permalink

Do birds prefer classical music, opera, or heavy metal? As with humans, it’s likely a matter of personal preference, and one art project is offering our feathered friends a chance to communicate their preferences to us.

PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants,” by artist Elizabeth Demaray in collaboration with computer scientist Ahmed Elgammal and Rutgers University’s Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, appears as a simple, blue bird feeder. It functions, however, like its eponymous music streaming and recommendation service: while it plays songs, a camera module connected to a Raspberry Pi computer photographs and identifies specific species, as well as tracks how long each bird stays. If a bird feeds until the end of a tune, the system will select another one with similar qualities such as rhythm and melody. Demaray is attempting to build a database of the songs preferred by our wild, feathered friends and eventually present a music-discovery service for birds.

That is from Claire Voon, writing about PandoraBird, currently found in Brooklyn.  The pointer is from Ted Gioia.

Prior to 1968, membership in the Cleveland Orchestra was a part-time job. When he joined the orchestra, the regular season was just 30 weeks long, with lower pay for summer concerts. In 1952, the base salary was $3,240—$29,231 in today’s dollars. By 1967, it had only gone up to $11,700. (The current base salary is $120,000.) The U.S. median household income in 1967, by contrast, was $7,970. According to a 1952 survey, 60% of the players moonlighted in nonmusical jobs, and many of them did so until 1968, when Cleveland, in keeping with other top-tier American orchestras, finally lengthened its season to 52 weeks.

Here is Terry Teachout on today’s orchestral strikes. How much are the striking musicians paid, and are they as good as the former Cleveland players?:

Suffice it to say that the annual base salary is $107,000 in Pittsburgh and $128,000 in Philadelphia. (At the New York Philharmonic, it’s $146,848.) In Fort Worth, the average salary is $61,000. The music directors of those orchestras may make 10 to 20 times what players do, and managerial salaries are also higher. Allison Vulgamore, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is said to be paid roughly $725,000 a year.

Something fundamental has changed about social expectations, yes?

Even though William Baumol didn’t win the Nobel prize this year it got me to thinking about the cost disease, as did the death last week of William Bowen, the co-author of Performing Arts – The Economic Dilemma which brought the cost disease to public attention. The cost disease says that if two sectors have unequal levels of productivity growth then the sector with lower growth will increase in relative price. If in 1900, for example, it took 1 day of labor to produce one A good and 1 day of labor to produce one B good then the goods will trade 1:1. Now suppose that by 2000 1 unit of labor can produce 10 units of A but still only one unit of B. Now the goods trade 10:1. In other words, in 1900 the price or opportunity cost of one B was one A but in 2000 to get one B you must give up 10 A. B goods have become much more expensive.

The cost disease says only that the relative price of the low productivity good increases, it doesn’t say that the low productivity good becomes absolutely more expensive. The economy in 2000 is much wealthier than in 1900 so relative to income B has become cheaper. Anyone who could consume x units of B in 1900 can still consume x units of B in 2000, the only difference is that in 2000 they will be giving up more A than in 1900 so the tradeoff has become steeper even though still affordable.

Stated generically the cost disease is indisputable. But it becomes more contentious when we try to identify the A and B good. Baumol and Baumol and Bowen initially pointed to labor intensive goods, the service sector, as the low-productivity B sector. The performing arts were the key example–it took four quartet players 40 minutes to perform a Mozart composition in 1900 (or 1800) and it took four quartet players 40 minutes to perform a Mozart composition in 2000, hence no productivity improvements in Mozart performances, hence a rising cost over time since those four players could produce many more goods in say the manufacturing sector in 2000 than 1900. Health care and education are other stock examples.

Tyler offers one response to the cost disease namely that it’s true if you define the good narrowly (listening to a live performance of a 40 minute Mozart composition) but why should we define the good narrowly? If instead we define the good as “listen to music for 40 minutes” then it’s clear that costs have fallen dramatically. Not only has the cost of listening fallen, variety has increased. Costs have fallen even further since Tyler wrote. In a similar way, Tyler and I have argued that online education greater lowers costs and increases quality.

robot-playerHere, however, I offer a different and more fundamental response. Baumol pointed to labor and the service sector as the low productivity, low growth, sector. But robots and artificial intelligence mean that there is no longer a pure “labor” sector. Robots are labor made of capital. Whether we are talking about robot vacuum cleaners, AI answering machines or Dr. Watson there is much more capital in the service sector than ever before. K has become L. And when K becomes L, the productivity of L increases with the productivity of K. If manufacturing productivity improves and we are manufacturing robots then any sector that uses robots increases in productivity. If software productivity improves–if AI becomes more intelligent, for example–then any sector that uses AI increases in productivity. Any service that uses information technology inherits all the productivity growth of information technology.

At any moment there will always be some sectors that are increasing in productivity at a faster rate than other sectors–that is the nature of progress, uneven and episodic–but the time when one could distinguish a manufacturing sector and a service sector and argue that as a general rule the latter increases in productivity at a slower rate than the former is rapidly coming to a close. K has become L.

Addendum: Timothy Lee also has a piece today on the cost-disease.