been listening to

What I’ve been listening to

Here is what has been sticking with me most so far this year, this list is drawn from full recordings rather than individual songs:

1. Sd Laika, That’s Harakiri, a new sound world, best on vinyl.

2. Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-1969, best on vinyl.

3. Shostakovich string quartets, Pacifica Quartet.  The best versions of these ever?  Very Soviet-sounding, muscular in approach, totally bleak.

4. Complete Haydn string quartets, Mosaiques Quartet.  My favorite of all the complete recordings of these.

5. Mala, Mala in Cuba.  Think Buena Vista Social Club for dubstep fans.

6. Deafheaven, Sunbather.  “Black metal for people who don’t like black metal.”  Alternatively, “Serving as an artistic lucid dream of warmth despite the stinging pain of life’s cruel idealism.”

7. Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano, five CDs, quite familiar music, some of it corny even, nonetheless these remain remarkable pieces and they are impeccably played.  A joy of rediscovery.

Lots more Benjamin Britten, including String Quartet #3, and many versions of Mahler’s Sixth.

What I’ve been listening to

These are some CDs which have stayed in my active listening pile for six months or maybe more:

1. The Roots of Drone.  Usually I hate collections, and listen to them only once, but on this virtually every track is good and the order is very well arranged.

2. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy.  I don’t like the more recent CD with David Byrne nearly as much.

3. Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran.  Powerful stuff, music for a revolution or civil war.

4. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can.

5. Brian Eno, Lux.  As good as any of his older albums, believe it or not.

6. P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake.

7. Alela Diane, Wild Divine.

8. Continuous Beat, Rez Abbasi Trio.  Guitarist born in Karachi, this is probably my favorite jazz album over the last few years.

9. Earl Hines in New Orleans.  I’ve spent a lot of time looking for the best Hines CD and this seems to be it.

10. My Bloody Valentine, Mbv.  Get the LP version for the proper sound.  It’s amazing how good this comeback is, after a twenty year hiatus.

There is also James Blake, Taylor Swift’s “Stay, Stay, Stay” and classical music I will save for another day.  If you can find on iTunes Cecile McLorin Salvant’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” with the excellent Aaron Diehl, buy it, it is the most musical fun I have had all year.

What I’ve been listening to: three CDs of note

I haven't recommended many CDs in the last few years, because I haven't come across many extraordinary ones.  But in the last two weeks, three in particular have caught my attention:

1. Haydn, The Complete String Quartets, the Buchberger Quartet.  To my ears, these are definitive and much better than Emerson, Kodaly, Lindsay, and other versions.  Some single disc excerpts are available as well.

2. Jean Guillou, Bach Organ Works, six CDs.  I thought I would be happy with Christopher Herrick and Peter Hurford forever; I was wrong.  It's even better than Guillou's 1999 Bach recordings.

3. The Kankobela of the Batonga, thumb piano music of Zambia and Zimbabwe, on Amazon UK only.  Worth the shipping costs, this is my favorite world music CD since Geoffrey Gurrumul.  Here is one short review.  Here is a related YouTube video, a quick view is recommended if only to see the performer's wife.

What I’ve been listening to

1. Rodrigo, Concerto for Guitar. I used to think this piece was classical radio fluff, short, lightweight, and accessible. I now see it is as a precursor of modern ambient music. So much of the Spanish acoustic guitar tradition makes sense when heard through this perspective.

2. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. A sprawling mess, to be sure. Hardly anyone is drawn to the melodies here. Is this his worst and least listenable symphony, or the beginning of a new Mahlerian sound world? If you want to hear it swift and severe, try the Boulez recording as well.

3. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the Piano Concerti. I put these on immediately after returning from Mexico. The slow movement of the Emperor Concerto is one of Beethoven’s most beautiful moments. And could Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who plays on this CD, be the greatest pianist in the world today? Try his Ligeti Etudes or Debussy as well.

4. Late Elliott Carter. Carter remains prolific beyond his ninetieth birthday. His late short pieces, dryly contrapuntal, are usually written for a very small number of instruments. I used to think of Carter is an amazing composer in his early years (e.g., Sonata for Cello and Piano), but who later stagnated. This picture could not be more wrong. Over the last ten years his reputation has skyrocketed, and rightly so.

5. Handel’s Theodora, conducted by William Christie. Much of Handel is too earthy and straightforward for my tastes, but this is the best Handel recording I’ve heard, up there with S. Richter doing the keyboard sonatas. Here is an excellent blog post on why Handel operas and oratorio are less boring than the modern listener might think.

6. William Byrd, Complete Keyboard music, by Davitt Moroney. The scrunchiest parts are the best, and seven CDs are not too much. Byrd has one of the best claims running for “most underrated composer,” try also the vocal music.

And when Yana gets home from visiting her high school friends, I hear a great deal of Beck, arguably the best popular musical artist of the 1990s, with apologies to Kurt Cobain.

Do you know the old saying: “Music is enough for one life, but one life is never enough for music”?

New books of note, which I’ve been reading parts of

Jia Lynn Yang, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965.

Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters.  How to be a better listener — get the audiobook!

Kevin Peter Hand, Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space.  A remarkably under-written and under-booked topic, I am delighted to see this book in particular.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa: a novel, about a high school teacher abusing one of his students, effective if you are wishing to read a story with this plot line.

Alev Scott and Andronike Makres, Power & the People: Five Lessons from the Birthplace of Democracy.  Due out in September, a useful look at how politics worked in ancient Athens.

Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

John Guy, Gresham’s Law: The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker.

Jennifer A. Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism.  Manufacturing is one of the topics du jour, and this book gives good background on one particular angle of that story.

As for older books, I very much liked Paul A. Offitt, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, a biography of Maurice Hilleman.  How soon we forget that in the early 1960s — when I was born — the measles virus was killing about eight million children a year.  Even in 2018 it was 140,000 deaths a year.  Also excellent is Kendall Hoyt, Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, a paradigmatic example of Progress Studies.

Favorite popular music listening for 2019

There have been two clear favorites:

Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with “You should see me in a crown” as the favorite song.

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer.  At first I thought this was a good pop album, but it kept getting better and better.

My favorite rap album this year was Tyler the Creator, IGOR.

I’ve also discovered the amazing music of Sunn O))), a kind of black death metal, hat tip S, start with Black One.

I see the last few years of popular music as supporting my basic take that there are more good songs in a year than ever before, but fewer breakthrough new concept albums or musical styles than in say 1963-1992 or so.

What do you all recommend?

Favorite jazz listening for 2019

Most of all, I discovered jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson this year.  Start with Code Girl or Meltframe, or of course YouTube.

This year I also enjoyed:

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air.

Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings.

Two out of three picks being women is unusual for jazz, but for the better.  I will note that I do not select on the basis of “quotas,” so what I list is truly what I am recommending.

I’ll also stick by my view that current times are the very best for jazz, ever, even though jazz is no longer culturally central and Miles Davis is dead.  Your ability to see an amazing jazz concert for less than $50 — often much less — and from top-quality seats has never been greater.  Jazz music represents an amazing arbitrage opportunity (unlike paying through the nose to see either Taylor Swift or Boomer classic rock groups), at least if you know what you are doing and you have access to the proper cities, most of all NYC but by no means only.

What I’ve been reading

1. Peter Doggett, CSNY: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  A good management study of a creative foursome doomed to split and splinter pretty much from the beginning.  Oddly, their best work still sounds good to me, even though I never hear much new in it with repeated listenings.  That is a rare combination.

2. David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.  David’s best book this century, it has many subtle points.  It is a “wisdom book,” noting that not everyone likes wisdom books.

3. Harold Bloom, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.  Bloom is now 89 I believe, but unlike in some of his recent shorter books this one seems as thoughtful as much of his best later work.  Yes, it is a bunch of largely separate, short, multi-page essays on topics of Bloom’s choosing, but at this point that is optimal.  It won’t convince the skeptic, but if you are on the fence I say yes, though try The Western Canon first.

4. Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.  A much-expanded version of her earlier Land of Plenty.  No, I haven’t touched this one yet, but if the word self-recommending ever applied, it is here.  If you don’t already know it, here is my earlier CWT with Fuchsia Dunlop.

5. John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths.  Anglican, British, highly reasonable, full of useful information, I read it all the way through.  Barton teaches you the Bible is not always easy to understand and why that is.  Already out for ordering on UK Amazon.

Daniel S. Milo, Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, on a quick browse seemed to have interesting points.

What I’ve been reading

1. Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education, edited by Stephen M. Kosslyn and Ben Nelson.  The new university Minerva explains its educational philosophy, imagining redesigning higher ed from scratch.  I would do something very similar to what they did, and this book explains the curricular philosophy and practice in great detail.

2. Olivier Roy, In Search of the Lost Orient: An Interview.  There should be a book like this for every substantive thinker, namely a very long, book-length interview with frank rather than perfunctory answers.  The dialog covers Afghanistan, Yemen, 1968 Paris and radicalism, China, “political Islam,” and women (ahem), among other topics.  Recommended.

3. Aaron Carroll, The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully.  Yes, that is the Aaron Carroll, the one who writes about health care policy.  What does the evidence actually say about which foods are good and bad for you?  I’ll just say my diet is healthier than I had thought, and beware added sugar.

I have only browsed Abbas Amanat’s Iran: A Modern History, but it appears to be a very readable and highly useful 908 pp. overview of Persian/Iranian history, though less theoretical and conceptual than what an economist might be looking for.

Harvey Sachs, Toscanini: A Musician of Conscience, is a very high quality book, I would have read more of it except I can’t stand listening to Toscanini.

Eric A. Posner has the forthcoming Last Resort: The Financial Crisis and the Future of Bailouts.  He argues that much of what was done was not fully legal.

Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy is a very good introduction to Rodrik’s basic ideas on trade.

What I’ve been reading

1. Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.  Good even if you think, as I do, that you are sick of WWI books.

2. Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.  This book made many UK “best of” lists.  It is subtle, like the author herself, and will prompt you to further reading or rereads, for instance I enjoyed The Gate of Angels right after this biography and soon will try Offshore.

3. Drew Daniel, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, in the 33 1/3 series.  On the Throbbing Gristle album of the same name, this superb book is one of the best and most instructive pieces of popular music criticism I have read, ever.  I recommend reading it while listening to the album, song by song.  Drew Daniel by the way is part of the group Matmos (interesting in their own right) and an English professor at Johns Hopkins.  He deserves something better than tenure.

4. Samuel Scheffler, Death & the Afterlife, with commentaries from other famous philosophers at the back.  The bottom line: through the careful use of thought experiments, we can infer that we care about the impersonal future more than we might think.  Scheffler is still getting better and deeper as a philosopher.  This Thomas Nagel review of the book is gated, but even the first few (ungated) paragraphs are worth reading.

5. Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals.  Self-explanatory.

What I’ve been reading

1. Days on the Family Farm, by Carrie Meyer.  An interesting economic study of life on an early twentieth American family farm, based on personal diaries, and an antidote to anyone who thinks that all GMU economics faculty are like the bloggers you know.

2. Theory of Clouds, by Stephane Audeguy.  I loved this novel, which was the rage in France but sadly will die here stillborn.  Think Julian Barnes, Sten Nadolny, or Kazuo Ishiguro.  Short, fun, dreamy, and conceptual.  Its quality illustrates one of my favorite book-buying algorithms, which is to snap up serious foreign fiction translated into English, if only because the selection pressures are so severe.

3.  Free Trade Reimagined, by Roberto Unger.  This is the fourth book this year to challenge the doctrine of comparative advantage, a more important fact than any argument in the books themselves.  The book is weak on empirics but it does present the sophisticated version of the anti-free trade arguments.  I don’t believe in open borders, so I suppose I’m not a free trader either.  Unger is smart, smart, smart, but that doesn’t mean he should be Minister of Long-Term Planning in Brazil, which he is.  Here’s the whole thing on-line.

4. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa.  That makes two wonderful novels in one week.  I don’t enjoy all of his recent work, but this one is very fun, hearkening back to the tradition of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.  The Edith Grossman translation is first-rate as always.

5. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross.  Ross won’t quite say it, but he tries to convince the reader that
the twentieth century is the best century for music, ever.
That’s without pushing serialism too hard or resorting much to popular
music.  Sibelius, Janacek, Messiaen, and John Adams are among the heroes in this story.  If you
are only going to buy (and read) ten books on music, ever, this should be one of
them.  Here is one good review.  Here is a Jason Kottke interview with Ross, very interesting.

It was an amazing week for reading (the best since I’ve started doing MR) mostly because it was an amazing week for flying.  There’s more to come…

*Collected Writings of Morton Feldman*

Feldman probably was the most important American composer of his generation, he interacted with the leading NYC painters of his time, and it turns out he is a splendid writer as well.  His observations are to the point, often with a Nassim Taleb kind of sting.  Here is one bit:

Recently in the Sunday papers an article about Messiaen appeared in which a great virtue was made of his political “disengagement.”  Reading this article, we learn how deeply religious this composer is, how much he looks forward to his vacations in Switzerland, how proud he is of Boulez, and how involved he is with bird calls.  Can we say man is really disengaged?  His chief occupation seems to be this disengagement.  There is something curiously official in the way his interests and views are described — as though nothing could now disturb all this.

Or:

But he has nothing to worry about, that chap in Tempo.  He’s going to have it all.  Pitch relationships, plus sound and chance thrown in.  Total consolidation.  Those two words define the new academy.  You can tie it all up in the well-known formula, “You made a small circle and excluded me; I made a bigger circle and included you.”  A kind of Jonah-and-the-whale syndrome is taking place.  Everything is being chewed up en masse and for the mass…

It may seem strange to call Boulez and Stockhausen popularizers, but that’s what they are.  They glamorized Schoenberg and Webern, now they’re glamorizing something else.  But chance to them is just another procedure, another vehicle for new aspects of structure or of sonority independent of pitch organization.  They could have gotten these things from Ives or Varèse, but they went to these men with too deep  prejudice, the prejudice of the equal, the colleague.

More books should have sentences like: “[Virgil] Thomson disliked me on sight, as a youth, and it’s never changed.”

The full title is Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman,” edited by B.H. Friedman.

I think Feldman two greatest works are For John Cage, and also String Quartet #2, which is about five hours long.  This year I have been listening to the Philip Thomas 5-CD set of Feldman’s piano music more than just about any other CD.  It is not the very best Feldman, but it is some of the best Feldman to listen to, if only because the pieces typically are shorter.

Slower turnover for songs and movies

From my email:

Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for

Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf

This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week!    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s

Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.

That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine.  Jesse sends along more:

And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10: