Here is the video, audio, and transcript. Of course Alex has a new book out Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which explores the complicated legacy of Wagner and music more generally. We learn Alex’s nomination for the greatest pop album ever made, but many of my questions focused on progress in music and musical performance, the nature of talent, the power of culture, and also cancel culture, Wagner of course having been a frequent target for a long time. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: One theme of your book, as I understand it, is that Wagnerism historically is more diverse than many people realize. There was a branch of Zionism that loved Wagner. There’s an African American tradition that’s quite interested in Wagner. Maybe you can talk me out of some of the worries I have when I listen to Wagner. When I listen, I feel better if I’m listening to Von Klemperer, who is Jewish, and he was a refugee, and he left Europe to come to America. I feel I’m offsetting something in Wagner that disturbs me.
And if you think about what Wagner has become, it seems the problematic element in Wagner — it does somehow match up to the music in a way which is hard to escape. No one listens to Wagner and comes away saying, “Well dull, bourgeois life, as you find under democratic capitalism, is underrated.” No one comes away from Wagner saying, “I now have a greater appreciation for methodological individualism.” Right?
ROSS: [laughs] No.
COWEN: There’s something ominous about the music. How should we, as listeners, come to terms with that? Should we feel guilty when listening to Wagner, given the association with anti-Semitism, Nazis, and much more?
ROSS: I think you should always be wary, let’s say, to Wagner. My whole history with Wagner was, actually, I started out really averse to the entire sound world. When I was a kid growing up with classical music, I tried listening to Lohengrin. I checked records of Lohengrin out of the public library, and I put them on, and I only could stand it for 10 minutes or so.
Of course, I knew nothing about anti-Semitism and Nazism and the connection with Hitler. It was just purely a question of the sound. I found the sound disturbing and this seasick feeling of bobbing from one chord to another without clear demarcations. I just had this instinctual revulsion to it…
ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.
ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .
Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.
But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.
I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”
Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.
And I start with this:
COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?
Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:
Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…
Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.
That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.
And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either. It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.
Possibly a Covid death (NYT), he was leader of Toots and the Maytals, and along with Desmond Dekker a favorite figure from the earlier period of reggae music. “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” I still listen to frequently, among others. I was lucky to see him in concert twice, once as recently as two years ago, the other time in the late 1990s…
Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript. For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Here is the CWT summary:
They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Now, I think people, on average, should become more religious, in part because that would encourage fertility. Do you also think people should become more religious?
YGLESIAS: Yeah, if I could be full Straussian and kind of —
COWEN: You can be! It’s not a hypothetical.
YGLESIAS: [laughs] No. I don’t really know how to do it. If I put in my book that I think we should make people be more religious, I don’t know how I would do that.
COWEN: Not make them, but just root for it. Talk up religion.
YGLESIAS: Look, if you told me, for mysterious reasons, church attendance is going to start going back up again over the next 30, 40 years, I would consider that to be a very optimistic forecast for America. I think good secondary things would follow from that. I think community institutions are important, and in a practical sense, religious ones are what seems to really work for people.
When I hear people say, “Oh this new woke anti-racism on the left — that’s like a new religion.” I don’t know that that’s 100 percent accurate. I think there’s something to that, and there’s also ways in which it’s not true.
But if it was really literally true — this is a new religion where people are going to get together once a week, and they’re going to know each other, and they’re going to have a higher value system that motivates them, and they’re going to make connections — that would be really good. Bad things have happened by religious people or under religious causes, but generally speaking, it’s good when people go to church.
COWEN: If you’re rooting for a more religious America, does that mean, in a sense, you’re rooting for a more right-wing America? These are correlated, right? Causality may be tricky, but I suspect there is some.
YGLESIAS: I think probably we say that religiousness is almost constitutive of right-wingy-ness, at least in some definitions. Yeah, I think a more traditionalist America, in some ways, would be good.
It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.
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.
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.
The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis. During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching. By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.
After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.
The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.
That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.
I will be doing a Conversation with him. If you don’t know he writes for The New Yorker as a music (and literary) critic, writes a wonderful music blog, has first-rate books on music and has a new book coming out titled Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.
So what should I ask him?
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column. In addition to “the usual,” we might also consider arts vouchers:
The second element of the arts rescue plan would take a different tack. Rather than giving money to arts institutions, the federal government could set aside some amount for a concept known as arts vouchers, originally developed by the British economist Alan Peacock.
Arts vouchers are similar to education vouchers except that they cover the arts. The government would hand them out to each American and allow state and local governments to specify which institutions and individuals would be eligible to receive such vouchers as payment. Unlike direct grants to arts institutions, arts vouchers give consumers a big say in where aid goes. They could be more popular with voters, because they give each one a direct benefit — namely, cash in pocket (yes, they would have to spend it on the arts, but it’s still cash).
Most of all, vouchers would recognize that planning authorities, even at state and local levels, don’t always know which artistic forms will be popular. If some reallocations are inevitable — for instance out of nightclubs and into outdoor bluegrass festivals — vouchers will allow those preferences to be registered quickly.
Obviously, if state and local governments specify a narrow set of eligible recipients, arts vouchers aren’t much different than direct grants. In that case, little is lost. Still, one hopes that vouchers can be used more imaginatively. Imagine the city of Detroit allowing vouchers to be spent not just at the Detroit Institute of the Arts but also on hip-hop, street art and outdoor theatre.
In short, vouchers can allow American artistic innovation to proceed, even flourish, rather than merely preserving everything as it was before the pandemic. Vouchers also serve an important macroeconomic function by maintaining consumer spending and demand, thus addressing one problem area of the broader economy. With direct grants to arts institutions, there is always the danger the funds simply will sit in the coffers of still-closed non-profits while the broader economy remains weak.
Vouchers shouldn’t be the entire plan of arts assistance for at least two reasons: They may not be a sufficient lifeline for small arts institutions that cannot yet reopen, and they may not help the arts sectors that draw in foreign tourists, most of all in New York City.
There is more at the link.
Here is the short talk I gave for the Center for Cultural Affairs, for their recent conference:
That is Haitian and Russian art in the background, Biguad and Bilibin, respectively.
Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting? Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist. Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:
Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.
Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.
Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:
COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?
MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.
COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?
MEARS: Who benefits?
COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?
MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.
Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.
COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?
MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.
…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.
The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.
Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode. And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.
See the sign? “Thou shall not kill anymore”.
Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:
Melancholy among academics.
We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity. Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high. Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring. It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different. I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise. What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?
Your favorite things Soviet.
Shostakovich. And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels. Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s. The early chess games of Tal. Magnitogorsk. War memorials, most of all in Leningrad. Tarkovsky. I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky. Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.
The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.
I would think fairly few. I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality. But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality? Did Euclid have one? Euler? Does it show you will be a great teacher? Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.
What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?
Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been. Michelangelo was a major figure of renown. Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated. Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event. Goethe ruled his time as a titan. A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.
The future of Northern New Jersey.
Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation. The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen. So many young people already don’t know them or care. I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.
Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?
The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away. Many of the major architects. Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro. Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore. Perelman. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports. A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.
Ali Akbar was two years younger than Robu [later named Ravi Shankar], but a couple of years ahead in his musical training. He has been through a brutal regime: Baba had even tied him to a tree and beaten him when his progress was unsatisfactory. Although Baba had arranged for Ali Akbar to marry at the age of fifteen, he still expected him to remain celibate — married to music. Twice Ali Akbar ran away. Ultimately the harsh discipline brought out his talent and made him into a master of the sarod, although one wonders about the emotional cost.
That is from Oliver Craske’s Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, which I am quite enjoying.
Pop music has become less popular during the pandemic.
With millions stuck at home due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders and searching for entertainment, data suggest that new releases by major pop artists are drawing fewer listeners than normal. Instead, streaming metrics show, listeners are tuning in to old favorites from the likes of Bob Marley, Dixie Chicks and Bill Withers—the singer of “Lean On Me,” who died last month.
Several factors are denting pop-music listening. Major artists are delaying album releases, and workers ordered to stay home aren’t commuting, cutting into time spent listening to radio, analysts say, adding that news is drawing more interest for those who do tune in. And without live concerts or performances on talk shows, music labels’ promotional machines are less powerful…
On Spotify, the largest streaming service by subscriptions, cumulative streams of the top 200 U.S. songs have fallen in recent weeks—tumbling 28% from the week ending March 12 to the week ending April 16 to the low point for the year so far. The drop-off is especially pronounced, given that those weeks saw new album releases from major streaming artists including J Balvin, the Weeknd, Childish Gambino and Dua Lipa. Meanwhile, catalog music—songs more than 18 months old—has been on the rise and hit a high for the year in the week ended April 9, accounting for 63% of total audio streams, up from 60% the week ended March 12, according to Nielsen/MRC.
“We are seeing something of a shift towards comfort music,” says Midia Research analyst Mark Mulligan.
This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days! Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:
Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.
John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.
COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?
MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?
COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.
MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.
COWEN: You think it’s just as good?
MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?
COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?
MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”
But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.
COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?
MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.