Category: Music

How to discover Indian classical music

Versions of that request were repeated a few times, along with a request for a YouTube or Spotify list.  Given the visual element, I would say that YouTube >> Spotify.  But mostly you are looking to hear world class performers in live concert, there is no substitute for that, most of all for the percussion, but also for the overall sense of energy.

I first heard Indian classical music by stumbling upon the Ravi Shankar section of the Concert for Bangladesh album, at a young age (thirteen or so?).  It seemed obvious to me this was better than “Within You, Without You,” but it was a long time before I really would get back to it.  Shankar never ended up clicking with me, but definitely he was the introduction.

As a young teen I also loved the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” with its opening riff taken from John Coltrane’s “India.”  Not exactly Indian classical music, but a clue there was much more to discover, and again I took this very seriously.  The raga bits on the Byrds 5D album intrigued me more than the lugubrious Harrison tunes.

I recall my high friend friend (and composer) Eric Lyon insisting to me that Carnatic classic music was better than American jazz improvisation.  I didn’t follow him at the time, but I always took Eric’s opinions very seriously, and so I filed this away mentally for later reexamination.

I also recall Thomas Schelling telling me that his son decided to become a professional Indian classical musician (in fact he ended up as more of a poet and translator).  I had the vague sense this was something quite admirable to do.  So the data points were piling up.

Years passed, and I spent most of my time listening to traditional Western classical music, and with fantastic aesthetic returns.

Still, I grew restless to learn more, and kept on returning to musics I did not understand very well.  My best and most common entry point was simply to listen to a lot of other musics that are (were?) somewhat atypical to Western ears, whether it be atonal music, guitar drone music, or Arabic microtonal tunes.  Nonetheless progress was slow.

In the 1990s, I started going to lots of world music concerts in the DC area, often at University of Maryland or GWU.  These years were a kind of golden age for world music (a terrible term, btw) in the U.S., as post 9/11 visa restrictions were not yet around.

Twice I heard L. Subramaniam play Indian classical violin.  Wow!  My head was spinning, and from there on out I was determined to hear as many Indian classical concerts as possible.  Maybe his melodic lines are not the very deepest, but he was a remarkably exciting performer.  A whole new world was opened up to me.  I also heard Shakti, with Zakir Hussein and John McLaughlin, play at GWU.  That was fusion yes, but it owed more to Indian classical traditions than anything else.  To this day it remains one of the three or four best concerts I’ve ever seen.

The Ali Akbar Khan Signature Series CDs made increasing sense to me, and I grew to love them and many others.  I did go back to Shankar, but decided he was, all along, far from the top of the heap.  Maybe a great marketer, though.

S. Balachandar on the veena was another early discovery, via Fanfare.

Later in the 1990s I read Frederick Turner write that Indian classical music was one of humanity’s greatest spiritual and aesthetic achievements, and around the same time I chatted a bit with Turner too.  I had never quite heard anyone claim that before, but instinctively I realized I very much agreed with him.  I decided that I believed that too.

Shikha Dalmia helped me out with some recommendations as well, and she was the first one to mention to me the Indian classical music festival in what is now called Chennai.  For many years I wanted to go.

Then followed more years of listening.  On my first India trips, I carried back a large number of $2 CDs, high variance but many of them excellent, such as Kishori Amonkar.  I bought as much as I could plausibly carry back home.

About eight years ago, I took daughter Yana to the Chennai Indian classical music festival held every December.  We saw a number of incredible performers, most notably the great U. Srinivas (mandolin!), before his demise.  I can recommend this experience to you all, and I plan on going again.

So what is the lesson of all this?  My path was so inefficient and roundabout!  You can avoid all of that, just read this blog post and be there…voila!

But that doesn’t quite work either.

My Conversation with Jamal Greene

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Jamal and Tyler discuss what he’d change about America’s legal education system, the utility of having non-judges or even non-lawyers on the Supreme Court, how America’s racial history influences our conception of rights, the potential unintended consequences of implementing his vision of rights for America, how the law should view economic liberty, the ideal moral framework for adjudicating conflicts, whether social media companies should consider interdependencies when moderating content on their platforms, how growing up in different parts of New York City shaped his views on pluralism, the qualities that make some law students stand out, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: There is a crude view in popular American society — even possibly correct — that, simply, American society is too legalistic. There’s that book, Three Felonies a Day. If you have expired prescription medicine in your cabinet, you’re committing a felony. People who are very smart will just tell me, “Never talk to a cop. Never talk to an FBI agent.” I’m an upper-class White guy who’s literally never smoked marijuana once, and they’re telling me, “Don’t ever speak with the law.”

Isn’t something wrong there? Is the common intuition that we’re too legalistic correct?

GREENE: I think that we are too apt to submit political disputes to legal resolution. I think that for sure. What your friends are telling you about police officers is slightly different, insofar as one can have a deeply non-legalistic culture in which the correct advice is to not talk to police officers if those people are corrupt, if those people are abusive.

When I hear that advice — and I might be differently situated than you — that’s what people are saying is, someone might be out to trick you. And that might be a mistrust of state power, as you mentioned before. Maybe it’s a rational mistrust of state power, but I don’t know that that’s about legalism, which again, is a separate potential problem.

We tend to formulate our problems in legal terms, as if the right way to solve them is to decide how they are to be resolved by a court, or how they are to be resolved by some adjudicative official, as opposed to thinking about our problems in terms of just inherent in, again, pluralism, which has to be solved through politics, has to be solved through conversation.

COWEN: But we still have whatever is upstream of the American law, the steep historical and cultural background, so anything we do is going to be flavored by that. We’re not ever going to get to a system where the policemen are like the policemen in Germany, for instance, or that the courts are like the courts in Germany.

Given that cultural upstream, again, isn’t the intuition basically correct? Just be suspicious of the law. We should have fewer laws, rely less on the legal process, in essence, deregulate as many different things as we can. Why isn’t that the correct conclusion, rather than building in more rights?

Interesting throughout.

Contemporary music listening

A few of you have asked me what I am listening to lately in terms of contemporary releases.  I don’t feel this list contains any unusual revelations, but here goes:

Poppy, I Disagree.

Iceage, Seek Shelter.

Finneas, Optimist.

Brittany Howard, Jaime.

Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time.

Michael Hurley, The Time of the Foxgloves.

Some kind of Moroccan (?) “noise” CD, but I can no longer read the group name or title.

Also, it is not contemporary but I weakened and bought the 30-CD Fela Kuti box.

The very best parts of the best Beatle songs

You also might title this post “How to listen to The Beatles.”  Here are the best parts, in no particular order:

1. The violins/voices warm-up to Sgt. Pepper.

2. The George/John background vocals to “You Won’t See Me.

3. The sounds during the fade out section of “You Never Give Me Your Money.”  This is perhaps my #1 pick.

4. The total, sudden silence at the end of “I Want You “She’s So Heavy.”  Radio stations and streaming services don’t get this one right.

5. The drums/bass collision, combined with backward tape on the vocal, at the end of “Rain.

6. The short Indian drone segment in one of the latter choruses of “She’s Leaving Home.”  Starts at about 2:57.

7. The airiness/breathing aspect of “Long Long Long.”  Not George’s very best song, but still notable for its acoustic properties.

8. Paul’s brief “return to the womb” piano and vocal close to “Cry, Baby, Cry.

9. The parts of “Blue Jay Way” (starts about 3:44) and “I am the Walrus” (1:59) when the normal music stops and a bunch of sounds, including cello and also some “acoustic-electric” sounds, come together in a crescendo.  Try also Paul’s much later “Cosmically Conscious,” originally written in 1968 and obviously so (how?).  The cacophony and fade at the end of “All You Need is Love” is the best part of that (very good) song!

10. All of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which apparently was produced so as to be in two different keys at the same time.

In an earlier post, I suggested that to understand the Beach Boys and their sound world you should listen carefully to “Vegetables” on a high-quality sound system.  Figure out that sound world, and then apply that understanding to the rest of your Beach Boys listening.  Well, here are my comparable tips for The Beatles.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

Claims about taste

Chen et al. show that people’s aesthetic tastes are not arbitrarily different from each other in different sensory modalities but vary primarily along only a single dimension across sights and sounds: how similar a person’s taste is to the average taste. People who have atypical taste for images also tend to have atypical taste for sounds.

Here is the paper, via Michelle Dawson.

Jesse Michels interviews me at Hereticon

Jesse’s description was “Wide ranging discussion with the brilliant @tylercowen. Topics include: Satoshi’s identity, Straussian Jesus, the Beatles and UFOs. Taped in early January but he presciently expresses concerns around Russia/Ukraine”

Great fun was had by all, and they added in nice visuals.

Anti-Russia sentiment is the new McCarthyism

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column:

The Metropolitan Opera of New York has announced it will no longer stage performers who have supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carnegie Hall has done the same, and the Royal Opera House in London is canceling a planned Bolshoi Ballet residency. I expect more institutions to follow suit. Russia’s contemporary art scene, already financially struggling, fears ostracism from museums and collectors, mostly because of Putin’s recent actions.

Unwise, says I.  And:

It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation. What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out?

Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine? If you were an ethnic minority born under the Soviet Union, your former Soviet passport may have explicitly stated that you were not Russian.

And what about citizens of Belarus, which according to some reports is planning to send troops into Ukraine? Might they be subject to such strictures as well? How about citizens of China, which abstained from the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion? Which wars are performers from Rwanda or Democratic Republic of the Congo required to repudiate?

When exactly is this ban supposed to end?

And to close:

If anything, the McCarthyism of the 1950s is a bit more explicable than the cancel culture of the present. At least it was trying to address what was then considered a great threat. That said, McCarthyism is not a practice America should want to revive. Witch hunts, by their very nature, do not bring out the best in people, Americans very much included.

I guess we will really see who is against cancel culture and who is not.

My Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

Excellent stuff, we had so much fun we kept on going for an extra half hour, as he decided to ask me a bunch of questions about economics and personal finance.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.

Whew!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.

You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.

COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.

And:

KLOSTERMAN: …this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.

An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.

But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.

This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture…

And:

KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.

COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.

KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?

Recommended.  And again, here is Chuck’s new book The Nineties.

What is so great about *Pet Sounds*?

That question is the subject of this short Holden Karnofsky essay.  Many people told Holden it is the best album ever, some citing its use of the recording studio, and he tried to work his way through that claim, basically remaining skeptical.  Here are various responses to him.  Here is a piece explaining the wonders of Pet Sounds, it is OK enough but not so insightful.  I would stress the following points:

1. It is an album of sadness, loss, and infinite longing.  Melancholy.  Do I know of a sadder album?  Listen to the lyrics.  And yet it is all set amongst the sunshine and girls and southern California.  As for the harmonies, they are continually building up expectation and never satisfying it.  It is necessary for the album to end on the down note of “Caroline, No,” a song which itself just fades away and ends, merging into the “pet sounds” that give the album its name.  I think of the combination of the sadness and the rising and swelling but never satisfied expectations as the key feature of Pet Sounds.

2. It is worth a listen-through following only the bass lines.  You also will hear the huge influence on Paul McCartney.

2b. It is worth a listen-through following only the harmonies.  The bells.  The percussion.  The woodwinds.

3. I don’t even think it is the best Beach Boys album.  Or sort of it is.  Overall I find the Smile period to be more profound, noting that this material ended up spread out over a number of separate albums.  That said, every single composition on Pet Sounds is excellent.

4. “You Still Believe in Me” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” I both prefer to “God Only Knows,” which perhaps I have heard too many times.

5. Overall I find the secret to the Beach Boys (and some Beatles) listening to be their sound world.  Interpret the Beach Boys through John Cage!  Listen to a simple song such as “Vegetables,” but on a very good sound system or with head phones.  Surrounded by silence.  Or pick some of the other works from the Smile period, or even Wild Honey or the top cuts on Sunflower, such as tracks 7-10.  Try to discern the sound of the air behind the music, the silences, and the tautness of the sounds that are sent your way.  Internalize that understanding (if you are trying this for the Beatles, pick the noises at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money.”)  Carry that understanding of the sound world with you every time you hear a Beach Boys song.  At first you will hear that sound world in the “pet sounds” at the end of the album, most of all the train, and then will you will hear it throughout the entire album.

Musical life will never be the same again.

The Fanfare meta-Want List

Every year I read through the Fanfare Want Lists for new classical music releases, and collate the new recordings that are recommended by more than one person as one of the five most noteworthy releases of the year.  This time around I noticed the following as multiple nominees:

1. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, Beethoven Symphony number nine.

2. Daniil Trifonov, Silver Age, two CDs of Russian music.

3. Pavel Kolesnikov, Bach, Goldberg Variations.

I am happy to give another thumbs up to each.

If you google the word “self-recommending,” the first three items are all connected to me.  Yet I learned the term by reading Fanfare, where it is used repeatedly.  Of these three items, the Trifonov is the one that comes closest to being self-recommending.  The performers on items #1 and #3 are highly regarded, but to invoke the name Daniil Trifonov is a kind of magic, and as far as I know without fail.  It is hard to give any praise to #2 that goes much higher than simply stating that Trifonov has produced a recording of that music.

For those who need it, here is a (only slightly out of date) 2009 MR vocabulary guide.

How political was 1960s music?

That question is debated at length in the comments section of this post.  There are obviously political songs, such as the protest songs of Bob Dylan, or “Revolution” by The Beatles, much misunderstood at that.  Still, much of 1960s music was far more political in its time than it seems to us today.  The mere fact that the singer had long hair, or shook his hips in a “lewd” manner, or that white stars aped black music styles…all of that was intensely political.  “I don’t want you listening to no music by no long hairs” was a common parental sentiment at the time, because people mostly did understand what was at stake, namely an overturning of a lot of societal mores.  Elvis Presley sounds to us today like another early rock star, but the black vocal affectations and the grinding hips were a big deal for some period of time.  Drug songs were political too, and there were lots of those.  Just try “Eight Miles High,” or a big chunk of Jefferson Airplane or how about Donovan?  Hippie culture also was political.  Motown carried ideas of black capitalism, and was actually somewhat of a counter to the more politically radical forms of black music.  The Beach Boys are an example of a significant period group who mostly were not very political (though you can find a superficial embrace of consumer culture at first, followed by a collapse into tragedy and sadness), and plenty of the “one hit wonder” songs were apolitical too.  Most of the stuff that has survived in collective memory was fairly political.  The Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo was political too, and it is no accident that Roger McGuinn ended up as a Ben Carson supporter and a Christian.  The album was mostly hated upon its release in 1968, but now is seen as a classic.

A simple theory of culture

The transistor radio/car radio was the internet of its time.  Content was free, and there were multiple radio stations, though not nearly as many as we have internet sites.

People tuned into the radio, in part, for ideas, not just tunes.  But the ideas that spread best were attached to songs.  Drug use spread, in part, because famous musicians sang about using drugs.  Anti-Vietnam War themes spread through songs, as did many other social movements.  Overall, ideas that could be bundled with songs had a big advantage.  And since new songs were largely the province of young people, this in turn favored ideas for young people.

Popular music was highly emotionally charged because so much of it was connected to ideas you really cared about.

Of course, by attaching an idea to a song you often ensured the idea wasn’t going to be really subtle, at least not along the standard intellectual dimensions.  But it might be correct nonetheless.

Today you can debate ideas directly on social media, without the intermediation of music.  Ideas become less simple and more baroque, while music loses its cultural centrality and becomes more boring.

We also don’t need to tie novels so much to ideas, although in countries such as Spain idea-carrying novels remain a pretty common practice (NYT).  A lot of painting and sculpture also seem increasingly disconnected from significant social ideas.

In this new world, celebrities decline in relative influence, because they too are no longer carriers of ideas in the way they used to be.  Think “John Wayne!”  Arguably “celebrity culture” peaked in the 1980s with Madonna and the like.

When I hear various complaints about the contemporary scene, sometimes I ask myself: “Is this really a complaint about the disintermediation of ideas”?

In this view, the overall modern “portfolio” may be better, but the best individual art works, and in turn the greatest artists, will come from the earlier era.

My Conversation with Ana Vidović

She is one of the world’s leading classical guitarists.  Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss that transition from prodigy to touring musician and more, including how Bach challenges her to become a better musician, the most difficult piece in guitar repertoire, the composers she wish had written for classical guitar, the Beatles songs she’d most like to transcribe, why it’s important to study a score before touching the guitar, the reason she won’t practice more than seven hours per day, how she prevents mistakes during performances, what she looks for in young classical guitarists, why she doesn’t have much music on streaming services, how the pandemic has changed audiences, why she stopped doing competitions early on, what she’d change about conservatory education for classical guitarists, her favorite electric guitarists, her love of Croatian pop music, the benefits and drawbacks of YouTube for young musicians, and what she’ll do next.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You once said that you don’t practice past seven hours a day. What would happen in that eighth hour if you were to go there?

VIDOVIĆ: [laughs] I would probably go crazy.

COWEN: Is it mental? Is it physical? Or . . . ?

VIDOVIĆ: I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about that — how the amount of hours are actually not important as much as the quality of the practice. As a child, I used to practice many, many hours because I didn’t know, I didn’t find a way. You kind of experiment over the years. At this age, I finally learned that it’s more about concrete work, focused work, working on things that give you trouble, either if it’s technical or musical, and then you practice in sections. That takes less time.

You practice very slowly before playing fast, and then you put it all together. It just takes a lot of years to get to a point where you know what you need to work on. Two or three hours of focused practice is more efficient than seven or eight hours because sometimes there is a danger of just playing the piece through and not really working on sections and things that we should work on. I think at the eighth hour, we should all stop. [laughs]

And here is a very good Ana performance on YouTube.  And here is Bartkus discussing Conversations with Tyler.