Category: Music

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

My Caribbean podcast with the excellent Rasheed Griffith

One hour, fifteen minutes, almost all of it about the history and culture and economic future of the Caribbean, here is the audio.  It starts with Rasheed interviewing me, but later becomes more of a back-and-forth dialog, covering Cuba, Trinidad, Barbados, the best music from Jamaica, why Haiti has failed so badly, whether the Caribbean will be Latinized, and much more.  This one is pretty much entirely fresh material and I enjoyed doing it very much.

Rasheed is from Barbados, he is a very recent Emergent Ventures winner, and more generally his podcast focuses on the role of China in the Caribbean.  Newsletter and some prestigious podcast guests coming soon!

Here is Rasheed on Twitter.

What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. He served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2003 and 2009. Gioia has published five books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. In December 2015 he became the California State Poet Laureate.

He is also well-known as a composer of opera libretti, and more recently as a spokesperson for the importance of Catholicism for culture.  And he is brother of TedGioia, former CWT guest.  And here is Dana’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with him — so what should I ask?

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

AFEYAN:

I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.

Paul McCartney as management study

I am listening to McCartney III, the new Paul album, recorded at age 78 with Paul playing all of the instruments and doing all of the production at home.  There is no “Hey Jude” on here, but it is pretty good and given the broader context it is remarkable.  I recently linked to an Ian Leslie post on 64 reasons why Paul is underrated, but I don’t think he comes close to the reality.

Paul has been writing songs and performing since 1956, with no real breaks.  Perhaps he has written more hit songs than anyone else.  He brought the innovations of Cage and Stockhausen into popular music, despite having no musical education and growing up in the Liverpool dumps.  His second act, Wings, sold more records in its time than the Beatles did.  On a lark he decided to learn techno/EDM and put out five perfectly credible albums in that area.  He decided to learn how to compose classical music, and after some initial missteps his Ecce Cor Meum is perhaps the finest British choral work in a generation, worthy of say Britten or Nicholas Maw.  And that is from a guy who can’t really read music.  He has learned how to play most of the major musical instruments, typically well.  He can compose and play and perform in virtually every musical genre, including heavy metal, blues, music hall, country and western, gospel, show tunes, ballads, rockers, Latin music, pastiche, psychedelia, electronic music, Devo-style robot-pop, drone, lounge, reggae, and more and more and more.

His vocal range once spanned over four octaves, he is sometimes considered the greatest bass player in the history of rock and roll, and he was the first popular musician to truly master the recording studio, again with zero initial technical or musical education of any sort.

He is perhaps the quickest learner the music world ever has seen.

He has collaborated with John Lennon, George Harrison, George Martin, Ravi Shankar, Jimmy McCullough, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Carl Perkins, Kiri Te Kanawa, David Gilmour, Kanye West, Rihanna, and numerous others.  He wrote the best theme song for any James Bond movie.  He was the workaholic of the Beatles.  He was one of the most influential individuals worldwide, including behind the Iron Curtain, in the 1960s and sometimes beyond.

He was a very keen businessman in buying up the rights to music IP at just the right time, making him a billionaire.

He is OK enough as a painter, has been an effective propagandist for vegetarianism, active in numerous charities, and has put out two (?) children’s books, which I strongly doubt are ghostwritten.  He has been very active as a father in raising five children, while touring regularly, often intensely.  He had planned to be touring this summer at age 78, with a world class show spanning two and a half hours with Paul taking no break or even letting up (I saw the previous tour).

There is no backward-bending supply curve for this one.

If you are looking to study careers, Paul McCartney’s career is one of the very best and most instructive.

*A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music*

That is the new book by Paul Morley, with the parenthetical subtitle “(And Decided to Rewrite its Entire History)”.

It is one of my favorite books of the year, though I recommend it most to those who already have a background in the topic. It is wide-ranging, with plenty of emphasis on the contemporary and why Harrison Birtwistle is the brilliant composer you never properly understood.  If you grade music books on “how many different pieces of music does it make me want to listen to/relisten to,” this is one of the best music books of all time.

Here is one excerpt I liked:

Eno said that he was interested in the Borgesian idea that you could invent a world in reverse by inventing the artefacts that ought to be in its first.  You think what kind of music would be in that world — in this case, background music made as art — then you make the music and the world forms itself around the music…

Bang on a Can produced a live instrumental version of the four pieces, and Eno has humbly said that their interpretation moved him to tears.  Husband-and-wife artists Lou reed and Laurie Anderson heard it performed live and they said it was heartbreaking.  Without thinking, or rather, with thinking, Eno had composed a piece of music that is all at once flat and multidimensional, barren and detailed, near and far, music and sound, feeling and unfeeling, spiritual and vacant, real and unreal, mundane and magical.

It is the kind of book that suddenly stops and reels off 89 numbered points you are supposed to be interested in.  And I am.  But sprawling it is, and your mileage may vary.  And yes most of it is about actual “classical” music, whatever that is supposed to mean these days.  This is one book I will not throw out.

My excellent Conversation with Zach Carter

Zach is author of the recent book The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, which has been on many year-end “best of” lists.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Zach joined Tyler to discuss what Keynes got right — and wrong — about the Treaty of Versailles, how working in the India Office influenced his economic thinking, the seemingly strange paradox of his “liberal imperialism,” the elusive central message of The General Theory, the true extent of Keynes’ interest in eugenics, why he had a conservative streak, why Zach loves Samuel Delaney’s novel Nova, whether Bretton Woods was doomed to fail, the Enlightenment intuitions behind early defenses of the gold standard, what’s changed since Zach became a father, his next project, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: [Keynes is] sympathetic to his own ideas and wants to promote them. But to me, there’s a discord. Milton Friedman spends, what, 45 minutes talking to Pinochet, has a very long record of insisting economic and political freedom come together — maybe even too simplistically — writes against the system of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, calls for free markets there. And people give Friedman hell over that.

Keynes writes the preface for the Nazis and favors eugenics his whole life, and that’s hardly ever mentioned.

CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.

When he actually has power as a policymaker, he just doesn’t do any of this stuff. He is working on the Beveridge plan. He is working on financial stuff that is much more egalitarian than what we think of him when we think about eugenics.

COWEN: But he is chair of the British Eugenics Society for eight years late in his career.

CARTER: He doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out. Singerman goes into this in much more detail. It’s been a while since I read the article, but Singerman seems to think that this is a useful way of understanding Keynes’s worldview, but not that Keynes is some guy who’s going around wanting to sterilize people and do the things that we think of with the eugenics movement in the United States.

COWEN: I don’t think he wants to sterilize people, but he has those essays on population, which are not put into the collected works. They’re not mentioned by Roy Harrod. He is greatly worried that the people from some countries — I think including India — will outbreed the people from Britain, and this will wreak havoc on prices and wages, and it’s a big crisis. He even says, “We need to worry not only about the quantity of people, but the quality of people in the world.”

A very good episode, definitely recommended.  And here is Zach on Twitter.

Best classical music recordings of 2020

As you might expect, this has been a pretty spectacular year for listening to classical music on disc, too good you might say.  Here is what I enjoyed the most:

Beethoven Complete Piano works, by Martino Tirimo.  I probably know the performance canon for Beethoven piano sonatas better than any other area of classical music, and this is one of my two or three favorite sets of all time.  They are fresh, direct, and to the point, and remind me of the earlier Yves Nat set, though with better sound and the mistakes edited out.  Here is one review: “It’s decades since a pianist has managed to convey such an overwhelming sense that we’re listening to pure Beethoven. And there are 20 hours of it — surely the greatest recorded achievement of this anniversary year.”  The pianist is a 78-year-old Cypriot who is barely known even to most of the concert-going public.

Beethoven Bagatelles, by Tanguy de Williencourt.  This is Beethoven at his most arbitrary and willful and whimsical, all good things.  I have many recordings of these pieces, but these are perhaps my favorite.  Why again is it that French pianists are so good with Beethoven?

Beethoven, Complete works for Piano Trio, van Baerle Trio.  Again, the best recording of these works I have heard, and there is stiff competition.

Masaaki Suzuki put out more Bach organ music, and conducted an incredible version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  His genius remains under-discussed, as he is also a world-class harpsichord and keyboard player, and has produced the definitive recording of Bach’s entire cycle of cantatas.  Why is there no biography of him?  He is one of the greatest creators and performers in the entire world in any area.  If you are wondering, his parents were Japanese Protestants and he is a Calvinist.

Chopin CD of the year would be by Jean-Paul Gasparian.

Morton Feldman piano box set, played by Philip Thomas.  Five CDs if you go that route, this is what I listened to most this year.  It is also very good played at low volume, a useful feature in crowded pandemic homes.

I listened to a good deal of Szymanowski, who has finally started to make sense to me.  In prep for my CWT with Alex Ross, I relistened to a great deal of Wagner.  What rose in my eyes was the von Karajan Die Meistersinger and the Clemens Krauss Ring cycle.

As for contemporary classical music, I enjoyed:

Hans Abrahamsen, String Quartets.

Philippe Manoury, Temps Mode d’Emploi.

Caroline Shaw, Orange, Attaca Quartet.

This year I also rediscovered Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), and Raymond Lewenthal’s Alkan CD, one of my favorite recordings of all time, a kind of proto-rock and roll.

As for concert life, I did manage to see Trifonov play “Art of the Fugue” at the Kennedy Center before the whole season shut down, and in January the Danish Quartet playing Beethoven in NYC.

Free Britney Spears

Jamie Spears was authorized by the California Superior Court to control his daughter’s finances, health care, and aspects of her daily routine. The conservatorship was initially temporary. Twelve years later, it’s still in place. The court documents and hearings—there have been many over the years—have been mostly sealed to the public, so little is known about the actual nature and conditions of the agreement.

Britney’s father can control virtually all of the terms of her life, and Britney is vociferously opposed to having him as her “conservator.”  I know very little about the mental condition of Britney Spears, but I would think the case for enslaving her — as we have done — should face a very high bar indeed.  She hardly seems totally unable to function:

She released four albums, went on as many world tours and, for her successful Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas, played 248 shows in the span of four years, grossing $500,000 per show.

Guess who controls the money and the terms of employment?  The Straussian element shows up on Instagram:

What appears to the uninitiated as a random assortment of selfies, inspirational quotes, and dance videos is, according to supporters of the so-called #FreeBritney movement, a desperate plea for help. First, there was the color of her shirt, which appeared to match commenters’ calls for her to wear yellow (or red, or blue, or white, or anything) if she were in trouble. Then there were the roses, “a symbol of secrecy and silence,” as one user pointed out. In one video, Spears walks back and forth nine times, obviously Morse code for SOS. And then of course there were her eyelashes.

Here is the full article from Vanity Fair. Don’t forget this:

“Conservatorships are very hard to get out of—much, much harder to get out of than to get into, and that’s something many people don’t realize, even people who are seeking conservatorships,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project.

Britney’s life matters, free Britney Spears.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

What our new Chinese overlords desire for us

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a top 10 album this week — more than four decades after its release — thanks to a viral TikTok video that’s had everyone vibing along to “Dreams.” Rumours now ranks seventh on the Billboard 200 chart, the publication announced last night, the album’s first appearance in the top 10 since 1978, a year after it debuted.

Rumours’ newfound popularity is thanks to a viral video from Nathan Apodaca, who goes by 420doggface208 on TikTok, that shows him skateboarding down a road and sipping cran-raspberry juice straight from the jug, while “Dreams” plays over top. It’s been viewed more than 60 million times since being posted at the end of September, and it’s even inspired both Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks to sign up for TikTok over the past two weeks. Fleetwood recreated the viral video himself, while Nicks posted a video of herself lacing up roller skates and singing along. They have a combined 35 million views.

Here is the full story, via Fernand Pajot.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

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.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

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?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

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.

Toots Hibbert, RIP

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…