Category: Music

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter

Here it is, one of the better written pieces of this (or last) year.  It is mostly about China, manufacturing, and economic policy, but here is the part I will quote:

But Hong Kong was also the most bureaucratic city I’ve ever lived in. Its business landscape has remained static for decades: the preserve of property developers that has created no noteworthy companies in the last three decades. That is a heritage of British colonial rule, in which administrators controlled economic elites by allocating land—the city’s most scarce resource—to the more docile. Hong Kong bureaucrats enforce the pettiest rules, I felt, out of a sense of pride. On the mainland, enforcers deal often enough with senseless rules that they are sometimes able to look the other way. Thus a stagnant spirit hangs over the city. I’ve written before that Philip K. Dick is useful not for thinking about Hong Kong’s skyline, but its tycoon-dominated polity: “governed by a competent but fundamentally pessimistic elite, which administers a population bent on consumption. Instead of being hooked on drugs and television like in PKD’s novels, people in Hong Kong are addicted to the extraordinary flow of liquidity from the mainland, which raises their asset values and dulls their senses.”

And then on Mozart:

Among these three works, Figaro is the most perfect and Don Giovanni the greatest. But I believe that Cosi is the best. Cosi is Mozart’s most strange and subtle opera, as well as his most dreamlike. If the Magic Flute might be considered a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest—given their themes of darkness, enchantment, and salvation—then Cosi ought to be Mozart’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Donald Tovey called Cosi “a miracle of irresponsible beauty.” It needs to be qualified with “irresponsible” because its plot is, by consensus, idiotic. The premise is that two men try—on a dare—to seduce the other’s lover. A few fake poisonings and Albanian disguises later, each succeeds, to mutual distress. Every critic that professes to love the music of Cosi also discusses the story in anguished terms. Bernard Williams, for example, noted how puzzling it has been that Mozart chose to vest such great emotional power with his music into such a weak narrative structure. Joseph Kerman is more scathing, calling it “outrageous, immoral, and unworthy of Mozart.”

I readily concede that the music of Cosi so far exceeds its dramatic register.

Recommended!  There is much more at the link, substantive throughout.  Though I should note I am less bullish on both manufacturing and China than Dan is.  I fully agree about Bleak House, however, and at times I think it is the greatest novel written…

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.

Self-recommended!

Why has classical music declined?

In the comments, Rahul asked that question as follows:

In general perception, why are there no achievements in classical music that rival a Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc. that were created in say the last 50 years?

Is it an exhaustion of what’s possible? Are all great motifs already discovered?

Or will we in another 50 or 100 years admire a 1900’s composer at the same level as a Mozart or Beethoven?

Or was it something unique in that era ( say 1800’s) which was conducive to the discovery of great compositions? Patronage? Lack of distraction?

I would offer a few hypotheses:

1. The advent of musical recording favored musical forms that allow for the direct communication of personality.  Mozart is mediated by sheet music, but the Rolling Stones are on record and the radio and now streaming.  You actually get “Mick Jagger,” and most listeners prefer this to a bunch of quarter notes.  So a lot of energy left the forms of music that are communicated through more abstract means, such as musical notation, and leapt into personality-specific musics.

1b. Eras have aesthetic centers of gravity.  So pushing a lot of talent in one direction does discourage some other directions from developing fully.  Dylan didn’t just pull people into folk, he pulled them away from trying to be the next Pat Boone.

2. Electrification favored a variety of musical styles that are not “classical” or even “contemporary classical,” with apologies to Glenn Branca.

3. The two World Wars ripped out the birthplaces of so much wonderful European culture.  It is not only classical music that suffered, but also European science, letters, entrepreneurship, and much more.

4. It is tough to top Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., so eventually creators struck out in new directions.  And precisely because of the less abstract, more personality-laden nature of popular music, it is harder to have a very long career and attain the status of a true titan.  The Rolling Stones ran out of steam forty (?) years ago, but Bach could have kept on writing fugues, had he lived longer.  More recent musical times thus have many creators who are smaller in overall stature, even though the total of wonderful music has stayed very high.

5. Contemporary classical music (NB: not the best term, for one thing much of it is no longer contemporary) is much better than most people realize.  Much of it is designed for peers, and intended to be experienced live.  In the last decade I saw performances of Glass’s Satyagraha, Golijov’s St. Marc Passion, Boulez’s Le Marteau (at IRCAM), and Stockhausen’s Mantra, and it was all pretty amazing.  I doubt if those same pieces are very effective on streaming.  It may be unfortunate, but due to incentives emanating from peers, most non-peer listeners do not have the proper dimensionality of listening experience to proper appreciate those compositions.  To be clear, for the most part I don’t either, not living down here in northern Virginia, but at times I can overcome this (mostly through travel) and in any case I am aware of the phenomenon.  For these same reasons, it is wrong to think those works will have significantly higher reputations 50 or 100 years from now — some of them are already fairly old!

There are other reasons as well, what else would you suggest?

Favorite classical music of the year

Easy picks this time around, I enjoyed three new issues much more than any others:

Igor Levit, Shostakovich, Preludes and Fugues Op.87, plus a disc of Ronald Stephenson [On DSCH], three discs.

Vikingur Olafsson, Mozart & Contemporaries, two discs.

Daniil Trifonov, Bach: The Art of Life.  The Art of the Fugue, plus a batch of shorter pieces by Bach family members, two discs.

Three absolutely blockbuster piano releases this year.

Usually I listen to weirder stuff, but I discover that through concerts and meeting up with people, so this year was a “classics of the classics” year for much of my listening.

I also greatly enjoyed three stellar Beethoven recordings:

Eugene Albulescu, Beethoven Piano Concerto #1.

Toke Møldrup and Yaron Kohlberg, Beethoven works for piano and cello.

van Baerle Trio, Beethoven complete works for piano trio.

In all three cases, who has ever heard of these people?  Obscure, even to me!  And yet they are making better music than even the Beethoven titans of the past.  There is a lesson in that.

I may have mentioned these before, but I am still listening to them and still enthralled:

Marek Janowski, Bruckner’s 4th symphony, the Suisse Romande version, not the 1992 recording.

Jean-Paul Gasparian, Chopin.

Tanguy De Williencourt, Beethoven Bagatelles L’Integrale.

Teodor Currentzis, Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

I hope you are all devoting sufficient time to what are some of mankind’s greatest and most profound achievements.

How to figure out where crypto is headed

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the piece has a number of ideas.  You can start with this:

…the concept of relevance is focality, by which I mean the part of the system at which consumers direct their attention. Focality could determine whether crypto ushers in an era of dystopian inequality, or whether most of its benefits accrue to broader society.

That all sounds quite abstract, so consider a simple example from the world of music. Famous artists such as the Beatles or Taylor Swift attract attention with their very names — in other words, they have become focal. Then there are performance spaces or bars that are known for putting on good music, such as the Blue Note or, in an earlier era, the Fillmore. In this case, the venue is focal.

So the question is this: When people patronize crypto institutions, will they attach significance to the “innovator” or to the “intermediary”? Or, to continue the analogy with the music industry, the artist or the venue.

One scenario is that ordinary Americans will simply find crypto too confusing to deal with directly. Rather than choosing their favorite crypto assets, DeFi investments and NFT providers, they will outsource their decisions to well-known intermediaries. Imagine entering into a crypto contract with a company you have an established relationship with, such as a social media company, your bank or perhaps your labor union. The intermediary would deliver a “crypto package,” tailored to the needs of a broad swath of customers.

Significant parts of the crypto world would be relatively centralized….

I think you can imagine which problems would arise in that scenario, including the reemergence of de facto censorship.  Alternately:

Another very different scenario: Users focus their attention on the crypto assets themselves, such as Bitcoin, Ether or Dogecoin. That kind of user focus would mean many of the gains of crypto accrue to the early crypto asset holders. Intermediaries (e.g., Coinbase) can earn a return, but the real brand name value would be held by the crypto asset itself.

Much of today’s crypto world looks like this, though it may not last as crypto broadens in applications and use. If you are long current crypto assets, you may be hoping for this kind of scenario to extend itself, because those assets will accumulate much of the value from higher crypto demand.

Yet another scenario: What if the attention of consumers were focused on the crypto innovators, who in this case would be analogous to better-known musical artists? One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users.

Customers would use or own or invest in crypto in a variety of ways, just as they listen to music on LPs, CDs, MP3s and streaming services. And in the same way that people share their playlists, crypto users could issue their own tokens (currencies) if they wanted, or serve as their own banks in the sense of making their own lending decisions and executing them autonomously.

I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.

So you can be bullish on crypto’s future without being bullish on current crypto prices. For a simple analogy, Spotify and YouTube have greatly expanded music’s reach, but overall the price of recorded music has fallen, and many performers earn much less than did their peers in the LP era. Or consider the agriculture sector, defined broadly: It has done very well over the last few centuries, but food prices have fallen rather than risen, due to higher output and greater competition.

Recommended.

The best guitar music from 2021

Two new boxed sets are not only among the best releases of the year, they are some of the best guitar recordings of all time.  The first is Doc Watson: Life’s Work A Retrospective, four CDs of wonder and much better than any other Watson collection.

The second is Bola Sete, Samba in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968.  Sete has remained a largely obscure figure, with his reputation kept alive by a few cryptic John Fahey comments over the years.  His LPs have been hard to find, and they did not always reflect the full quality of his playing.  His best YouTube clips would come and go.  This boxed set shows Sete to be one of the best acoustic guitarists of the 20th century.  He is rooted in Brazilian bossa nova, but can play everything including Duke Ellington and Villa-Lobos.  Here is Ted Gioia’s appreciation of Sete.

In terms of original contribution and historical import, this has to be the release of the year in any field of music.

I’ll be getting you some classical music recommendations soon.

Cost of living sentences to ponder

The overall cost of living faced by low-income households (post-tax income <$50,000) in the most expensive city—San Jose, CA—is 49% higher than in the median commuting zone, Cleveland, and 99% higher than the most affordable commuting zone—Natchez, MS.

And:

The three commuting zones with the lowest consumption of low income households are San Jose, CA; San Francisco, CA; and San Diego, CA, with consumption levels between 27% and 30% lower than the median commuting zone. At the other extreme of the spectrum, examples of commuting zones with high consumption of low-income households are Huntington, WV; Johnstown, PA; and Elizabeth City, NC, with consumption levels in real terms 22–23% higher than the median commuting zone. The range of consumption levels observed across U.S. communities is quite wide: Low-income families who live in the most affordable commuting zone enjoy a level of market-based consumption measured in real terms that is 74% higher that of families with the same income who live in the least affordable commuting zone.

And:

The estimated coefficient implies that a middle-skill household moving from the median commuting zone (Cleveland) to the commuting zone with the highest price index (San Jose) would experience a 7.7% decline in their standard of living. Moving from the commuting zone with the lowest cost of living index (Natchez) to the commuting zone with the highest index would imply a decline in the standard of living by 12.7%.

As for high school dropouts:

Moving from Natchez to San Jose implies a 26.9% decline in the standard of living.

Here is the NBER working paper by Rebecca Diamond and Enrico Moretti

Claims I can’t quite bring myself to believe

It doesn’t seem this is a partisan issue, but could this possibly be fake news?  It does not fit with my underlying model of the world, not even for British people:

A leading music teacher has said the popularity of the ukulele is threatening classical guitar playing.

More than one in ten musical schoolchildren now play the ukulele, the largest proportion ever, a study by the music exam board ABRSM found. It said the instrument’s popularity grew from 1 per cent of school music students in 1997 to 15 per cent last year.

The ukulele was cited as a cause of the decline of the recorder in schools but in a letter to The Times, Graham Wade, former head of guitar teaching at Leeds College of Music, said the popularity of the four-stringed ukulele was threatening its six-stringed uncle.

“The ukulele is more likely to oust the guitar (whether classical or otherwise) from early instrumental tuition than the recorder,” he said. “I have been a classical guitar teacher in schools and colleges for 50 years, and the subtext of your headline is the demise of a worthy musical tradition.”

There is perhaps more sanity on this side of the ocean:

The latest data from America suggests that demand has fallen, with sales of ukuleles declining 15 per cent between 2018 and 2020 — although the lockdown provided a boost to sales.

Here is more from the Times of London.

*Get Back*, I

Everything that gets done runs through Paul.  As Adam Minter put it (excellent thread more generally):

Nothing would get done if Paul weren’t there. But it’s a fine line, because he’s irritating. also – Ringo, in my opinion, has deep deep reservoirs of patience. I don’t know how he go through some of those days.

In this “prepping for a no overdubs, pure live performance” setting, the studio doesn’t matter.  And control over studio production was how Paul exerted an increasing authority over the Beatles.  “Let’s work on this more together” de facto meant “let’s give me, Paul, greater influence over the proceedings.”  Yet without his studio expertise as a Williamsonian trump card, Paul has to be more of a pain in the ass to induce effort and focus from the others.

“I’m scared of me being the boss, and I kind of have been for a couple of years,” or something like that, is what Paul says.  “I know it’s right, and you know it’s right” comes shortly thereafter (remember this?).

“Whatever it is that will please you, I will do it” responds George.  John in turn mutters something about maybe they should improvise the whole thing.

George Martin is rendered irrelevant, due to the studio production being omitted, and mostly he stands around and looks like a guy who used to do ads for bad British cars in the 1960s.

Two highlights are Paul singing a mock version of “Gimme’ Some Truth,” and John singing a mock version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  Doesn’t the film show it was actually George who broke up the Beatles?  (Or Ringo in 1968?)  Doesn’t the person who leaves first split up the relationship?

What is quiet Yoko thinking the whole time?

And from Dave Bueche:

  • It’s surprising to see them digging around for material.  You’d think they would have had a lineup of songs before they started the project.
  • Twickenham [the studio] seems like a drag.  You can tell they don’t love it either.  It’s big and cavernous and a few colored lights doesn’t change that.
  • There’s a certain sad nostalgia in them playing all the old standards they learned in Germany and Liverpool.  Like they know this the end and they’re sort of reliving the beginning one last time.
  • Paul is clearly more invested than the others.  George seems like he’s trying to just learn the songs, do his bit, same with Ringo.  John seems like he’s a good sport, but other than Don’t Let Me Down – he seems to be going through the motions.
  • It’s fun seeing them cover Dylan and other contemporaries.

The reviews are all “oh, this shows the Beatles loved working together until the very end.”  That’s a pretty superficial read of the material.  To me, Get Back is much more about “how the main value adders control small groups in a somewhat tyrannical and mostly efficient manner, and why this isn’t always stable.”  Mancur Olson remains underrated.

“All Things Must Pass” just wasn’t that good a song, and it would have been worse as a Beatles song.

Here is a very good Jonathan Freedland review.

Should the Roma be more Woke?

The members of Pretty Loud, possibly the world’s first all-Roma female hip-hop group, don’t write saccharine love songs.

Their lyrics focus instead on the pains Roma women experience: marrying and having children too young, feeling like second-class citizens and not finishing high school.

“Don’t force me, Dad, I’m too young for marriage,” the six members, who hail from Serbia and are in their midteens to late 20s, sing in one song. “Please understand me, or should I be quiet?” they rap in another. “No one hears when I use my Roma girl’s voice.”

Here is more from the NYT.  And more from YouTube:

My favorite things Idaho

I used to blog “My Favorite Things…” all the time, but I ran out of new places to go for a while.  Now there is Idaho!  Boise in particular.  Today, I can think of a few “favorite things” from Idaho, here goes and potatoes don’t count:

Artist: Matthew Barney.  Filmmaker and artist, prominent in the avant-garde but much of his work is quite accessible if you don’t mind the near total absence of dialogue.  Is the nine-hour Cremaster cycle his masterpiece?  (I’ve only seen parts).  According to the internet “Cremaster is a paired muscle of the pelvis and perineum that is fully developed only in the external genitalia of males. Being located between the internal and external layers of spermatic fascia, cremaster covers the testes and spermatic cord.”  Many scenes from the movies have been turned into photos and artworks as well.

Do people in Idaho look like that?

Composer: LaMonte Young.  Is he the most underrated twentieth century avant-garde composer?  The Well-Tuned Piano is one of my favorite works, though it is a tough slog for many, being about five hours in length, here is a YouTube version.  He was even born in a log cabin in Idaho, and grew up LDS.  His career blossomed in New York, but he attributed his interest in drone sounds to the Idaho wind and other sounds from his boyhood.

Other music: Built to Spill.

Author: Jerry Kramer, who grew up in Idaho and later played football for the Green Bay Packers.  I loved Instant Replay as a kid.  But is there a “real author” from Idaho?  Is it better or worse to be a “real author”?  Marilynne Robinson has never clicked with me.

Poet: Ezra Pound, born in Idaho.  A fascist and anti-Semite, and not a true favorite of mine, but he was talented and it seems odd not to list him.  Can I name a better poet from Idaho?

Explorer: Sacagewea.  I hope she is cancel-proof.

Drum Battle: Idaho.  Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  For some reason, it reminded me of Benny Goodman’s Clarinade (not from Idaho).

Film, set in: My Own Private Idaho and Napoleon Dynamite might be the best known.  But perhaps I will go with Smoke Signals, Superman II (the one with Gene Hackman), and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.  Superman II, if I had to say.

Here is more Matt Barney:

I’ll be sure to report on my visit.

Straussian Beatles, Paul McCartney solo edition

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Paul is his willingness to be a plain, flat outright snot about other people.  Did you see lately when he called the Rolling Stones “a blues cover band”?  Not wrong!  Ever listen to the lyrics of “Another Girl“?

Anyway, if you paw through the Ram album you will find some real daggers.  “Dear Boy,” for instance, is Paul mocking Linda’s ex-husband, here are some lyrics:

I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you have found,
I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That she was just the cutest thing around,
I guess you never knew what you have found,
Dear boy.

I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That love was there.
And maybe when you look to hard, dear boy,
You never do become aware,
I guess you never did become aware,
Dear boy.

When i stepped in, my heart was down and out,
But her love came through and brought me ’round,
Got me up and about…

I hope you never know, dear boy,
How much you missed.
And even when you fall in love, dear boy,
It won’t be half as good as this.
I hope you never know how much you missed,
Dear boy, how much you missed

Maybe it’s OK to take public stabs at your new wife’s ex-husband (is it?), but keep in mind Paul was raising the guy’s daughter at the time.  What did she think?  Or maybe up in that Scottish farm she just never listened to Ram, or this song.  Paul himself has admitted the underlying meaning in radio interviews.  The guy, by the way, committed suicide — woe unto him who is attacked by Paul McCartney!

Brian Wilson, by the way, was a big admirer of the voices and harmonies on that one, here is the cut.

Gentler but still cutting is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“.  It’s Paul’s account of why he has not been calling “the rellies” back home, namely because they are too boring and too removed from the reality of his life.  Paul is reporting (sarcastically) that his life is too boring to have anything to say to the guy:

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But there’s no one left at home
And I believe I’m gonna rain

We’re so sorry, but we haven’t heard a thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But if anything should happen
We’ll be sure to give a ring

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But we haven’t done a bloody thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But the kettle’s on the boil
And we’re so easily called away

Of course he really did have an Uncle Albert, and I bet he didn’t call much.  Can you blame him?  This interpretation, by the way, comes from Paul himself, many years later on satellite radio.

“Too Many People” — the paradigmatic Macca Straussian song deserves a post of its own.  It has more passive-aggressive references to John Lennon than are usually reported.

And that is all just on one album!  Here are previous installments of Straussian Beatles.  By the way, “Yesterday” may in part be about the early death of Paul’s mother.

What is going on in this Malaysian-Chinese libertarian video of the year?

Blocked on Weibo, by the way.  One major figure in the video is the Malaysian-Chinese rapper Namewee, also Kimberly Chen.  I put up this post, among other reasons, to show just how much there is in the way of cultural codes to crack.  How much of it do you understand?  Do you get the references to this Thai-Chinese internet controversy?  What else?  Here is further excellent commentary from Sabina Knight.  #20 on the YouTube music charts.

Via Stu.