Category: Music

My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.

And:

COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.

And:

COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.

And:

COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.

What should I ask Ben Westhoff?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event, here is from his home page:

Ben Westhoff is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes about culture, drugs, and poverty. His books are taught around the country and have been translated into languages all over the world.

His new book Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic releases September 3, 2019 in the U.S. (Grove Atlantic) and October 10, 2019 in the UK, Austrailia, and New Zealand (Scribe). Here’s more information.

His previous book Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap has received raves from Rolling Stone and People, a starred review in Kirkus, a five-star Amazon rating, and made numerous year-end best lists. More info can be found here.

…his 2011 book on southern hip-hop, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop was a Library Journal best seller.

Here is my review of his excellent forthcoming Fentanyl, Inc.  He also has a well-acclaimed book on New York City bars and dives.  All of his work is fascinating.

So what should I ask him?

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

The new Quentin Tarantino movie

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review is titled: “Quentin Tarantino’s Obscenely Regressive Vision of the Sixties in “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”“.

I didn’t love the film, and with each work of his I see, the more I like the others (and him?) less.  My main takeaway was to be reminded of an enormous and unprecedented historical shift.  In the 1960s, in part because of the birth control pill, the sexual opportunities of high status heterosexual men, or even medium status men, increased enormously, in terms of both quantity and quality.  And indeed the men in this movie take advantage of that, to various extremes (wife murder, the Manson cult) and it is not entirely clear how much Tarantino disapproves.

Whatever your normative view of this change, keep it in mind the next time you encounter the “Puritan excesses” of today’s PC movement.  Very rapid historical shifts in norms do in fact bring various forms of reaction and sometimes overreaction, and pushing back against the overreaction is not always the wisest thing to do.

If you want to see southern California on the big screen, you might enjoy Echo in the Canyon more, while its bookend cinematic partner David Crosby: Remember My Name will fill in the Joni Mitchell blank and also show you how deeply unpopular and unlikeable people talk and think about themselves.

What should I ask Hollis Robbins?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Robbins is a noted expert in the field of nineteenth-century African American literature and recently co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. an anthology of African American women’s writing. Robbins’ work focuses primarily on nineteenth and early twentieth century black print culture; she is affiliated with the Black Press Research Collective and serves as an advisor to the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University

…Previously, Robbins edited several other books with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., including The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2003). She also co-edited The Works of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garrett and an edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy.

In addition to now being Dean at Sonoma State University, she also has written on film music, the history of post offices, the gold rush, higher education, African-American sonnets, and numerous other topics.  So what should I ask her?

Is country music becoming more reactionary?

A recent paper in Rural Sociology, an academic journal, examined how men talk about themselves in mainstream country music. Its author, Braden Leap of Mississippi State University, analysed the lyrics of the top songs on the weekly Billboard country-music charts from the 1980s until the 2010s and found that the near-routine depiction of men as breadwinners and stand-up guys has changed.

Over the past decade, more songs objectify women and are about hooking up. Mr Leap’s examination of lyrics also found that masculinity and whiteness had become more closely linked. References to blue eyes and blond hair, for example, were almost completely absent in the 1980s. In the 2000s, they featured in 15% of the chart-topping songs…

Jada Watson, of the University of Ottawa, recently found that in 2000 a third of country songs on country radio were sung by women. In 2018 the share was only 11%. Even the top female stars get fewer spins. Carrie Underwood had 3m plays between 2000 and 2018; Kenny Chesney received twice as many. A report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 16% of all artists were female across 500 of the top country songs from 2014 to 2018.

Here is more from The Economist.

W.E.B. Du Bois sentences to ponder

Du Bois was born in 1868, the year that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had its debut: he died in 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was on the charts.  His longevity gives us, I think, a sense that he is more modern than he really was.  It can be startling to realize, for example, that when Khruschev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior.

That is from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.

Thwarted markets in everything

Ahead of the second summit in Hanoi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un requested as part of the agreement between the countries moving forward that the U.S. send “famous basketball players” to normalize relations between the two countries, according to two U.S. officials.

The request was made in writing, officials said, as part of the cultural exchange between the two countries, and at one point the North Koreans insisted that it be included in the joint statement on denuclearization. The North Koreans also made a request for the exchange of orchestras between the two countries.

Here is the full story.  Via Ian Bremmer.

Compensating differentials

And even though [David] Crosby underwent a liver transplant in 1994, all four are active today. Does this mean we’ll see them together onstage again? [Graham] Nash stated in an interview not long ago that the band was offered $100 million to go on tour. But that’s not going to happen, he said, for one simple reason: “We don’t like each other.”

That is from David Kirby’s review of the other CSNY biography to have come out this month, also a good book.

What do concert audiences really want?

Audiences only really like two parts of a show — the beginning and the end.  You should prolong the former by rolling directly through your first three numbers without pausing.  Then make sure you end suddenly and unexpectedly.  Audiences rewards who stop early and punish those who stay late…

Finally, there’s nothing an audience enjoys more than hearing something familiar.  If you think your songwriting and all-round musical excellence are enough to entertain a bunch of strangers for an hour with songs they have never heard before, bully for you.  The Beatles didn’t, but what the hell do they know?

That is from the entertaining and insightful David Hepworth book Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop.  He lists the following as the ten best blues songs ever:

Memphis Jug Band: K.C. Moan

B.B. King: You Upset me Baby

Blind Willie Johnson: Dark Was the Night

Mississippi Fred McDowell: Shake ‘Em On Down

Lightnin’ Slim: Rooster Blues

Muddy Waters: Too Young to Know

Elmore James: I Can’t Hold Out

Otis Rush: All Your Love

Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown: James Alley Blues

Blind Blake: Too Tight

By the way, Paul and the Beatles really did record both “I’m Down” and “Yesterday” in the same day.

What are hologram-based concerts really like?

The technology behind these posthumous encores is complex; the truth is that holograms as many imagine them – exact 3-D digital replicas of humans, constructed from video footage – do not exist. Instead, as Martin Tudor of Base Hologram explains of their own process, “We start with a body double who works closely with our director to choreograph the performances and then we take the results of that and go to work on it digitally.” So while Mitch Winehouse insists that the tour will be a chance for audiences to see the “real” her, what they’ll actually be presented with is footage of a lookalike actress with a CGI 3-D mask on. Unlike Winehouse, who appeared to dislike touring, this digital spectre will be controlled and compliant. Recordings of the voice may belong to the original singer, but the physicality of the performance will be wholly manufactured.

Here is much more, by Olive Pometsey, via Ted Gioia.

Toward a theory of random, concentrated breakthroughs

I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity.  Here are the main premises:

1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together.  So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.

2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random.  Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.

3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas.  So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.

4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution.  But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much.  The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.

5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.

6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering.  People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity.  At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.

7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely.  That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.

8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand.  It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.

9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth.  Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them.  It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration.  So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away.  For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing.  It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.

10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think.  But I hope not.

Deconstructing cultural codes

As I continue to do Conversations with Tyler, more people ask me about “the Tyler Cowen production function.”  Well, here is one piece of it I don’t think I’ve written about or talked about before.  I’m going to bring you there in slightly long-winded fashion, long-winded for a blog post that is.

I’ve long been convinced that “matters of culture” are central for understanding economic growth, but I’m also painfully aware these theories tend to lack rigor and even trying to define culture can waste people’s time for hours, with no satisfactory resolution.

So I thought I would tackle this problem sideways.  I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or “crack” as many cultural codes as possible.  As many styles of art.  As many kinds of music.  As many complex novels, and complex classic books, and of course as many economic models as well.  Religions, and religious books.  Anthropological understandings.  I also learned two languages in my adult years, German and Spanish (the former better than the latter).  A bit later I realized that figuring out how an economic sector works — if only partially — was really not so different from cracking these other cultural codes.  For instance, once I spent three days on a boat (as keynote speaker), exclusively with people from a particular segment of the shipping trade.  It was like entering a whole new world and every moment of it was fascinating.

Eventually it seemed to me that problems of management were themselves a kind of cultural code, each one different of course.

And travel was the most potent form of this challenge, every new place a new culture to be unraveled and partially understood, and how much time was there to do that anyway?

It is very time-consuming — years-consuming — to invest in this skill of culture code cracking.  But I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.

I am not recommending this you at any particular margin, or at the margin I have invested in.  But if you ask me about the Tyler Cowen production function, every now and then I will tell you.

Addendum: It occurs to me that the number and diversity of cultural codes is increasing much faster than the ability of any individual to track them, much less master them.  In this regard, an understanding of matters cultural is always receding from us.

Alexa for animals

A peckish parrot has been caught ordering strawberries, a watermelon and even a water boiler through his foster owner’s electronic personal assistant.

Rocco, an African Grey, requested the items through an Alexa device while his minder was out of the home. Luckily, due to a parental lock, none of his attempted purchases went through.

Rocco, who lives with Marion Wischnewski in Berkshire, U.K., has attempted to order everything from kites and lightbulbs through Alexa since moving to her home. He also gets the device to tell him jokes and play his favorite tunes.

“I’ve come home before and he has romantic music playing,” Wischnewski told The Times of London. “He loves to dance and has the sweetest personality.”

Here is the story, via Michael Rosenwald.