Category: Music

Fanfare classical music meta-list, and my favorite classical music of the year

Fanfare is the best outlet for classic music reviews I know, and each year I avidly scour the critics’ Want Lists.  These are the items that showed up more than once:

Kyle Gann, Hyperchromatica, “…an extended set of movements…scores for three retuned mechanics pianos…The music draws together every facet of Gann’s style and life-long musical interests: rhythmic complexity, microtonality, extended “tonal” harmonies and voice leading, post-Minimalist surfaces, and more.  The result is a tremendous mix of sheer enjoyment coupled with extremely sophisticated compositional craft.” (Carson Cooman).

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, conducted by John Nelson.

Murray Perahia, Beethoven, Hammerklavier Sonata/Moonlight Sonata.

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, 2018 recording.

While I can recommend those strongly (I haven’t heard the Adams yet, but didn’t like the earlier recording), my own recommendations would be:

Bach, Violin Sonatas and Partitas, get both the latest Christian Tetzlaff recording and Ning Feng, and:

Paul Lewis, Joseph Haydn, Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50.

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?


A few days ago, a few of you thought I was dumping on Memphis.  I did say the city is not an economic development success story, but it is perhaps my favorite place to visit in the American South.  It has the best musical traditions, for instance generating Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, all at more or less the same time, with many others later including Lonnie Mack, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T.  It is one of the classic barbecue cities, most of all for ribs.  Beale Street remains a wonderful place to hear music, as it is not nearly as ruined by tourists as Broadway in Nashville or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  It is also one of the American cities most likely to look as if it is still 1963, or is that 1957?  Finally, Memphis is the starting off point for a drive down Highway 61 into the heartland of the Mississippi Delta, one of the essential American journeys and yes you still can hear rural blues music there.

If you have never done a three-day Memphis trip, I would strongly urge this upon you.

How streaming has changed song structures

From Martin Connor, here is a list of seven mechanisms, you can read the explanations at the link:

1. Streamings’ Data Collection Makes Songs Simpler

2. Streaming Sites’ Social Media Makes Songs Confessional

3. Small Streaming Profits Make Songs Shorter

4. Streaming’s Customizability Makes Songs Built To Order

5. Content Digitization Makes Songs More Diverse [TC: does that contradict some of the other general claims?]

6. Free Content Makes Songs More Collaborative [TC: and here’s the explanation for this one:]

Artistic competition is so fierce nowadays that artists need to constantly release music. One way to do this is to make songs shorter and simpler; another way is to get a producer to make the beat, a singer to make the chorus, and another rapper for the second verse. This leads to Migos member Offset, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne all appearing on the same 2017 song, “I’m The One.” It also means that fans start to see credits like those from Cardi B’s new album “Invasion of Privacy”. The 13 tracks on the album features 104 total writing credits, meaning 8 people per track. Its single “Be Careful” has 17 alone.

7. Video’s Increasing Dominance Makes Songs Into Soundtracks

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Unusual failed Beatle Asimov markets in everything

[Paul] McCartney was still wrestling with the comparison between the two bands [the Beatles and Wings].  A few months earlier he had commissioned veteran sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to write a screenplay. “He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups,” Asimov recalled, “a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters.  The real one would be in pursuit of the imposters and would eventually defeat them, despite the fact that the latter had supernormal powers.”  Beyond that framework, McCartney offered Asimov nothing more than “a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when the group realised they were being victimised by imposters.”  Asimov set to work and produced a screenplay that he called “suspenseful, realistic and moving.”  But McCartney rejected it.  As Asimov recalled, “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue out of which he apparently couldn’t move.”

That is from Peter Doggett’s excellent You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup.

Mihail Sebastian, *Journal 1935-1944*

I am surprised this work is not better known.  A literary diary of a Romanian Jew, it captures the beauties of European high culture during the pre-war thirties, most of all classical music and early 20th century literature, but also the only slighter later descent into madness.  It’s his friends and fellow intellectuals who turn on him the most.  I don’t know a better source for capturing the sense of surprise and then foreboding that people must have felt as Hitler racked up one victory after another.

In late 1944, after the course of the war had reversed, Sebastian wrote:

I am not willing to be disappointed.  I don’t accept that I have any such right.  The Germans and Hitlerism have croaked.  That’s enough.

I always knew deep down that I’d happily have died to bring Germany’s collapse a fraction of an inch closer.  Germany has collapsed — and I am alive.  What more can I ask?  So many have died without seeing the beast perish with their own eyes!  We who remain alive have had that immense good fortune.

Miraculously, Sebastian survived the Holocaust and was never deported to the camps.  On 29 May 1945, however, he was hit and killed by a truck in downtown Bucharest, while walking on his way to teach class.

You can buy the work here, and I’ve since ordered one of Sebastian’s novels.  Here is a NYT review.

Get your money for nothin’ get your chicks for free

The manager of Dire Straits earned a percentage of their royalties and he’s selling a big chunk of it to the public. For $3,970–a little cheaper if you buy in bulk–you can get 1/925 of an asset which has been paying around $296,992 per year over the last year for an annual return of about 8%* (corrected from earlier)–that’s pretty good and the prospectus argues that growth in streaming and a forthcoming Mark Knopfler tour will increase royalties.

I think it would be pretty cool to hear Sultans of Swing on the radio and shout “turn it up!” because you knew were earning but only accredited investors need apply. In related news Matt Levine has an excellent piece on accredited investor rules and his alternative:

  • Anyone can also invest in any other dumb investment; you just have to go to the local office of the SEC and get a Certificate of Dumb Investment. (Anyone who sells dumb non-approved investments without requiring this certificate from buyers goes to prison.)
  • To get that certificate, you sign a form. The form is one page with a lot of white space. It says in very large letters: “I want to buy a dumb investment. I understand that the person selling it will almost certainly steal all my money, and that I would almost certainly be better off just buying index funds, but I want to do this dumb thing anyway. I agree that I will never, under any circumstances, complain to anyone when this investment inevitably goes wrong. I understand that violating this agreement is a felony.”
  • Then you take the form to an SEC employee, who slaps you hard across the face and says “really???” And if you reply “yes really” then she gives you the certificate.
  • Then you bring the certificate to the seller and you can buy whatever dumb thing he is selling.

My Conversation with Claire Lehmann of Quillette

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

She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?

LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.

COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.

LEHMANN: Yeah. That’s when Camille Paglia was talking about PC, and Robert Hughes had a book, The Culture of Complaint.

I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.

That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.

Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.

I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.

COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.

LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.

COWEN: True or false?

LEHMANN: Probably true.

COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?


COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?

LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.

A question from me:

COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?

We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.

My musical self-education

Musick-er requests:

I’ve noticed that you tend to have pretty wide ranging tastes in music, and your recommendation on introduction to classical music was pretty spot-on. I’m wondering what training/expertise you have in music theory/aural skills?…As someone who is obviously very intelligent but not a musician (that I know of), I wonder how you interact with Bach or other master composers – what criteria do you listen for? What makes great works stand out from the merely good?

My history is this:

1. I learned how to play the guitar when I was twelve or so, and also figured out how a piano works.

2. I spent about six years studying jazz chords, American popular song, some classic rock, early acoustic blues and ragtime, Fahey/Kottke, and Bach.  I also learned how to listen with a score, at least for guitar and piano pieces.

3. Later in life, I focused on trying to make sense of early to mid 20th century classical music and Indian classical music, both excellent entry points for many of the other difficult musical genres and styles.  I tried to learn at least something about micro-tonal musics and ragas.

4. Starting in my thirties, I tried to develop a basic familiarity with world musics, not so much the European folkie stuff as those based on different conceptual principles, such as some of the Arab musics, Chinese music, and African musics including the Pygmies.

5. I cultivated “music mentors” to help me understand these musics.  Overall this is not a very book-intensive endeavor, though you will enjoy reading accompanying biographies.

I am not saying that is the right path for everyone, but I found it very rewarding, including for my broader understanding of history.

To address one of the specific questions, I think of Bach-Stravinsky, classic rock, and Indian classical music (live only) as covering some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements, with only cinema in the running for possible parity.  Most of all just listen plenty, noting that the canonical opinions about what is best are actually pretty much on the mark.

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.


COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

My favorite things Azerbaijan

I am arrived in Baku!  Here goes:

1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov.  Maybe the greatest player of all time?  He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.

Teimour Radjabov.  It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen.  His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.

Vugar Gashimov.  He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.

Cellist and conductorMstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku.  His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings.  Here is one (different) YouTube version.  As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.

Pianist: Bella Davidovich, born in Baku, especially her Chopin.

Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku.  He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.

Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.

The Pioneer project: finding “the lost Einsteins”

Silicon Valley has created a model for identifying and nurturing high-potential young companies…Pioneer… hopes to do much the same thing for high-potential people.

The group, which is being announced on Thursday, plans to use the internet-era tools of global communication and crowdsourcing to solicit and help select promising candidates in a variety of fields, along with evaluations by experts. Its goal is to put more science and less happenstance into the process of talent discovery — and reach more people, wherever they are in the world.

“We’re trying to build a kind of search engine for finding great people with talent, ambition and potential,” said Daniel Gross, 27, the group’s founder…

Selecting “pioneers” will begin with a monthlong online tournament. Candidates will submit their project ideas. Each week, the projects will be updated. The candidates will vote on each other’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be leader board. Subject experts will also vote, with their votes counting somewhat more than the candidates’.

That is from Steve Lohr at The New York Times, with much more at the link.  Here is the account from Daniel Gross at Pioneer.  I am pleased and honored to be an (informal) advisor to this project.

My favorite things Ukraine

I am just arriving, and for the first time  Here are my favorites:

1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin.  Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa.  But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others.  Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists.  So we are into A++ territory here.  But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine!  My head is exploding now.

1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.

2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts.  Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.

3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian.  But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian.  His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known.  A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him.  For short stories there is Isaac Babel.  Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem.  Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin.  The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.

4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization.  With Dovshenko as my favorite director.

5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera.  It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.

6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group.  Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.

7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.

8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises.  He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.

9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.

10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.

11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.

12. Legal scholar, blogger, and First Amendment advocate: Eugene Volokh.  And don’t forget Sasha!

Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan.  The region produced a few good chess players too.

Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian.  They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.