On Music and Economics: A Conversation between Jon Magnussen and Eric Maskin

In June, Artist-in-Residence Jon Magnussen and Eric Maskin, Alfred O. Hirschman Professor in the School of Social Science, sat down to discuss their mutual interest in music and performance. Highlights of the conversation follow.

Magnussen: As the Alfred O. Hirschman Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, you’ve done groundbreaking work in implementation theory and game theory. Yet, you also played your clarinet in a beautiful chamber music concert this spring at the Institute, with a program of works by Mozart, Schumann and Reinecke. How long has music been a part of your life?

Maskin: Oh, it’s always been there. I come from a musical family. My mother was a concert pianist. My father wanted to be a violin soloist but was told at some point that he wouldn’t be the next Jascha Heifetz, and so went into medicine instead. My brother is a professional oboist and English horn player. He plays in the Charlotte Symphony.
So it was inevitable that music would be important for me. I was exposed to it from the beginning and I’ve always made it a big part of my life.

Magnussen: Did you have any ideas about being a professional musician while you were growing up?

Maskin: Well, when I was growing up, I was quite conscientious about practicing and actually got to be pretty proficient. So I toyed with the idea. But my teachers didn’t seem to think that that was such a good idea. First, because they weren’t sure I was cut out for it, but also because they knew how tough the music business is. Of course my parents knew this too. So I can’t say I got a great deal of encouragement about going into music professionally. But I got a lot of encouragement to develop it as a serious avocation. So, I’ve tried to play music whenever I can. At this point, I don’t have the time to get to it every day. And I’m afraid that that shows. But one way of building it into my schedule is by being involved in chamber music. If I have a rehearsal or concert coming up, then I’m forced to make sure that I put in the practice time, although it’s not always easy to juggle with everything else.

Magnussen: Of course. It seems to me that the Institute community is like many other academic communities in that it is home to a fair amount of scholars who enjoy playing music for the love of it. It’s not what they do professionally, but they derive great satisfaction from it.
How has music influenced the way you approach other aspects of your life—particularly your work as an economist? And has this influence evolved since those days when you were pondering what you might do with your music?

Maskin: Well, as a kid I was interested in technical perfection. And a lot of the time I put in was just for developing my technique. So I would play loads of exercises, which I don’t think had much resonance for the rest of my life at all. But now I spend no time on exercises. I just try to play music. The music, I think, is important for my life in a couple of ways. First, it provides a great break from work. Not that it doesn’t require effort, too. It does, but a more physical sort of effort than academic work calls for.
Also music gives me a way to express myself. I guess my writing on economics is a form of expression too, but a pretty impersonal form. It’s all in the third person, while music is very much a first-person activity.
Also, there are some parallels between what I do as an economist and as a musician. There are aesthetic principles in economics as well as in music. And some principles are common to both. For example, symmetry is a concept that obviously plays a big role in music. Interestingly it’s quite important in economics also.

Magnussen: Do you use the word “beauty” in economics, as mathematicians do?

Maskin: Yes. I think it’s fair to say that the most important economic ideas are also the most beautiful. They’re at the same time simple and deep. Just as the profoundest music is often the simplest, pared down to the essentials with no extra notes. People think of music as the most abstract of the arts and of economics as something quite concrete and practical. But economists, at least theoretical economists like me, don’t typically deal directly with reality. Instead they work with models, which are mathematical abstractions of reality. If you’ll forgive me, I think that the art of constructing an economic model shares a lot with the art of composing.

Magnussen: Yes, I think about this in my own work. I’ve always felt that my highest attainment as a composer would be to create a model which balances that specificity which I desire, on one hand, with the freedom which the performers desire in the moment of performance. The hyper-complex music of British composer Brian Ferneyhough, for instance, is so incredibly specific—and very difficult—that it demands a superhuman concentration in practice and performance and months and months of hard work on the part of the performer. This model has the capacity to achieve a strikingly similar result to a free improvisation, if the performers are invested in it. In both models, the ideal performance can bring the performer to a transcendent state.
Have you thought about the model of chamber music-making and the decision-making process that a group must go through in order to arrive at a satisfactory performance? Are you interested in social interactions involving musical contexts?

Maskin: Sure, but in my experience those interactions depend a lot on the particular personalities involved. There’ve been times when my chamber group has almost come to blows over how a particular passage should be played. People felt so strongly and so differently that it wasn’t clear we could come to a reasonable compromise. And on other occasions it’s been a breeze, either because we all had more-or-less the same idea or because people were willing to be a bit flexible.

Magnussen: It certainly sounds familiar in my own chamber music experiences.
I understand that your work on voting procedures has involved arriving at an optimal set of rules for decision making. I’ve often wondered if an optimal set of rules exists today for the choices people make in their music. How do people decide which kind of music to play—or not to play?

Maskin: Hmm, I’m not sure whether my work says anything useful about choosing music. But Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway composer, gave a partial answer when he said that most people—musicians or listeners—gravitate to the familiar in music. Appreciating a particular piece is mainly a matter of whether the ear is used to hearing that kind of music. If so, then the music becomes comprehensible. One problem for recent music is that people just don’t have enough exposure to it to get comfortable with it. Music isn’t taught in schools anymore. There aren’t that many classical music stations left on the radio. And the ones that remain play almost exclusively music that was written before, say, 1940. As for concerts, most of them consist of old chestnuts.
I think your concerts here serve a useful pedagogical purpose because they are unapologetically contemporary. And the great thing is that over time, people have been getting more and more out of them.

Magnussen: Thank you—I appreciate that. The Institute is a special place, and I enjoy it immensely because it offers something extraordinary to the world in each of the many disciplines it encompasses.
It’s wonderful to have you as part of this community—and also that you’re interested in music. Do you find that most people in your field are music players?

Maskin: Maybe not most, but a good many are. The chamber ensembles I’ve been in have included quite a number of academics.

The 2006–07 concert season at the Institute, curated by Magnussen, begins in October. This also marks Magnussen’s last season at the Institute, completing his seven-year term. The season includes A Gate into Infinity: Music from a Modern Japan, with the Flux Quartet and pianist Steven Gosling on October 20 and 21, 2006; A 21st Century Virtuosity, with the New York New Music Ensemble on February 16 and 17, 2007; and The Lyric Impulse, with Trio Solisti and clarinetist Alan Kay on March 30 and 31, 2007. All concerts are held in Wolfensohn Hall. Visit www.ias.edu/air for more information.