authenticity

Scandal!

It’s not often that we get a full-blown scandal involving a classical-music composer, but the strange revelations about Japanese “composer” Mamoru Samuragochi (as reported recently in this New York Times article) definitely qualify. Apparently Mr. Samuragochi, a well-known and even beloved figure in the Japanese music world, admitted that most of his music for the last couple of decades had been composed by someone else. It turned out that this was because this ghostwriter (ghostcomposer?), Takashi Niigaki, had told his story to a tabloid. The ostensible reason? One of Japan’s Olympic figure skaters is skating to one of…their…pieces.

This is far worse than a plagiarism issue, such as the one that briefly roiled Osvaldo Golijov’s career a few years back. It’s an entire career that’s being exposed as misattributed, not just one piece. Adding to the shock, Niigaki let drop that Samuragochi has only been pretending to be deaf (the comparisons with Beethoven had not been lacking, apparently).

As reprehensible as all this is, I find myself wondering about the music. Obviously, it’s pretty good stuff—or, at least, a lot of people like it. (I’m not going near that question with a ten-foot pole, at least not today.) To what extent does our knowledge of the composer influence our reception of the music? If it’s a good piece of music, it’s a good piece of music no matter who wrote it, right? We still hum “Brahms’ Lullaby” to our kids, even though it’s pretty common knowledge now that Brahms probably didn’t write it. Somebody wrote all those pieces in Haydn’s catalog now labeled “doubtful.” Most of the world thinks of pop songs as having been written by the people who sang them, rather than the people who wrote them. If it were to be proven, as I’ve heard asserted, that the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” was actually written by Anna Magdalena Bach rather than J. S. Bach, it would still be a pretty good bunch of easy piano pieces, wouldn’t it?

Why do I think, though, that rather than all of Samuragochi’s music being reissued with Niigaki’s name on it, the music will just be…disappeared? Why do I think that, rather than being hailed as the real genius composer, Niigaki will be reviled? The issues of authenticity will completely overwhelm any questions about the value of the music, and I find that kind of sad.

Another interesting aspect of this story is: wait, Japan has a superstar classical composer? Such a thing still exists? The online comments on the Times article were really reaching to try and find comparisons; one imagined Philip Glass revealing he hadn’t written his own music, another Stevie Wonder adding to a similar revelation the fact that he wasn’t really blind. I can’t really think of a living American composer working in a classical idiom who has the kind of visibility the Times article implies; John Williams might be the closest thing.

I do hope someone eventually turns this into an opera. It certainly sounds like an opera plot. Apparently Samuragochi kept Niigaki continuing with the fraud by threatening to commit suicide—what an aria that would make!

For anyone wanting to hear the music, here’s Samuragochi, I mean Niigaki’s Symphony #1:

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Present Company Included

I’ve been wondering what to call the kind of music made by musicians onstage with unamplified instruments or voices.

You’d think it’d be “live” music, but ever since I’ve seen advertisements for functions with a “live DJ,” the word has become inadequate to the task. (No disrespect intended to the many talented DJs out there who are artists and true performers—it’s just not what I’m trying to find a word for.)

“Acoustic” music seems the next logical choice,—except that “acoustic” also now refers to a particular style of pop and recorded music, in which the instruments aren’t audibly processed, except for being recorded. So, again, the word’s been pressed into other uses.

“Concert” music doesn’t do it, because large chunks of the contemporary concert world, especially, are devoted to the use of electronic sounds sources or processing.

So, rather than have to refer to a piece for, say, unamplified string quartet and soprano as “live acoustic concert music,” I’m proposing: “present music”.

This term would apply to air vibrations created by strings, columns of air, struck objects or vocal chords, rather than by speakers. It’s what William Safire called a “retronym,” a word for something you didn’t use to need a word for. (His example was “rotary telephone.”)

Why would a word like that be necessary? Why set that particular old-fashioned type of sound production apart from all the others? Because of what it has that speaker music doesn’t: physical presence and authenticity. We are animals, bodies made of meat. We respond to music with our bodies as well as our brains, and we respond to the effort and art of a performance that’s created in front of us unmediated by anything except air in a way that’s qualitatively different from the way we respond to any other kind of music.

Please note, I’m not claiming superiority—just special status. As recorded music creeps ever closer to being the only kind of music most people ever hear, something is in danger of being lost. Please give a hug to any performer you know who still makes music without an amplifier!