February 01, 2007

I tried to fake it; I don't mind saying, I just can't make it

Here in Massachusetts, we've had a minor outbreak of things not being what they seem. All day yesterday, the Hub of the Universe was anthropomorphically reduced to a nervous old lady with the shades drawn by a bunch of "bombs" that turned out to be misguided guerilla advertising. Then we find out that our boy wonder Red Sox general manager didn't get married at Coney Island after all. Ha, ha! Joke! It's enough to make you pine for simpler times—you know, the kind that Howard Hughes wrote about in his autobiography.

Anyway, I got to thinking why there haven't been more musical hoaxes over the years. I'm not talking about literary hoaxes that revolve around music, which have ranged from the ridiculous (that whole Webern-Nazi thing) to the sublime (Shostakovich's alleged memoirs). I'm talking about creating a piece of music that's presented under false pretenses. The really notable examples don't take up many counting fingers:

  • Violinist Fritz Kreisler had a knack for unearthing forgotten violin works from minor masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. When I say "unearthing," I mean composing. The actual pieces, though, are not bad, and still turn up as encores now and again.
  • In a similar vein, it was confirmed in 1977 that Mozart's early Violin Concerto in D, nicknamed "Adélaïde," had in fact been composed by Marius Casadesus (Robert's uncle) in 1933. Like Kreisler, Casadesus was listed as the editor on the first printed edition. (Apparently, the Casadesus family were such notorious forgers that, as doubts about the "Adélaïde" concerto began to trickle in, the piece was attributed to Marius's brother Henri.)
  • The 1948 discovery of Nikolai Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky's 21st Symphony, dating from 1809, was seen as evidence that early 19th-century Russian composition wasn't as barren as previously thought—until it was revealed as a fraud, most probably composed by its "discoverer," violinist Mikhail Goldstein.
  • French music-lovers were thrilled when, in 1951, a previously lost coronation mass by the Baroque composer Étienne Moulinié was premiered in Paris. They were less thrilled when it turned out the piece was really by Father Emile Martin, the director of the choir that re-premiered the mass.
  • In 1961, the BBC broadcast Piotr Zak's Mobile for Tape and Percussion, which was revealed to be an avant-garde parody cobbled together at random by BBC radio technicians. The spoof fooled at least a couple of critics.

  • One of the reasons there's so few musical hoaxes is that the field is fairly limited: you can either create fake antiquity, or fake avant-garde. The former means running a gauntlet of hungry musicologists. The latter carries with it the very real danger that the genuine article has already surpassed the purported absurdity of the ersatz; that Zak Mobile sounds suspiciously like a retread of John Cage's Williams Mix, doesn't it? (There's also what I'll call the Ern Malley problem—named for an imaginary modernist Australian poet who was invented to mock modernist pretention, and whose supposedly nonsensical poems actually read pretty well.)

    There's another reason musical hoaxes aren't all that prevalent, though, and that's because music is already pretty close to a hoax itself. Think about it: as a listener, you're presented with a sequence of sounds, that may or may not have some arithmetically vibrational relation to each other, being generated by serious-looking people working machines that aren't terribly practical, usually in some sort of formalized setting, and somehow, from this non-figurative gibberish, you convince yourself that these sounds mean something, either emotionally or narratively, and you're moved by it. You're kidding, right?

    On the one hand, yes, of course I'm kidding: music does move us, and for those of us who care enough to waste time reading music blogs, it's a vitally important part of our emotional lives. And the creation of music, unlike a hoax, isn't usually an act of dishonesty. But I've often thought that music is a lot like stage magic. We don't for a second believe that the magician is really sawing the lady in half, but we still enjoy watching the lady get sawn in half. To point out the obvious unreality of the situation ruins the fun. Music is the same way: it doesn't really communicate anything, in the practical sense, but we choose to believe that it does, because that's what opens the door for a meaningful artistic experience.

    Orson Welles, a connoisseur of hoaxes, was also no mean magician himself, and when he performed his magic act as a cameo in Follow the Boys, he introduced it by saying, "We trust you like to be fooled. We hope we fool you." Sometimes I feel the same way as a musician—which is why I think music is pretty barren ground for hoaxes. A hoax involves fooling people without their knowing it; but on a crucial level, the fact that people listen to music means we can trust they like to be fooled.


    Herb Levy said...

    FWIW, Peter Schickele's first parody pieces were pseudo-avant garde, but he quickly realized that they were too easily confused with the real thing. Hence the subsequent discovery of PDQ Bach.

    Matthew said...

    I remember reading a suggestion somewhere (a quick Web search didn't help my memory—if you're reading this and you're the person responsible, let us know, because it was a brilliant idea) that Christopher Guest et al, the ones responsible for Best In Show and A Mighty Wind, should turn their attention to avant-garde music.

    I think one of the reasons I like Cage so much (man, there's been a lot of Cage on this blog lately, hasn't there?) is that his music seems to give the listener permission to find parts of it funny, which, interestingly, makes the beautiful moments that much more beautiful. Something I always try to stay aware of, even in my own comparatively unadventurous music.

    Elaine Fine said...

    Don't forget about the "Albinoni" Adagio (an 8-minute expansion of a fragment by Albinoni written by Remo Giazotto in 1945), and the "Handel" Viola Concerto (written by Henri Casadesus).

    The Kreisler pieces, by the way, are far better than "not bad," and they are still staples of the violinist's diet.

    Alex Ross said...

    F For Fake is the absolute last word on the subject (and the greatest movie of its kind, there being none other).

    Ben.H said...

    What about the California EAR Unit pretending to play the premiere of Frank Zappa's "While You Were Art", while miming to a cassette playing the synthesiser demo of the piece?

    Matthew said...

    I didn't know that EAR Unit story. Now we classical types can face all those Milli Vanilli fans without shame!

    Alex is right on, by the way: "F for Fake" is, for want of better words, unique fun. (Orson Welles and Clifford Irving! Now that's stunt casting—and in a documentary, no less.)

    Ben.H said...

    As if on cue: the Joyce Hatto hoax. Hatto's husband has been releasing CDs of her work which, on closer examination, turn out to be identical to other pianists' recordings.