Sunday, August 31, 2014

Plagiarism, Copying and Forgery

I was in an art gallery the other day and saw a painting that looked to me a lot like Mark Rothko. I mentioned this to the artist and she said, yes, she had done an imitation of a Rothko painting as a prop for a play that was recently produced here. That prompted a little discussion about art forgery and famous forgers. I casually dropped the remark that you can't forge music, which garnered some quizzical expressions. I actually put up a post about this a couple of years ago, here. But it is such a fascinating phenomenon that I think it is worth revisiting.

What is a forgery and why can't a piece of music be forged? Here is a pretty good Wikipedia article about art forgery. The interesting thing might be that forging artworks could well be more lucrative than forging $100 bills. The reason is that a forged artwork could be worth millions of dollars, which is a lot of $100 bills. Also, there are a lot of very highly-trained professionals working full time to catch people that forge currency, but far fewer are working on uncovering forged works of art. Also, the $100 bills are designed to be hard to forge, but artworks are not. And the means of detecting a forgery vary greatly depending on the period and medium. How would you detect a Rauschenberg forgery? Or one of Mark Rothko?

Now, why can't you forge a piece of music? In my previous post I explained it like this:
[A forgery] can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. There can be hundreds of copies, both written and printed, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and thousands of performances and they can all be authentic as long as they follow the specifications of the score. In this theory it is inherently impossible to forge a Beethoven symphony even though you might be able to forge a manuscript copy of one.
The core of the problem is the ontological nature of music or any performing art. A Beethoven symphony exists in the original manuscript, but also in the printed editions and in accurate performances. Is a disco version of a Beethoven symphony still the symphony? Only partly, because some of the specifications have been altered significantly. You could get into a lot of philosophical conundrums about this if you get too abstract. You might start asking if a piece of music is still the same piece of music if it is transposed to a different key. The answer is yes because if we look at actual musical practice, singers, for example, often sing music transposed to suit their voice and listeners accept these changes easily. So, same piece. But if you took a Beethoven symphony and transposed it up seven octaves or down seven octaves, that would change its character so much that it would no longer be recognizable as the piece. Similarly, I can recall hearing a very, very bad guitarist practicing an etude by Villa-Lobos and playing it so badly it was at first unrecognizable, even to me, who knew the piece from memory!

This "recognizing" factor is important, I think. By recognizing a performance of a piece of music with which we are familiar, we acknowledge THAT it is a performance of that piece. An unrecognizable performance is one that is in some way, NOT that piece. As I said before, the history of the production is not important, but the character is. You can take a Beethoven symphony, accurately record it, subject it to some kind of cryptography and, as long as you are able to decode it later on, you can play it back and it will be, ontologically, that same symphony. This is exactly what happens every day as nowadays, all recordings are digital, which means that analog sound waves are transformed into zeros and ones with an analog to digital converter and then the process is reversed on playback.

Now here is where it gets interesting and I don't recall reading any discussion of this point: can you "recognize" a symphony as being by Beethoven if it is not actually by him, but a clever imitation? Before you answer, let me mention a symphony that for a very long time was thought to be by Mozart as he himself passed it off as his own work. In my previous post I discussed it:
Occasionally composers do something a bit nefarious when they take music from another composer and pass it off as their own. In 1783 Mozart took a symphony by Michael Haydn, revised the wind parts throughout and added a slow introduction to the first movement. He then performed it in a concert along with his Symphony No. 36, where it was undoubtedly accepted as his own work. That most of the symphony was actually by Michael Haydn wasn't discovered until 1907.
Michael Haydn was Joseph Haydn's less-talented brother. So, for over a hundred years people "recognized" this as a symphony by Mozart when it mostly wasn't. So why couldn't someone "forge" a Beethoven symphony and sell the original manuscript, suitably aged, for lots of money? I imagined how this might happen as follows:
However, it is certainly possible to create a parody of a work by Beethoven. Imagine a musicologist, a composer and a manuscript forger getting together and writing a new composition so closely imitating the style of Beethoven that it could fool not only listeners but also professional musicians and other musicologists. Once written, the score would be handed over to a forger who would create, on old paper and with old inks, an exact facsimile of a typical Beethoven manuscript, scribbles and all. This could then be announced to the world and given a big premiere. This is highly unlikely for many reasons. First of all, there wouldn't be the millions of dollars of potential profit enough to attract people good enough to bring it off. Second, we have a pretty extensive knowledge of Beethoven's life and it would be difficult to find a niche big enough for a whole symphony to have been composed with no clues in the biographical material.
 The more I think of it, the less likely it seems. Mozart's works are so numerous and of such a wide range of quality (he began composing when he was five years old!) and so varied in style (his father wrote to him that he could imitate any style) that it is quite possible to be mistaken about the authenticity of a piece by Mozart. He actually wrote only a bit more than half of his Requiem, which was finished by a student, but we accept the whole of it as "Mozart". But with Beethoven, the situation is a bit different.

For one thing, as I mention, we know Beethoven's biography so well, and have so much documentary evidence in the form of sketchbooks and conversation books that finding a way to squeeze a new symphony by Beethoven into the narrative would be extremely difficult. On another level entirely, each symphony by Beethoven, even ones like the Symphony No. 8, are so individual, so unique, that it is frankly beyond the bounds of the believable to imagine someone being able to come up with a new Beethoven symphony. Each one is like a milestone in music history. Mind you, so is Schubert's unfinished symphony, which languished unperformed for decades before it was discovered by Schumann. But this was an authentic symphony by Schubert, and one of earth-shaking importance. I believe very firmly that the only person who could really write a Beethoven symphony was Beethoven! Simply while it is certainly possible to copy the style, say, of the Eroica or the Pastoral, but it is not possible, I firmly believe, for someone to originate a piece in a new Beethoven style. Because this is what he did: he invented a new style, a new idiom for each symphony. And that is what you can't copy.

Beethoven wrote ONE Moonlight Sonata and ONE Hammerklavier Sonata and never imitated himself, which is why you can't write a new piano sonata in the style of Beethoven unless you can write one that is as different from both of those sonatas as they are from one another.

So this is why you can't forge a piece of music, though you can certainly plagiarize one...

Let's listen to those two piano sonatas, just to underline the point. First, the Moonlight Sonata, first movement:

And now the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata:


Anonymous said...

I read your post twice and still don't understand your point. If it is that music can't be forged then why do you spend so much time telling us how different Mozart and Beethoven are, thus suggesting that Mozart could be forged but Beethoven can't?

Do you believe that Vivaldi can't be forged? I think Kreisler was successful in doing just that for a while.

Perhaps you mean to say that true genius can't be plagiarized. But then perhaps the reason Rauschenberg and Rothko can be forged is that they're second-rate artists.

I just don't see why music is so different from other art form in that regard. I am sorry I didn't understand your point.

Anonymous said...

oops... I wrote "genius can't be plagiarized" but meant "genius can't be forged"

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. The philosophy of music, of which this is an example, can get pretty hazy! I welcome the opportunity to try and clarify. I think that there is a strong point and a weak point that can be made here. The weak point is that, following the distinction of Nelson Goodman that I mentioned:

"[A forgery] can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. "

An original authentic Vermeer is highly valuable because there can be only one instance of it. What a forger is forging is the possibility of an instance of a Vermeer original. There may be only one original of a Beethoven manuscript and while it is certainly worth something, mostly to editors and musicologists, it has no particular AESTHETIC value as, with all performing arts, the artform is in the multiple realizations of the work. Every performance of the music is an authentic instance of it.

The stronger point that I made is a lot fuzzier and does not come from Goodman. I am making the observation that some composers, some of the time, are writing music for fairly prosaic purposes that could be imitated fairly easily. A lot of Vivaldi and even a lot of Mozart would fall into this category. When a pianist does a party trick by doing variations on "Happy Birthday" in the style of various composers, he is simply imitating some superficial aspects of their style. But other composers, at least some of the time, are writing music of such tremendous originality, that it would be well nigh impossible for anyone to imitate the creative act of inventing that particular style, though you could, again, imitate the superficial aspects of it.

Anyone could write something imitating the Moonlight Sonata or the Hammerklavier Sonata, but try inventing a new style just as good and just as original. That was something only Beethoven could do.

You see my point?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation. You seem to be saying that Beethoven was so special that one would have to be, well, Beethoven, to produce something that passes as a Beethoven composition. I agree.

You also seem to be saying that painting is fundamentally different. One could forge a Rothko and get away with it. I agree. But is the reason perhaps that a Rothko is not much? There's very little information contents in his paintings. To forget a Rothko can't be that hard. Any Andy Warhol is essentially a self-forgery.

But could one forge the Pieta or the Night Watch, that is, produce a work of art and (i) have people believe it's by Michelangelo or Rembrandt *and* (ii) create in people a similar sentiment of awe and genius in the presence of such art.

I very much doubt it.

Anonymous said...

forget -> forge

(I can't type... apologies)

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm certainly not well-informed on the subject, but as I recall, there have been a number of successful forgers who fooled a lot of experts. One of the best-known is Han van Meegeren and there is quite a good Wikipedia article on him. With great technical skills he forged Vermeers so successfully as to fool the Vermeer experts. He only confessed to his forgeries when he was on trial for treason for selling one of his Vermeers to the Nazis. The charge was treason and the penalty death, so he proved to the court that what he had sold was not a real Vermeer, but a forgery.