Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

Even though I took to classical music at a young age like a cheetah takes to a herd of gazelle, it was only a few years before I started noticing that, as in all forms of art, not everything that glitters is gold. Classical music can be as susceptible to smoke, mirrors and hand-waving as any other form of public entertainment. Mozart once called Abbe Vogler (Georg Joseph Vogler 1749 - 1814, teacher of Carl Maria von Weber and others) "a faker pure and simple" and there are many other instances. Sometimes, of course, composers say nasty things about one another just because they are competitors. But other times, the criticism is true as classical music most certainly does have its fakers.

Those selling us fool's gold can do it most easily in the throes of a revolution in music, before any aesthetic criteria have become established. It is more difficult at the end of an era, when only real creative ingenuity can enliven tired forms. The ancients thought music--all art--was mimesis, imitation of nature. But this usually boils down to the creation of illusion. This being so, we can never be quite sure when a composer is having us on. His basic job always involves fooling us to some extent. Take, for example, a composer who decides to depict or represent a battle (the battle of Marignano, 1515, to be specific) using only voices and a text of nonsense syllables. These singers play up the humor, but was it originally meant to be serious? How can we tell? The performance below, of Clement Janequin's La guerre, is done with six singers. Originally it was in four voices with a fifth added by Philippe Verdelot, so I'm not sure where the sixth part comes from.

Another piece of imitation in music is by the viola de gamba player Marin Marais who depicted surgery for removal of a stone from the bladder in his Tableau de l'opĂ©ration de la taille of 1725.

Again, are we supposed to take this seriously? Or is is meant to be funny? Perhaps it depends on whether you have suffered from a kidney stone! Would Mozart call Marais "a faker pure and simple"? In this and the battle piece by Janequin, music is used to 'fake' the sounds of a battle and an operation. As both these pieces have survived, though perhaps only as curiosities, we should probably term them successes. I can imagine lots of imitators whose fakery was less successful, but the music of which has been lost. This is the problem with trying to find good examples of bad music from hundreds of years ago: the winnowing process of history has eliminated them. So let's look a little closer to home. I'm not quite sure how to categorize the next piece. This is a movement from the 'Toy' Symphony by Haydn, a piece for small orchestra and toy instruments as 'soloists'. This piece can be a barrel of laughs especially with either members of the symphony board of directors as soloists or random people from the audience. Great for light relief.

Now here is where the fakery comes: this symphony is not by "Haydn", neither by Joseph, nor his less well-known brother Michael. An early manuscript version of it was copied by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father, in 1759. But even he might not be the author as some research points to Edmund Angerer, an Austrian Benedictine monk working in the later 18th century. Oh, and it's not really a symphony either. The original title was Cassation in G major

Here is another funny piece, the Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio in G major, Op. 129 by none other than Beethoven. It is better known by the title "Rage Over a Lost Penny" which was added to the title page of the autograph by someone else.

This dates from between 1795 and 98, when Beethoven was in his mid-twenties. It is not, as the opus number seems to show, a late work. Beethoven didn't think too much of it as he didn't bother finishing it--the manuscript is incomplete. The publisher Diabelli had it finished and published it after Beethoven's death. It is a pretty good example of Beethoven's rough and earthy humor, though.

So I still haven't found any certain examples of real fakery! I mean music that is not what it seems to be. I mean, music that is presented as 'authentic', but isn't. Sorry for the scare quotes on 'authentic' but it is hard to be sure exactly what is meant by that. Even great and profound music can have aspects that are ironic--just take Shostakovich for example. But here is one genuine fake:

Milli Vanilli won a Grammy in 1990 but it ended in scandal when it was discovered that they didn't actually sing, they just lip-synched to someone else's vocal track. The person who posted this clip to YouTube hilariously comments that "a cursory view will reveal that they are lip-synching." Well, sure: everyone on the Grammys is lip-synching! But usually to themselves-however autotuned! The trouble with pop music these days is that it is hard to tell the real from the fake because most of the 'real' is 'faked'. What happened with Milli Vanilli is that a producer in Germany hired song-writers and arrangers to create 'material', hired session musicians to record it and hired models/dancers to lip-synch it. Which is pretty much how a lot of other musical 'acts' have been formed. The Monkees, for example.

The avant-garde seems to be excellent fertile ground for all kinds of fakery. One reason I suspect this is that composers for the last century have been furiously jockeying for position by inventing something new as often as they can. Some of these 'something news' are pretty unconvincing. For a time in the 60s or 70s a brilliant new musical composition could consist of writing down a phrase on a piece of paper like "sound and allow to ring a C major chord for as long as you can..." Then taking the paper and burning it and putting the ashes in a jar. Later on, in a concert, you could walk on stage, take out the jar, open it and dump it over your head while moaning quietly. Believe it or not, this is only partly made up! Speaking of "brilliant", this is a piece by a composer I have always suspected was having us on. Brillante for piano by Sylvano Bussotti:

Now compare this to the piano music improvised (?) by Gerard Depardieu in this scene from Green Card. Wait for it, it's worth it!

It's not Mozart! So, of these two examples of avant-garde piano music, which is fake and which is authentic? And which is better music? Even more pointedly, which performance is more enjoyable?

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