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:
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.