Month: February 2007

Imitation of life

Barring any sudden revelations involving Riccardo Muti, a beautiful disaffected ex-KGB agent, and a briefcase full of uranium (TOTALLY MADE-UP STORY, although can’t you just see Muti in a plot like that?), the Joyce Hatto brouhaha is certainly shaping up to be the classical music scandal of the year. Just in case you were submerged in therapeutic mud for the past couple of days, here’s the gist: a recluse who lost a long battle with cancer last year, Ms. Hatto nonetheless became a cult favorite among aficionados on the basis of her 100+ CDs released on the tiny Concert Artists label. A great story: a musician, initially denied her chance at greatness, perseveres through her physical difficulty to create a lasting contribution to the art. However, as the magazine Gramophone first reported on Thursday, a handful of those recordings have been revealed as spurious, concocted by repackaging other pianists’ previously existing recordings with slight digital alterations. The evidence is persuasive, to say the least—and it seems likely that more examples are to come. (Lisa Hirsch has all the pertinent links.)

Now I have a fondness for well-executed or particularly brazen hoaxes and forgeries, which I’ve touched on before. What’s interesting to me about this one is that although the words fraud, fake, and hoax have been bandied about quite a bit, as far as I can tell, in the initial reports, only Alan Riding’s write-up in the New York Times (which Jerry at Sequenza21 wittily purloined) calls the situation what it is: plagiarism. Most forgeries involve taking your own work and passing it off as somebody else’s, usually somebody more famous than you. This, if the allegations pan out, is just the opposite: taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.

I’m not surprised that the hoax went undetected for so long. I like to think that I have reasonably savvy ears, but I would doubt my own ability to hear the deception, unless I was specifically listening for it—and who listens to music that way? (To their credit, some people were suspicious from the first.) What’s really intriguing is that no one else (to my knowledge, at least) has tried this before. It would seem to me that classical music recording would provide great opportunities for plagiarism. Why? Because the logistics of performance are pretty close to plagiarism already. Even though there’s no attempt at deception, and there’s full attribution, a pianist playing the Transcendental Etudes is using notes, rhythms, and dynamics set down by Liszt—and, at least textually, nothing else. Any two performances of the same piece are going to be largely the same. Of course, the artistry lies in the slight differences; but what the individual performer brings to the table is a historical anomaly, something that has persisted in music long after the notion of plagiarism erased it from other intellectual pursuits.

In 1747, the English poet John Milton was accused by one William Lauder of plagiarising much of Paradise Lost from a 1654 Latin poem by Jacobus Masenius. The charges were baseless—the Latin lines Milton supposedly stole had, in fact, been added to Masenius’s original by Lauder—which was demonstrated by John Douglas in his 1750 pamphlet Milton Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism Brought Against Him by Mr. Lauder. But Douglas went on to say, in effect, even if the charges were true, it doesn’t matter.

A great Genius looks upon himself as having a Right to convert to his own Use, and in order to furnish out a more perfect Entertainment, whatever has been already prepared and made ready. But he exercises this Right in such a Manner as to convince every one, that his having Recourse to it is not the Effect of Sterility of his Fancy, but to the Solidity of his Judgement. He borrows only to shew his own Talents in heightening, refining and polishing all that is furnished him by others, and thereby secures his Character as a fine Writer, from being confounded with that of the Dull Copyer.

Replace “writer” with “performer,” and that’s as good a description of musical artistry as I’ve ever read. Composers, too, at least at this time: George Buelow, who quotes Douglas in his article “Originality, Genius, Plagiarism in English Criticism of the Eighteenth Century,” goes on to write, “One can only speculate if the greatest composer in England at this time, George Frederic Handel, might have read Douglas’ defense of Milton. For he would have surely nodded in agreement, even though a half century later he too would be accused of plagiarism for having followed much the same principles of imitation in his music.” The virtues of such imitation have long been interred under modern ideas of originality and intellectual property, but their ghosts still haunt classical performance.

I’m not trying to excuse the perpetrators, be they Hatto, her producer-husband, record executives, or some combination of the three. Plagiarism is, to this connoisseur, a particularly poor form of hoaxing, marked by laziness and paucity of imagination. But one wonders if there was more driving the Hatto deception than mere pecuniary gain. It’s interesting to note that the first Western composer to sign his name to his work was doing so to prop up a fraud. Ademar of Charbannes was an 11th-century French monk who, determined to prove that his countryman Martial was one of the original apostles of Jesus, fabricated a Vita of Martial, purportedly by his bishoprical successor, Aurelian. Ademar’s Apostolic Mass was written to commemorate the planned recognition of Martial’s promoted status, but the event was a failure, sabotaged by Ademar’s more famous monastical contemporary, Benedict, who regarded the Martial hagiography as nonsense; Ademar tried to appeal to the pope, but was denied the chance. But he had his revenge: forging letters that made it appear that the pope had indeed heard Ademar’s case and sided with him, he slipped the documents into a library where he knew no one would see them for several generations. Discovered after his death, the accounts were accepted as authentic, a false history that wasn’t unraveled until the 20th century.

Was the Hatto plagiarism something similar? By appropriating the performances of others, was she trying to create an alternate reality, one in which her art triumphed over the vicissitudes of life rather than falling victim to them? It’s certainly a more poetic notion. The cynical side of me doubts that the motives were anywhere near that high-minded; but the artistic side of me wants to believe it, that the fraud was, in its own warped way, a type of performance.

Square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape

Stay with me on this one. There’s this company called LifeGem (based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois—if you’re from Illinois, and you’ve ever been to Elk Grove Village, this will make increasing sense as you read on) and what they do is take someone’s DNA, extract the carbon from it, and use it to make an artificial diamond. It’s kind of like that urn of ashes on the mantel that’s all that remains of your late Aunt Gladys, except in a form that can be mounted in a Tiffany setting. (Now I’m wondering if I could have my DNA coverted into industrial diamonds, and be permanently memorialized on the tip of a high-end drill bit for Arctic ice cores. But I digress.)

Well, as a publicity stunt, they’re making three diamonds from DNA extracted from Beethoven’s hair. The diamonds will be exhibited at various (as yet unannounced) “museums and opera houses” around the world, and then be auctioned off. Mount it on a ring, and maybe you’ll end up starring in your own real-life remake of The Beast With Five Fingers! The hair is being donated by John Reznikoff, who, according to their website, “holds the Guinness World Record for the largest and most valuable collection of celebrity hair”—which, as of now, is the new “Career Objectives” bullet point on my résumé.

Yep, a diamond made out of Beethoven’s hair. Take that, Communism!

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

Sticks and Bricks (off-topic Friday)

In the wake of a fairly stupid list of 150 favorite American buildings that the AIA perpetrated (idiotic example: Louis Sullivan just barely sneaks in at 145, ranked behind, among others, the Bellagio Hotel and two Apple stores), Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes has encouraged everyone to post their own five choices. I seriously considered becoming an architect at one time, and, as my lovely wife can attest to, I am a certifiable nut on the subject, so I have opinions to spare. To keep things honest, I only picked buildings that I’ve personally been to (which explains the high concentration around Chicago and Boston), and I limited individual architects to one slot each. (“Sticks and bricks,” by the way, was the appellation given to the Tudor revival style by my far more knowledgeable classmates in Keith Morgan’s 19th-Century American Architecture class at BU, and I still use it.)

Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company building, Chicago. Louis Sullivan, 1903.

The coolest building in the universe. Here’s why: there’s the ridiculously intricate wrought-iron work at street level, which always gets a lot of attention. There’s also somewhat less intricate decoration around the upper windows. And those windows are placed in a regular grid on the façade. So if you stand right next to the building, as your gaze travels from the wrought-iron to the decoration on the first couple of rows of windows to the upper stories receding in perspective, the amount of decorative detail reaching your eye stays constant. Sullivan was building fractals before anyone knew what a fractal was. Breathtaking. (Really, any Sullivan building would merit this list.)

Fairstead (Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site), Brookline, Mass. F.L. Olmsted (landscape), 1883-.

Again, any Olmsted project could have served (I don’t care that they’re not buildings, his work is better than 99% of the architecture out there, so keep your semantics to yourself), but I’ll go with the grounds around the rambling old farmhouse that was his home and studio for the latter part of his life. In a lot of ways, it’s the ultimate Olmsted project, because at first, it doesn’t seem like he’s really done much of anything, and then you remember that you’re looking at a one-acre residential plot in a Bostonian suburb, and you realize that he’s done everything, every tree, every shrub, every roll in the lawn, and it all flows together like a dream.

Sears Tower, Chicago. Bruce Graham, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, 1973.

I didn’t really appreciate the Sears Tower while I lived in Chicago. It was only after I moved away and started flying into Chicago that I finally got it. Seeing the thing from a plane window, surrounded by other buildings, the staggered square tubes seem to break through the cityscape like columns of granite. It’s a great effect: a mountain peak rising out of a nominally flat landscape. Maybe the International style was less about not emulating biological organicism and more about giving geology a little respect. (Photo by our good friend Mark Meyer.)

MIT Chapel, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. Eero Saarinen, 1955.
Class of 1959 Chapel, Harvard Business School, Boston. Moshe Safdie, 1992.

So there’s these two academic, non-denominational chapels, and they’re both kinda small and intimate, and they’re both circular, and they both have significant water elements (moat at MIT, interior koi pond at HBS), and they’re both done in a modern style that nevertheless includes intriguing, idiosyncratic personal details. Lucky for Safdie he’s so good, otherwise this would have plagiarism written all over it. Really, though, it’s the differences that make each building: Safdie builds around a prismatic skylight that renders everything reflective and cool, Saarinen encases his geometric space in nubbly, irregular brickwork that’s human and warm. News you can use: both spaces make terrific untraditional chamber music venues.

Music Box Theater, Chicago. Louis A. Simon, 1929.

The plush velvet seating, the plaster faux-Venetian-palazzo details, the clouds painted on the vaulted ceiling, complete with electric blinking stars—you begin to know why movies were such a big deal back in the day. Think of it as a sublime pop version of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and you start to sense some of the magic. I remember seeing both Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse and Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here during my DePaul days, and it was the perfect venue for both. Neat trick.

Honorable Mentions (any of which might have made the top five on a different day): Tribune Tower, Chicago (Howells & Hood, 1925; my wife’s favorite building—detail at left); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (Willard T. Sears, 1923); Stata Center, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. (Frank Gehry, 2004); The Frick Collection, New York (Thomas Hastings, 1914); Mount Rushmore Visitors’ Center, South Dakota (the old one, by Harold Spitznagel & Associates, 1957-63; demolished in 1994); Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass. (William Rawn Associates, 1994); and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Variations (3): Certain rat, dans une cuisine établi

This study reveals that the ultrasonic vocalizations of the mouse have the characteristics of song. Qualitatively, this is apparent directly from playback of pitch-shifted audio recordings; we have also provided quantitative evidence for the usage of distinct syllable types arranged in nonrandom, repeated temporal sequences. These songs satisfy Broughton’s sensu stricto definition of song, as well as many aspects of his sensu strictissimo…. While courtship songs are common among birds, insects, and frogs, song has only rarely been documented in mammals, and to our knowledge only in humans, whales, and bats. However, some rodent species display a variety of calls and at least one other, the rat Dactylomys dactylilnus, utters long sequences of vocalizations that contain some syllabic diversity.

—Timothy E. Holy and Zhongsheng Guo,
“Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice,”
PLoS Biology, December 2005

If our present society should disintegrate—and who dare prophesy that it won’t?—this old-fashioned and démodé figure will become clearer: the Bohemian, the outsider, the parasite, the rat—one of those figures which have at present no function either in a warring or a peaceful world. It may not be dignified to be a rat, but many of the ships are sinking, which is not dignified either—the officials did not build them properly. Myself, I would sooner be a swimming rat than a sinking ship—at all events I can look around me for a little longer—and I remember how one of us, a rat with particularly bright eyes called Shelley, squeaked out, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” before he vanished into the waters of the Mediterranean.

—E. M. Forster, “Art for Art’s Sake” (1949),
reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy

Omnia vincit amor

One of the most common slams against modernism is that it’s no good for love songs. I think that’s nonsense, as long as your conception of “love song” ranges beyond trite ditties of the “June-moon-spoon” variety. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s a gorgeous piece I found this week. The late Paul Cooper’s Love Songs and Dances was written in 1987, and was dedicated to Ross Lee Finney and his wife. This is grown-up love, rich, deep, sometimes maddening, sometimes magical, always surprising, and sublime—that last movement positively glows. Listen to it here. (Here’s some nice tributes to Cooper.)

Painting by Benjamin West.

Safety Last

Hey, one of our favorite people here at Soho the Dog HQ picked up a couple of Grammys last light. Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar won for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. ¡Felicitaciones! As for the rest of the Grammys, suffice to say that Bon Jovi won for a country song. And Lenny Gomulka was robbed. Robbed.

Here’s some good timing: Opera Boston announced this week that they’ll present Ainadamar next season, along with Handel’s Semele and Verdi’s Ernani. Pretty interesting season, no? Also this week, the other opera company in town, Boston Lyric Opera, announced their upcoming season: La Bohéme, Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio—not so interesting. I mean, I’m a committed Elixir junkie, but if you only get three slots a year, you might want to perhaps survey some repertoire that isn’t also being sung by college training programs around town. (BU put on Bohéme not long ago; Boston Conservatory is mounting Elixir this spring.) BLO’s general manager was quoted as saying, “Our recent audience survey says that both single-ticket and subscription buyers are saying that they really prefer the top 10 or 20 operas, and lesser-known masterworks by popular composers.” Hmmm… you asked your audience what operas they liked, and they failed to mention any pieces they didn’t know? What a shocker. You know, if your idea of management is giving the customer what they already know they want, there’s a bright future for you in retail fast-food sales.

Here’s a fun stat: with Ainadamar, Opera Boston will have presented more works by living composers since 2003 than BLO has in their entire history (going back 30 years). Can you guess who’ll be the beneficiary of my pocket money?

Dogs are not allowed in library

I’ve been awfully busy today, so in lieu of a proper post, I set critic-at-large Moe loose at the Library of Congress. It’s not like he’s been doing that much reviewing lately—time to step up and start earning that steady stream of tennis balls and freeze-dried liver treats! (There he is at right, resting after his labors.) Anyway, after sniffing around for a couple of hours, here’s what he came up with:

“Dogs,” a pretty funny old Barbary Coast ditty, as performed by Byron Coffin, Sr. in 1939 (audio recording).

Portait of Mister (Billie Holiday’s dog),
photo by William Gottleib.
“That Mastiff Dog She Bought,” comic song by F. E. Galbraith, 1879 (sheet music).

Poster by Earl Schuler.
“Mr. Bethel Dog Bit Me,” a Bahamian folksong, as performed by Theodore Rolle (“Tea Roll”) in 1940 (audio recording).

Aaron Copland, his German landlady, and her dog,
photographer unknown, 1927.
(In retrospect, I should have guessed this was coming.)