Sounding it out

Why does Samuragochi’s musical fraud put artistic value in question?

Takashi Niigaki, Samuragochi’s ghost writer. Eugene Hoshiko/AP

The recent exposure of deaf Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi as a fraud prompts interesting questions about the attribution of authors to works, the importance of back-story and the reliance we have on notions of authenticity.

First came the revelation of fraudulent attribution when it was reported that 50-year-old Samuragochi was not, in fact, the composer of the works which had made him famous. The popular Symphony No. 1, known as “Hiroshima”, and “Sonatina for Violin”, a piece chosen to accompany the figure skater Daisuke Takahashi at the winter Olympics in Sochi, were among a number of works authored by Samuragochi’s “partner in crime”, Tokyo music lecturer Takashi Niigaki.

But the story might not have gained the force it did, were it not for the fact that Samuragochi’s reputation rested on the belief that he had composed work despite being profoundly deaf since the age of 35. When Niigaki decided to break his silence on the conspiracy, he threw in the additional bombshell that Samuragochi was not even deaf.

While news stories have tended to overlook the various gradations of hearing impairment that might qualify a person as deaf, it is still the case that deafness was a vital feature of the composer’s public persona, even earning him the title of “Japanese Beethoven”.

This provided Samuragochi with a sincerely emotional story, as did the fact that his parents were among those exposed to radiation during the bombing of Hiroshima. Given the public’s thirst for back-story when it comes to public figures, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Hiroshima Symphony would resonate on a deep emotional level.

This inevitably raises the question of whether the story behind a work of art is more important than the work itself. Connected to this are longstanding assumptions about taste and cultural capital. When the New York Times reported on the Samuragochi affair, a lengthy comments section brought many of these issues to the fore, not a few of them tainted by cultural prejudices of one kind or another.

Amongst the various perspectives provided by comments were claims that the exposure of the fraud shouldn’t lessen the value of the work once attribution was changed. Others, meanwhile, were keen to evaluate the work itself, denigrating it as old-fashioned and hackneyed and suggesting that the story was all that gave it meaning. Some wished to assert the extent to which the story exemplified or contradicted Japanese norms.

This response exposes assumptions we have about the relationship between art and artists, between popular culture and the apparently beleaguered world of the “high arts”.

“Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier,” once said Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist who scrutinised the ways in which people are distinguished – and distinguish themselves – in the judgements they make about other people’s cultural practices. Stories such as Samuragochi’s invite such distinctions. The composer’s audience, we are told, was duped by his Samuragochi’s story into believing the music was good. And some have been equally affected by the recent story into believing that the music is bad.

Ultimately, as the numerous comparisons to the Milli Vanilli affair suggest, it all comes down to authenticity, to our need to find truth in art and to believe that what we see and hear is both real and, preferably, the product of an identifiable “genius”. What we’re perhaps less willing to admit is the extent to which we let ourselves be deceived to achieve these ends.