The Fake Japanese Beethoven And Musical Cognitive Dissonance

Not a composer, not deaf, and maybe Irish, female, and 12-years old, for all we know.

Not a composer, not deaf, and maybe Irish, female, and 12-years old, for all we know.

There need be no debate about whether this was unethical, or why. It is obviously one of the great arts hoaxes of all time.

Mamoru Samuragochi, the composer sometimes known as “The Japanese Beethoven,” was exposed this week as being more like a Japanese Milli Vanilli. A double fraud, he didn’t compose the works that made him Japan’s most popular classical composer, and he isn’t even really deaf, which was a large element of his fame and notoriety. Samuragochi has perpetrated a long, elaborate, audacious hoax, hiring a musical ghostwriter to compose for him over nearly two decades. The Man Behind the Curtain revealed himself as Takashi Niigaki, a  lecturer at a Tokyo music college, who admitted to writing more than twenty compositions for Samuragochi since 1996, receiving the equivalent of about $70,000.  Samuragochi’s  most famous works include Symphony No. 1 “Hiroshima,” the theme music for the popular video games “Resident Evil” and “Onimusha,” and especially the “Sonatina for Violin,” which is the program music for the Japanese Olympic figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.

What interests me most about this strange story is how it illustrates the power of cognitive dissonance in the arts. It is certain, I would say, that Samuragochi’s music (that is, Niigaki’s music) will become less popular as a result of these revelations. Takahashi, the skater, is afraid that skating to the discredited compositions (re-credited compositions?) will undermine the appreciation of his Olympic program. Yet the music hasn’t changed. Rationally, it shouldn’t  make any difference who wrote it: if it was good, it is still good. Yet experience tells us that the reputation, past accomplishments and popularity of novelists, composers, film directors (hi there, Woody!)  and other artists often dictate the critical response to and assessment of their artistic output.

A recent example of this phenomenon in popular fiction occurred when a relatively unknown writer named Dan Brown produced the mega-best seller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Suddenly, his previous novels, obscure and modest successes at best up to that point, became best sellers too. Yet they hadn’t suddenly become better. Separating the messenger from the message (the actor from the action, the thinker from the idea, the symbol from the entity) is a critical aspect of ethical reasoning as well as the competent evaluation of the world around us, but this is very difficult, and sometimes, almost impossible. There are Shakespeare plays that would have vanished if any other writer were credited with them, and some completely forgotten Elizabethan dramas that would be produced annually at Shakespeare festivals if they had been written by the Bard on an off day. Who knows what haunting tune human ears will never hear again because its composer was Melvin Splurdvunk, and not George Gershwin?

The deaf feature of Samuragochi’s hoax added sympathy and admiration to the mix. If X-Factor legend Susan Boyle were revealed to be, Milli Vanilli-like, a mere prop mouthing for a backstage singer who looked like a more typical female pop star, would the famously unglamorous Boyle’s ventriloquist sell another record? I doubt it: the combination of distrust and disillusionment would overwhelm whatever intrinsic appeal Boyle’s records had. The Japanese composer’s alleged deafness made his music special, somehow…yet the concept is visceral nonsense. The notes are the same, whether the composer is deaf, mad, a serial killer, or looks like Susan Boyle.

We can say that we should separate the artist from his or her art, and we should try. Doing so successfully is another matter.

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Facts: New York Times

11 thoughts on “The Fake Japanese Beethoven And Musical Cognitive Dissonance

  1. We can say that we should separate the artist from his or her art, and we should try.

    Should we? I mean, in an extreme version of this, what if ALL art were meticulously presented as “created by Anonymous” so that only the art itself received recognition? In that case, we lose the ability to appreciate an artist’s style by evaluating the body of work as a whole–nor the ability to appreciate the changes over time to that body of work.

    Sure, Dan Brown’s previous books didn’t get better, but it’s not at all unreasonable for a reader to think “Well, I liked this book, what else did this author write? Maybe I’ll like THAT just as much.” For every author, composer, playwright, actor, etc. that you become a fan of, there had to be some *first* book, song, play, movie that you enjoyed that caused you to look into a second, and then a third, and so on.

    Side note: It could also work against the artist. More Than Words is a beautiful, haunting, melodic, and VERY popular ballad that sounds *nothing* like anything else by the band Extreme. If that’s your most favorite song in the world, you’re still not really a fan of Extreme. (For example, listen to Play With Me, particularly the ending, for a counter-point.)

    –Dwayne

    P.S. Case in point: despite the change of name, it was always clear from the artist’s “style” that Scott Jacobs is “the artist formerly known as AMS”. 🙂

  2. A possibility.
    It’s the experience that makes it art. A deaf conductor/composer is part of the experience.
    Similar to electing a person because it feels good to do something radical and different, and then finding out they aren’t quite ready for the job. I’m referring to Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota of course.

  3. In this case, the artist is the composer. Samurogachi is just a showman, now showing himself to be just as gimmicked as the county fair charlatan, but that just means he’s a different kind of artist and one not to be trusted. The music is still masterful and still art, and with credit going to where credit is due, I see no objection that devalues the music.

    Who knows, maybe Beethoven wasn’t really deaf either…

  4. With Dan Brown and Shakespeare you at least have the visibility factor to account for- when Da Vinci Code went nuclear, people bothered to pay attention to Brown’s other books and discovered them to be enjoyable. The books themselves didn’t get perceived as “better,” just more people perceived them. The weirdness comes in this case, from how a piece of music that’s ALREADY successful and popular can and probably will vanish after the fact, because not the right person wrote it. How odd.

    • There is that, but the effect does exist. Once someone hits a ‘best seller’, it is assumed due to extremely high quality art, whether that assumption is accurate or not. When an artist has created a work that gains that ‘masterpiece’ distinction, there is an illogical connection made that previous works must also have a touch of mastery to them, even if they weren’t masterful.

      Like studying Picasso. His truly masterful works don’t mean his early stuff (like when he probably sucked at art, like most beginners at anything do) was masterful also, but that won’t keep pretentious wine sipping snobs from oohing and aahing over his earliest works like they were divine creations. The same goes for any art.

      Dan Brown’s earlier works may indeed be higher quality than before noticed, or they may have actually sucked, but now we’re gonna culturally say “they were awesome”, because we’re humans and we make dumb connections sometimes.

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