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.
Facts: New York Times