The Situation of Music
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2007
Denis Dutton, who teaches aesthetics at the University of Canterbury, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times. In it, he describes the late-life blossoming English pianist, Joyce Hatto, who in her 60s and 70s “recorded more than 120 CDs — including many of the most difficult piano pieces ever written, played with breathtaking speed and accuracy.” Dutton explains that she was viewed as “a prodigy of old age,” who had ” an astonishing, chameleon-like artistic ability.” Her husband, who ran the label that recorded her music, recently said of her: “She was a pianist who developed all through her life. It was amazing. She had this wonderful independence of the hands.”
Sound too good to be true? That’s because . . . .
Here, the story becomes a little less uplifting.
Last year, this “greatest living pianist that almost no one has heard of” lost her battle with cancer. And then, very recently, the discovery was made that, in fact, she was not so much a “late bloomer” as a plagiarist.
Her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, had been digitally altering other musicians’ magic and selling it as hers. This scandal has hit the classical music world hard. Andrys Baste, who has been keeping up with the unfolding discoveries on his website, had this to say a few days ago: “this . . . fraud is now considered the most ‘jawdropping’ scandal ever to hit the ‘polite’ world of classical music. A firestorm of talk rages in classical music forums around the globe. And it’s usually not polite :-).”
Then, today, Gramaphone has a story in which it reports the confession, explanation, and apology of Joyce Hatto’s husband, William Barrington-Coupe, who apparently wrote a letter to the classical music magazine explainining that he “deeply regrets what has happened. He feels that he has acted stupidly, dishonestly and unlawfully. However, he maintains that his wife knew nothing of the deception. He also claims that he has not made vast amounts of money from what he has done . . . .” In a later article today in The Telegraph, Barrington-Coupe explained: “It was very complicated and difficult to do, but I just allowed myself to take longer passages than initially because it was easier to fit them in.” He added: “I did it just to keep my wife going and to give her something to live for. She died feeling that it hadn’t all been in vain. She was a very talented musician and piano was her life.”
One question raised in Denis Dutton’s op-ed was how this could have happened. Not, how could Barrington-Coupe (with or without Hatto’s knowledge) have attempted such a hoax? But how could the classical music audience have so easily been taken in?
Dutton suggests that Hatto’s fame grew immensely in the last few years because, the story was so good, and the audience heard what it wanted to hear — magnificent music, by a brilliant, if fading, star who had overcome her age, her struggles with her health, and her anonymity to become not just recognized, but celebrated and admired.
Why didn’t the experts recognize the pieces as someone else’s? According to Dutton, the CDs “usually stole from younger artists who were not household names,” and whose stories were not themselves music to the ears. Perhaps more important:
“the Joyce Hatto episode is a stern reminder of the importance of framing and background in criticism. Music isn’t just about sound; it is about achievement in a larger human sense. If you think an interpretation is by a 74-year-old pianist at the end of her life, it won’t sound quite the same to you as if you think it’s by a 24-year-old piano-competition winner who is just starting out. Beyond all the pretty notes, we want creative engagement and communication from music, we want music to be a bridge to another personality. Otherwise, we might as well feed Chopin scores into a computer.
Dutton then offers what may be the only silver lining of this story:
“The greatest lesson for us all ought to be, however, that there are more fine young pianists out there than most of us realize. If it wasn’t Joyce Hatto, then who did perform those dazzlingly powerful Prokofiev sonatas? Having been so moved by hearing “her” Schubert on the radio, I’ve vowed to honor the real pianist by ordering the proper CD, as soon as I find out who it is. Backhanded credit to Joyce Hatto for having introduced us to some fine new talent.”
Unfortunately, that silver lining may night be so bright, because honoring the musician behind the music may be easier said than done. Our perceptions of the source of music and of its quality may be more closely linked than we recognize or would like to believe.
As is now well known, the a “new Coke” didn’t sell well even though in blind taste tests, consumers preferred its taste. That’s just it: taste isn’t blind, and brand associations matter. The same lesson may not apply to music, but then again it may. No doubt, Joyce Hatto’s star has fallen. But it is not clear that the artists from whom her work “borrowed” will now rise to take her place.
Some evidence of that can be found in the experience of American symphony orchestras, which altered their audition policies in the 1970s and ’80s and moved to “blind auditions,” in which candidates were concealed behind a screen when performing for the jury. Since then, female musicians in the top five symphony orchestras have increased from less than 5% to 25% in 2000. According to one study, a substantial chunk of that change can be attributed to the blind auditions.
While that solution is certainly good news, the problem beneath it is consistent with other evidence that our preferences — including our taste in music — tend not to be as neutral and blind as we suppose. The same concerto associated with any other artist may not sound as sweet.