Millions of deaf Beethovens. Or: the things we do for hype.
The Japanese music world was recently shocked by the scandal surrounding the famous composer Mamoru Samuragochi, a composer from the city of Hiroshima who was known for his romantically overblown symphonies and music for popular computer games like Resident Evil. Samuragochi’s main attraction as a media figure was his complete deafness and also part-paralysis (he was never seen without a walking cane) which was understood as being the result of his parents both being „hibakusha“ – radiation victims from the bombing of Hiroshima.
After an interviewer in 2013 noted inconsistencies in Samuragochi’s supposedly „deaf“ behaviour (he reacted to a ringing doorbell and could understand the questions before the sign language interpreter translated them…duh!) it slowly transpired that Samuragochi was neither deaf nor in any way handicapped. Even worse: not a single piece of his music was written by him but instead by ghost-writing composer Takashi Niigaki. As Samuragochi had dropped out from music studies he actually didn’t possess the skills needed for composing!
This recently edited wikipedia entry tells the full story.
Oh, the things we do for love (as Jaime Lannister is known to say). What is it about these „interesting“ biographic composer stories that seem to generate so much more curiosity in the music than…eh….the music itself? Why do composers have to be deaf, blind, mute and handicapped to attract attention? Or better: all at once (like in „The Who“’s „Tommy“)?
Why do they have to be eccentric Italian millionaires, who never wrote a note themselves but instead had other composers write out obscure improvisations on a hammond organ (like Scelsi)? Or to have lived as hobos hand-to-mouth, building their instruments from discarded pieces of junk (like Harry Partch)? Or to literally live in the gutter as a street musician, begging for survival while being an underrated genius (like Moondog)?
Incidentally I actually DO like the music of the composers mentioned above, but often I have the feeling, that their curious biographies overshadows their artistic work. And one may dare to ask the sacrilegeous questions: How famous would Beethoven be, if he hadn’t been deaf in his late years (which in the mind of most people translates to: he was deaf all his life)? How famous Mozart, if he didn’t have a wonderfully tragic biography and wasn’t thrown in a poor men’s grave? How famous Schumann, if he hadn’t jumped into the Rhine or spoken with angels?
The sad fact is that we, the public, just love sad biographies like that. We are attracted to the outcasts, the sufferers, the weirdos, the crazy. Most people have the feeling that they cannot really judge the quality of music or recognize its value. But they certainly can remember a good story!
And this is not only about composers – Art history in general loves stories like the supposedly absinth-crazed and ear-lobbing Van Gogh or the alcoholic sociopath Dylan Thomas. The more tragedy and drama an artist can assemble the more are the chances that his work will be discussed in the feuilletons for many years to come. Many recent careers in the music business work in a similar vein – the supposedly deaf (or only a little deaf or perhaps a tiny weeny bit deaf) Evelyn Glennie comes to mind, or Thomas Quasthoff. I am not saying that these aren’t good artists (they are), but the public perceives them as interesting for not only reasons of talent. Or rather their record labels and managers like to have the audience think that way.
When I was a student me and my fellow composition students were sometimes annoyed, how every few months the arts pages went crazy about some new composer with an interesting biography. We sometimes joked that we should cut our legs off, spend some time in a Palestine terror camp or at least should simply get beaten up by skinheads to attract attention.
Out of this joke we created an imaginary composer with a „perfect“ biography – an East German woman who suffered under the severy scrutiny of the East German Stasi, of course a child prodigy… first an unhappy marriage to a party official, then her only child abducted by Russian spies and killed in a Gulag… then a spectacular flight to West Germany…living as a homeless person for quite a while, then discovered by a famous mentor who wishes to remain anonymous.
One of us wrote a piece for this non-existing composer, which was performed in a concert where we knew that one of the chief contemporary music reviewers would be there. One of our female friends was dressed up as the imaginary composer, complete with absurd wig and trenchcoat, quickly getting up on stage and bowing after the performance, than vanishing immediately.
To nobody’s surprise the review about her music was euphoric, while also making a point of condemning all the other bad pieces by normal student composers as being „inferior“ to this brave woman’s work.
(thanks to Steffen Wick for the tip on Samuragochi)