He appears to be one of Japan’s leading composers, although I confess I’d never heard of him. Mamoru Samuragochi’s original claim to fame lay in composing video game soundtracks. The recording of his first symphony, subtitled “Hiroshima” and lasting well over an hour, sold more than 100,000 copies in Japan after its 2011 premiere. He has long hair, wears dark glasses, and was said to be deaf. This week, his professional identity was exploded when a music teacher named Takashi Niigaki revealed that for the past 18 years he had in fact been writing Samuragochi’s putative works. And by the way, Samuragochi wasn’t deaf at all.
The response has been swift, international, and, as seems to be the nature of these things, self-righteous. Fraud, fraud, scream the headlines. Samuragochi’s CDs are being pulled from the shelves of Japanese record stores; his publisher is ceasing printing his scores. The issue even touches the Olympic Games; Daisuke Takahashi, the men’s ice skating bronze medalist in 2010, is skating his short program to music that was supposed to be by Samuragochi. He has often been asked over the last couple of days whether he will change his program.
Fraud, and plagiarism, and copyright violation, and intellectual property rights, represent a conglomerate of hot-button topics in the digital universe. Artistic fraud, of course, is not a phenomenon of the digital age; far from it. Forgeries have been a staple and scourge of the visual-arts world throughout art history, from Han van Meegeren’s Vermeers to Courbet’s imitators back to the time when Michelangelo allegedly made a statue of Cupid and buried it to artificially age it so it would look like an actual Roman or Greek artifact, which would mean he could sell it for more money.
The trope of a man asking someone else to write music in his name is not new, either. A famous predecessor of Samuragochi is Franz von Walsegg, an Austrian nobleman who used to commission works from composers and pass them off as his own (Mozart’s final Requiem being the most famous example).
Between these examples lies a key difference that gets obscured in the dust-cloud of cries of “fraud” and “cheating” and “inauthenticity” that has risen up around the story, as it always rises up when such topics come up today. It’s one thing to paint or write or compose something and pass it off as the work of an established, famous artist, like the fake Jackson Pollocks the Knoedler gallery sold to well-heeled buyers. That’s fraud. It’s another thing to create a work of art that is destined to enter the world under false premises, like the Mozart Requiem.
There’s a qualitative difference. One is real art under an assumed name. And one is a counterfeit. You can debate this point; you can say that some forgeries are better than others, or that forgeries represent a valid artistic statement of their own. The fact remains that Van Meegeren’s counterfeit “Vermeers” make us chuckle today, while Mozart’s Requiem moves us profoundly, and von Walsegg’s name is nearly forgotten.
So here’s the question I haven’t heard asked much about Samuragochi’s music — or rather, Niigaki’s music: is it any good? And if it is good, why is everyone so quick to pull it off the shelves? Samuragochi, certainly, was a fraud: but was his work? If it was really so exciting, why are we not racing to grant Niigaki the same accolades that were granted to him?
That is: is Niigaki a van Meegeren, whose work is only interesting when it was thought to be by someone else, or a Mozart, whose work speaks for itself?
There’s a third possibility, one that doesn’t, in today’s creative world, necessarily merit the term “fraud” at all. Niigaki is not, to judge from pictures, a man with the same flair or knack for self-promotion as Samuragochi. He was also a man who was willing, over 18 years, for a total of about $70,000, to write more than 20 works under someone else’s name. Did he always have an 82-minute symphony lurking inside him? Perhaps he needed outside spurring — Samuragochi has said he provided the ideas — to create something on a larger scale than he would have attempted himself.
In which case the Samuragochi-Niigaki story, balanced on the line between authorship and collaboration, genius and fraud, may actually be an example of a fairly common model of contemporary creation: one person comes up with ideas, and other people realize them. Think Jeff Koons, think Ai Weiwei, think of the many other well-branded contemporary artists who have “their” works created by whole teams of artists and craftsmen. Think Paul McCartney, writing the Liverpool Oratorio, a piece that was actually pulled together and orchestrated by Carl Davis. The only difference is that Samuragochi tried to conceal the terms of the compact, and outright deceit is the one thing that today’s audience, living in perpetual if partly concealed fear of being fooled or taken in, will never, ever tolerate.
Sadly, most people will probably pass judgment and move on without actually bothering to listen to any of the music, even the long, tonal, rambling, expressive, sometimes lovely, sometimes tedious Hiroshima Symphony. But international audiences will hear one example soon enough: the Sonatina for Violin in Takahashi’s Olympic short program, which — since these things take months to choreograph — Takahashi can’t change at short notice. Some people have found the music profound and inspiring, a rare moment of authenticity in the superficial milieu of figure-skating music. Well: authenticity proves to be the wrong word. But let’s see how well this piece, and Samuragochi/Niigaki’s other music, stands up in this and other arenas now that it has been either debunked, or revealed.