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Musical fraud

February 21, 2014

BLT co-blogger Victoria has published a brilliant interview about music and theology here; and I encourage you to read it.  I want to talk about an aesthetically simpler issue:  musical fraud.

I rarely watch television, and I don’t subscribe to cable, but I do have a Tivo box to record over-the-air television.  I’m about one week behind on watching the Sochi Olympics, and thus only last night did I watch Daisuke Takahashi’s free skate performance to the soundtrack of Mamoru Samuragochi’s Sonatina for Violin.  When I saw it I was outraged.  I was outraged because Samuragochi is a fraud.


Mamoru Samuragochi’s claim to fame is that he has been a brilliant Japanese classical composer who is deaf.  However, we now know that there are three problems with that claim:

  1. Samuragochi did not compose the musical works attributed to him.

    Takashi Niigaki composed Sonatina, for example:  “Niigaki said he created the pieces based on Samuragochi’s instructions and images. He said Samuragochi is incapable of penning his own scores.”

    And in fact, in an apparent publicity stunt, the piece was “composed” for a violinist with an artificial arm:  “the most calculated part of the story involves Mikkun — Miku Okubo, the teenage violinist for whom Samuragochi ‘wrote’ the Sonatina, which went on to sell more than 100,000 CDs. While Mikkun had already been noticed by the media because of her artificial bowing arm, Samuragochi’s attentions have made her even more famous. Niigaki suggests it was he who told Samuragochi about her, since Niigaki had been her accompanist when she was a little girl and he was close to her family.”

  2. Samuragochi apparently has normal hearing. 

    Niigaki said that “that he never felt that Samuragochi was deaf and that he carried on normal conversations with him. He explained that he often composed melody fragments based on ideas provided by Samuragochi, played them on the piano and recorded them. He then let Samuragochi listen to them and choose from among them, then he composed a bigger piece based on the chosen melodies.”

    From another story:  “many of the elements that contributed to his story sound as if they were engineered to make it more affecting. In an article he wrote for Shukan Bunshun, Norio Kamiyama describes how once Samuragochi became a public figure, he always wore black, as if in mourning, and sunglasses, because bright lights made his ears ring. He walked with a cane, and his left hand was bound with tape because he suffered from tendonitis. As for the deafness that earned him the sobriquet ‘the Japanese Beethoven,’ it developed late in life, which meant he could speak with ‘normal’ pronunciation but tended to use a sign-language interpreter during interviews. Last week, Samuragochi admitted his hearing ‘returned’ three years ago.”

  3. Samuragochi is not brilliant.

    One summary:  “Though a number of critics have said, mainly in hindsight, that Samuragochi’s most famous work, the 80-minute Hiroshima Symphony, is basically an amateurish Mahler pastiche, it has sold more than 180,000 CDs, impressive even for an established artist.”

Now, this is absolutely craven.  Can there really be any doubt that any number of people were in on the con?  Here, a classical “composer” was given the “J-Idol” treatment.  We are used to this in Japanese pop music – cute but talentless adolescents being presented as “the next big thing” when their sole contribution to music may simply be lip synching (of course, this happens in Western pop music too, as any Milli Vanilli fan knows.)  But who could imagine that this would happen in classical music.

The degree of calculation here is just absurd:  we do, in fact, celebrate Beethoven’s late compositions  – not because he was deaf, but because he was a brilliant composer.  We do study Leonhard Euler’s mathematics – not because he was blind, but because his mathematics is particularly important and relevant.  We do read William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru – not because he was blind, but because of his brilliant writing and research abilities.  Beethoven, Euler, and Prescott became greats not because of their disabilities (and certainly not because they faked their disabilities) but because of the quality of their work. 

But apparently, in Japan, it is acceptable to take such a low view of the human condition that disabilities – real or faked – simply become marketing opportunities.

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