Born Every Minute

Jonathan Bellman

[A crazed push to get an article submission out the door (almost there!) has meant that my blogging has been a bit less frequent. I will try to remedy the situation, though the rest of the semester is beginning to look murky, with a departmental search and an as-yet-unwritten, invited paper in April. I’ll do my best, I promise.]

Dial M has to this point not opined on the strange case of Joyce Hatto, a now-deceased English pianist who had for some years been off the concert stage due to illness, celebrated as “the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of,” but still releasing albums.  Now comes the strange revelation that she actually was not the pianist playing on a substantial portion of her own recordings, which—curiously enough—were released by the Concert Artist label, which happens to be owned by a Mr. William Barrington-Coupe (I could not have made up a better name had I tried). One of those breaking the Hatto story—read the was the editor of Gramophone magazine, Mr. James Inverne, and there were other sound engineers working on it too. A concise version of the Hatto story appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and I cannot forbear quoting Inverne, from this article, on the subject of a conversation he had with Barrington-Coupe. “’He was very charming,’ Inverne said. ‘He sounded utterly puzzled. He said he could not explain it and asked to be informed if anyone shed any light on the affair.’” Really! Now I’m quite convinced of his innocence.

Of course, there are giggles aplenty in this story, effusions about “Hatto” by critics Jeremy Nicholas and Richard Dyer, who obviously didn’t know quite what they were hearing, pinpricks in the classical star system (“one of the greatest pianists that Britain’s ever produced/almost no one’s ever heard of” as CD-selling blurbs), etc. The fall after pride goeth is always greeted with relief and pious finger-wagging. Phil has, I think, brought up the Sokal hoax before, wherein a famous physicist was able to place some nonsensical postmodern satire in a science journal. Indeed, here’s Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, approvingly telling the story of the Sokal hoax and using the wonderful phrase, “The promising field of String Theory.”

Chapter Two: Oh, really? The Biter Bit: now it seems that String Theory is in trouble, and that the Emperor’s-New-Clothes gunsight is now focused in that direction. So all of us who resist the postmodern philosophical posture but likewise found string theory a bit far-fetched get to cluck and chuckle a second time. A twofer!

A twofer is sort of what the Hatto story is: we can sneer that no one knew poor Joyce Hatto (an Ignored Genius, you never heard of her, you were too busy listening to your RCA Red Label Rubinstein re-releases), and then we can sneer at the supposedly expert witnesses—those eminently thrashable strawmen, The Critics—who were taken in. That’ll teach you about celebrity culture, one way or the other. Trained Expert culture, too: these critics were completely taken. How well do they know what they’re really hearing? Har har. It’s Classical Idol, the flavor du jour, no more…

I’m trying to figure out why this makes me so uncomfortable. Part of it is the Stanley Elkin phrase that’s never far from my consciousness: “Listen, disdain is easy, a mug’s game; look closely at anything and it will break your heart.” Telling the difference between a real Joyce Hatto (who?) and one of the highly talented but unknown eastern Europeans…well, I’m not sure I’d want to be held responsible for that. Discerning between pianists playing constantly repeated concert repertoire is not always easy, friends; it isn’t like hearing the Beatles vs. a Smithereens cover of one of their songs, or even telling Jeff Beck from Jimmy Page. How many recordings of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes do you think are out there? Or the Chopin Ballades? (These are hypothetical examples; I don’t know that this is the repertoire in question.) Ultimately, though, what are these CD fanciers with Gramophone (or its American equivalent, American Record Guide) listening for? I did reviews for the latter publication for about nine months, and fortunately I did not have to do much comparative reviewing, because the idea does not appeal to me at all. Sometimes one simply doesn’t have the patience for it, and sometimes one wants to thank God that anyone at all is providing the sheer pleasure of the entire Chopin etudes. The idea of comparison, of establishing who is “better” by some idiotic measure, seems utterly beside the point.

My wish is that we knew the music better, what the gestures are and how they communicate, rather than who is faster, better, more accurate, who has won more competitions, or which recordings are more magically lifelike and present. I will always remember a sequence I saw on a TV show about the Cliburn Competition some years ago: one of the first-round pieces was Chopin’s C major Etude, Op. 10/1, and a “performance” was spliced together of different contestants, each playing two bars. No, it didn’t sound like one pianist, exactly, but I didn’t hear any distinctive personalities either. Why do we learn and listen if it’s all a weird ritual? I appreciate that many of us live in free countries and we can play, record, and listen to whatever we like, but I have a nagging suspicion that it would be better for all of us if we went to more live performances—pace the Glenn Gould recording-is-performance aesthetic—and appreciated the magic and risk inherent in them, and worried less about great, greater, greatest. Or, ultimately, what might be best is for many of us to get back to the piano ourselves.

Taking nothing away from Ms. Hatto or any other Greatest, we need to keep our relationship with musical works as up-close and personal as possible. The CD afficionado is in danger of buying recordings like votive candles—righteousness (or snob value) accrues the more you buy and can talk about. The end result of that, and the cooings of the classical CD magazines, is that the customer becomes precisely what the repentant customers of Chaucer’s Pardoner were: saps, marks, coneys…what motivated P. T. Barnum to observe that “a sucker is born every minute.” It’s always fun to deflate the pretentious, sure. But look closely at anything—like a culture that is so wealthy that excellent recordings of artistic masterworks seemingly fall from the sky, a society in which more information is readily available to everyone than has ever been the case (and the populace stampedes pell-mell toward ignorance), and an industry so cynical about marketing that it plays on celebrity status coupled with a bored, lazy populace that couldn’t care less either way when such riches drop off trees on their heads—and it will break your heart.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Born Every Minute

  1. Jonathan says:

    And check out this confessional, or “confessional,” postscript:
    http://www.gramophone.co.uk/newsMainTemplate.asp?storyID=2765&newssectionID=1

  2. Andrew says:

    Very good response to the whole thing. I started off in the chortling and jeering camp, but then got quickly bored with all the pointing and laughing at the humiliated. I would like to finally find out who did the doing in all of this, though.
    As for your broader points, I very much agree. Less insane scrutinizing of recordings and greater attendance of live performances would be great. More people actually playing music would be even better.
    (oh, and a small correction regarding the Sokal Hoax: his pomo parody was published in Social Text, a cultural studies journal, emphatically not a science journal (although a similar stunt was pulled in, I think, an astrophysics journal)).

  3. Heather says:

    I found an interesting meditation on the Joyce Hatto story as a disability narrative – the author suggests that the scam wouldn’t have been possible if the scammers hadn’t been able to invoke codes of illness, withdrawal, superhuman refinement of sensibility, miraculous achievement, etc. Check out http://cripwheels.blogspot.com/2007/02/when-what-you-see-is-not-what-you-see.html
    (If the link doesn’t work, just go to the blog and look at the Feb 27 entry.)

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