Tuesday, February 20

Of Hoaxes and Context

As I write this, the Joyce Hatto scandal is rocking the classical music world. In case you haven't heard, this is the story of a late British pianist, whose CD recordings released by her husband's label, have been unmasked as a hoax. It seems that someone loaded one of the discs into iTunes and the Gracenote (CDDB) database identified it as someone else's disc. This would at first appear to be a simple database error, if not for the interesting fact that Gracenote identifies CDs using a unique "fingerprint" derived from the durations of the tracks on the disc. You can read more about the story over at Gramophone and track the extent of the hoax on Hatto's Wikipedia entry.

But I am most intrigued by something New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote on his blog. He wrote, "You have here the beginnings of an excellent case study in how reputations and mythologies affect musical perception."

I think it's fairly obvious how Ross's point extends to all genres, not only classical music. And I'm not at all certain that it's a bad thing. Yes, reputations and mythologies affect how we perceive music. So do physical appearances, costumes, makeup, music videos, CD packaging, and a dozen other things I'm probably forgetting. Are we really so naive as to think music comes to us in some pure form, as if it materialized from a parallel dimension in an unmarked box? We should never lose sight of how much context informs our perception of music (or any art). Doing so not only denies present reality, but also, I think, sells short the complex way we engage with music.

The music is not just the music. It's the the dialog the music has with the sleeve art. It's the way the songs lyrics interact with the band's back-story. It's how the band playing this music looks when they play it. And it's how their music bounces off our own experiences and feelings. The best artists realize all this and leverage it to their advantage. This is how we experience music, and it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. I don't like the idea of being played for a fool, but I sure don't want to live in a world where music comes in a plain brown wrapper.

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