woodpecker.comwoodpecker.com    woodpecker.com
About Harvey Reid     Concert Schedule    OTHER BLOG POSTS    Contact   Homespace

The Strange & Illuminating Case of Pianist Joyce Hatto

Joyce Hatto is a name that means almost nothing to any of us, yet her amazing story may have exposed something important about music...


Hatto became known inside the classical piano world due to a large number of recordings she released beginning in 2003, though in 2007 her name and her story went briefly viral. There were huge articles in The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Boston Globe, and countless others. I remember reading about it in the news, but something now has been resonating in me, telling me it might be good to get it out on the table and take another look. Her story feels like very powerful evidence of something, and it might be useful to help prove more than one hypothesis.

First let's look closer at what happened, before we try to understand what else it might mean...

Hatto was born in London in 1928, and became a classical pianist who earned a modest reputation in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a performer, teacher, arranger and coach for the London Philharmonic. She retired from performing in 1976, but in 2003 she began to release solo piano recordings that garnered great critical acclaim. Her husband William Barrington-Coupe was a record company veteran, and may have been the mastermind of the scheme they concocted that fooled the most respected classical music critics for several years. What they did was utterly brazen and unprecedented, and sounds like a prank more than a business plan. The idea was to steal recordings by other highly skilled but little-known pianists and put Hatto's name and artwork on them and release them on their own small record label as the work of an overlooked genius.

In retrospect, it's amazing that it worked at all, but it did. It worked really well. And to me, that's the real story. Not what she did, or how it was accomplished, but how and why they were able to fool so many people who were supposedly the guardians and curators of a highly respected and highly refined art form. Was there something about Hatto's scam that was particularly clever or nefarious, or were the defenses weak? Maybe Joyce Hatto intentionally or accidentally drove a knife into a "soft target" underbelly of something that should perhaps not be swept away as old news or an isolated incident.

hatto CD hatto CD

Many of the leading classical piano critics and DJ's were taken by the music and her story, and lavished huge praise on Hatto, declaring her to be one of the great musicians of our time. Among the accolades she received were a lengthy feature article in March 2006 issue of Gramophone magazine, and Radio New Zealand devoted an hour-long program to her music. She was found out largely because of the database of music connected to iTunes. When an American named Brian Ventura reportedly put one of Hatto’s CD’s in his computer, the computer told him that the CD was an album of Liszt's Transcendental Studies by Hungarian pianist László Simon. If it weren't for the Gracenote CDDB database, which connects to the internet and identifies CD's that are opened in Apple's iTunes software, who knows how long it might have taken for the classical piano critics to find her out?

There are dozens of articles about the hoax, and all of them I could find were dated around the time it was made public. The Wikipedia page about Hatto is extensively footnoted with a huge number of links you can follow and read up as much as you like. The content of all the stories I found was simply to explain what she did and how it was found out that 104 recordings of the world’s great piano music, all done by other pianists, were briefly attributed to her. Somehow, nothing rang any alarm bells anywhere for a span of several years. The fact that in 2002 she was 74 years old might have sounded an alarm, but didn’t. The Daily Mail said “In the days before her death Hatto had even managed to record Beethoven's final sonata by playing the piano from her wheelchair. It was an achievement that brought a string of admiring obituaries on her death which saw her hailed as a 'national treasure' with a 'musical range and consistent quality that has been equalled by few pianists in history' - and leaving to the discerning pianophile one of the remarkable recording legacies of the 20th century.”

A man named Christopher Howell said that "it should have been obvious that one elderly, sick woman could never have recorded all that music," though he said that after the fraud was discovered. People really wanted to believe that a frail old recluse was a genius, and undoubtedly the success of the hoax tapped into some psychology that makes us sympathize with stories like hers. (One thing to fear is that the next time we hear about an un-famous obscure genius we'll be skeptical.) Read more about the Hatto story, or another beauty from the Daily Mail. Hatto’s “catalog” included Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn and a lot of Chopin, along with lesser-known works by newer composers. On Feb. 21, 2007, the Boston Globe called her "the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of," though she died on June 29, 2006.

It was quite a story, with a lot of "victims." They are probably hoping no one ever brings this matter up again. A piano critic named Jeremy Nicholas discovered Hatto in 2005, and bit “hook, line and sinker.” He was stunned to find out that she was only the 4th pianist ever to master and record all 53 of Chopin’s études, which are considered some of the most difficult piano music ever created. He wrote in Gramophone ("the world's unrivaled authority on classical music since 1923") that ‘I have no hesitation in saying that Joyce Hatto is one of the greatest pianists I have ever heard.'

Part of the reason the scam worked is that Hatto and her husband knew a lot about classical piano music and culture, and they were smart enough to steal recordings made by unknown but excellent players. It was definitely an inside job, not done by mere pranksters. They didn't use CD's by Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould or Arthur Rubinstein. Those well-known players' styles were iconic, and critics might recognize them. Hatto and her husband spoke the language of the critics, and knew exactly which albums to steal from, and who to send the CD's to. They knew how to make the artwork and liner notes look right. Like a bank heist by someone who works for the alarm company, they knew just how to push the buttons of the critics who then spread the story.

The first reports of oddities showed up in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2007, nearly 4 years after the fraud began, that the bubble finally popped, and the classical piano world realized it had been massively duped. Hatto died in 2006, and her husband survived her by 8 years. Dozens of albums recorded by other artists had been released in her name, and ranging from a blind listening test on ThePiano Yahoo to praise from hallowed critic Neville Cardus, Hatto's caper fooled almost everybody for an amazingly long time. Listeners and reviewers were amazed at her command of different composers and styles of playing. No wonder.

One article says that hundreds of thousands of the fake CD’s were sold, and another says that there were 6000, and that no money was made by the scam. In 2005 this trickery was apparently easier to pull off than it would be today, being a surprise attack, and a high-tech heist coming from a very un-high-tech pair of criminals. In hindsight, no one could have seen this coming, or had any reason to be suspicious. I suspect that Hatto and her husband were among the most astounded.

In the light of all the "fake news" and "alternative facts" flying around these days in the aftermath of the Trump election, we are perhaps now savvier and more suspicious about sources and truth. Or maybe there is a sucker born every minute, and there will always be con artists and scams, and perhaps this one is just one more in an endless string of them throughout history.

These terrorists blew something up, but they didn't really explain why they did it. In crime solving, there is always a lot of attention paid to the motive. The intent of the criminal has a lot to do with whether they are arrested, convicted, or even sentenced. It's a huge thing missing from this story. Was Hatto or her husband angry about her not being recognized for her talent? There are lots of politics and social climbing in the world of high art, and maybe she was good at music and bad at that stuff. Were they trying to prove a point in a male-dominated piano culture, or one that celebrated young players over more experienced ones? Barrington-Coupe had been jailed for fraud before, so the explanations in his confession can't be assumed to be the truth. It's possible that they weren't trying to prove a point at all, but they ended up doing it anyway.

Barrington-Coupe studio The crime scene

It’s a rather heart-warming story, since Hatto was sick with ovarian cancer and thrombosis, and weakening, and Barrington-Coupe was said to be recording her and cheering her on, and trying to capture and pass along what he said was her substantial gift of music. In a confession, Barrington-Coupe said that he started out just trying to splice in parts of other recordings into genuine recordings made by Hatto to fix the parts that she was unable to do correctly due to her illness. He said that Hatto herself had no idea what he was doing, and she believed that she had herself played all the recordings released in her name. Subsequent investigations have largely determined that indeed Hatto was in on the scam, and worked carefully with her husband, though with both of them dead, it may not be possible to know for sure who did what, or why they did it. From his confession, it appears that he had no idea that anybody would fall for his deception, and he was totally unprepared for its success. It is significant that it went on for years, and that dozens of albums were produced.

Many of the articles that appeared about the scandal focused on the obvious whodunnit parts of the story, and the howtheydunnits. It’s hard to stop digging into, and it's filled with fascinating details of how the deception began and grew. But were Hatto and her husband trying to make her look good, or were they maybe trying to make the piano critics look bad? That's certainly what they succeeded at doing. As an interested observer, I would love to know if she really was a good player or not, and I absolutely can't find this out. If she were already known to experts as a good musician, it might help explain why they fell for the hoax.

A search for Hatto’s music on iTunes yields very little. An Amazon search yields a page or so of unavailable things, and some wildly expensive old albums (possibly the stolen music, but not labeled as such, and possibly just souvenir hunters wanting something with her name on it.) and certainly no hints of anything special about her, and no chances to hear the things that fooled the experts. I can listen to a few streaming tracks on Spotify and Amazon Prime, but I have no idea if they are real recordings by Hatto or part of the faked/stolen music. Nothing I can find in the streaming music world indicates anything about the startling story of Joyce Hatto and her real or alleged piano talent. None of the bio or liner notes I can find online now says anything meaningful about her or the recordings, or about the hoax.

Barrington-Coupe William Barrington-Coupe

The Daily Mail article says:

Barrington-Coupe had all the while been using his technical expertise to subtly alter recordings made by other piano virtuosi, slowing them down in places, speeding them up in other, altering the levels of tenor or bass, so that - in the words of one critic 'they sounded wonderful' - even though they were fake. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Hatto's recording of Rachmaninoff's notoriously demanding Third Piano Concerto, which featured in the 1996 film Shine starring Geoffrey Rush.

The recording had actually been made by the Russian-born pianist Yefim Bronfman but had been so transformed by Barrington-Coupe in the studio that it seemed quite different - until it was expertly analysed by a string of audio engineers.

It might be only partially true, though the classical piano world needs to keep that idea in play to save face. A number of the sleuths who first figured out the Hatto scam said that the waveforms they compared in their computers were absolutely identical when lined up next to each other, and I can't determine the ultimate truth about how much digital audio tinkering Barrington-Coupe actually did before releasing the CD's. He certainly doesn't look like a modern hacker, but this might have been part of why he succeeded.

What they did was not that hard. It is simple to copy someone else’s CD into your computer, and CD pressing plants had not yet gotten as fastidious about who was pressing what, and the music recognition algorithms that are now used on YouTube and Shazam are amazing and hard to stump. I immediately wondered if Hatto’s husband had tinkered with the wave forms, and changed the speed a little, to fool people better. That's now a menu option in digital audio software. An investigator has determined that some EQ (tone) was adjusted on some of the wave forms before they were pressed with Hatto’s name, which is CSI (crime scene investigation) evidence that the pirated music was not always identical. But other articles claimed that entire CD's were pirated. To be fair to the critics who were fooled, we ought to know how much the recordings were altered. I have found testimonials that the waveforms of the Hatto and the original recordings were identical, and just ripped digitally with no alteration. Maybe Barrington-Coupe started out more surreptitiously, and got more brazen or careless once the scheme was working. Or vice versa.

Barrington-Coupe studio Hatto, Simon, Taylor & Ponti

I didn't see any discussions of the Hatto scandal about the way the Gracenote database works, though I did find some incorrect analysis. When Brian Ventura put the Hatto CD into his computer, the iTunes software scanned an internet database of albums for comparison. There was not an ID code embedded in the music that identified it, as some accounts said (though newer systems do that with the ISRC codes, so streaming music can be identified.) There was nothing about the waveform itself that identified it, which is what the popular and amazing app Shazam now does. The Gracenote algorithm simply looks at the album's track times and the number of tracks and does a checksum. Surprisingly, the order of tracks and the precise length of each track is enough to pinpoint the ID of any of millions of albums, with very few mistakes. (If you made a home-made CD and it had the exact number of tracks, of the identical length as the Sgt. Pepper album, iTunes would ID it as a Beatles CD.) So the CD Ventura popped into his CD drive had to be an exact copy of the László Simon CD. Making volume or tone changes would not affect the ID result, but any splicing or editing that changed the length of any track by more than 1 second could change the result. Maybe the database shows the closest matches, which could mean that some slight tinkering by Hatto and her husband would still allow them to be found out. Changing the tempo of a song, changing the song order on the CD or the total length of the album could have been enough to throw off the Gracenote database.

So why is a modern guitar troubadour interested in this story?

Not only is there a huge lingering question mark hanging over the Hatto saga concerning how it could have happened and gone on for so long undetected, but it begs the question of whether it could have happened in other genres of music. Could a Joyce Hatto have similarly fooled the Irish fiddle crowd, or the reggae world?

Possibly the most unfathomable aspect of the Hatto story to me is that a man named Tom Deacon, who had produced a series called “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” for the Philips label was not only completely fooled by Hatto’s recordings, but he praised an album of Chopin études that had Hatto’s name on it, but panned the identical album by Japanese pianist Yuki Matsuzawa, without realizing that they were digitally identical recordings. A scenario like this begs us to try to understand how it could have happened, and in trying to empathize with the story, I am drawn to imagine whether a Joyce Hatto hoax could have happened in my musical world.

This is where I have to make my points carefully. I have lived all my life in the world of what I am calling these days "unschooled" or "peasant music." I didn't go to music school. I didn't take lessons. I don't read music. But I don't want to do any of those things, and I don't feel cheated or underprivileged, though I suppose I might have a comfy band director gig somewhere with health insurance and a pension if I had started out as a child, climbing the school music ladders. But I have watched from the sidelines my whole life as whatever happened at the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall was advertised, revered, and written about in the newspapers and magazines. It has always stung that something like 95% of federal arts money in my life time has gone to support ballet, symphonies and opera. It has been hard to spend my entire professional life in the shadow of this supposed "higher art" culture of classical music. We've all been forced to revere Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Handel and "the great composers" as part of a "proper education," and told that what they did was the highest form of music. I never got the bug to play classical music myself, though I of course admired its complexity and beauty, and it's impossible not to be in awe of the dedication and effort the creators and performers put into the music. But as a child of the era of rock & roll, and someone who has been bathed in the exciting, unschooled music of American culture my whole life, I have always known about other, shall we say "more exciting" kinds of music. I had Doc Watson, John Hurt, Julian Bream and Segovia guitar records when I was 17. Guess who moved me the most? Guess which side of the fence I chose to live on? Am I attracted to this story because it exposed a serious weakness in a world that has always been touted as being stronger or better than mine?

hatto CD

Maybe "critics" and "experts" are more easily fooled that we might imagine...

The Hatto story died quickly in 2007 in the media after the hoax was exposed. An incredibly detailed article appeared that year in the Telegraph, that attempted to get to the very bottom of the story. We saw that there were no master criminals, there was little money being made, and the pianists whose recordings were stolen likely got more publicity from this scandal than anything else they ever did. No one was killed or injured, there were bigger crimes to talk about, and the world moved on. The aggrieved owners of the pirated music didn't even bother to sue, because there was no money to be recovered, and the masterminds of the hoax were old, feeble and likable. No doubt the embarrassed critics couldn't wait for the articles to stop, though I am surprised none of them committed hari-kiri or jumped off a bridge.

The criminals were a lovable old couple, one of whom was dying, and the story that Hatto was making these amazing recordings on her deathbed was emotionally satisfying. The critics who were fooled got a lot of egg on their faces, but I can’t find a “wider-lens” look at the story. I found some passing mention of how maybe we should be focusing on the gullible rather than on the perpetrators of the hoax. But the nagging question remains of why this was able to happen. Why were so many experts and piano lovers fooled? Part of the answer is that Hatto stole really good piano playing, and people liked it for the right reasons.

The Hatto escapade reminds me in some ways of the story from a few years ago when the Two Buck Chuck cheap ($2) wine from Trader Joe's won some wine-tasting contests. The wine tasters who chose the cheap wine in a blind test must have been embarrassed deeply, like the piano critics who fell for Hatto. Joyce Hatto essentially gave the music critics a blind test also, and they chose good music, which was a good sign. They were willing to believe that an outsider could be brilliant and undiscovered, which was also a good sign. But the fact that Tom Deacon, an influential and respected man and an arbiter of quality control in the piano world, had the same album, with 2 sets of liner notes, attributed to the 2 different artists, and thought that one was a lot better than the other is a sign that something isn't as it should be. We can't help putting our thumbs on the scale sometimes when we are weighing things.

A lot of us perhaps have felt that wine tasting (like art history) usually involves a lot of B.S. Apparently it does, and you don't always get what you pay for. There is reputedly almost no difference in taste between the cheap and most expensive vodkas, and the food and drink world has been reeling from the revelations that the expensive vodkas are essentially pure marketing. (I defy you to Google and come up with a definitive answer, though. The fake news is everywhere, and contradicting stories abound; it all boils down to whether you trust the source of the information.) Of course, since human taste and a lot of money are involved, there will never be a final judgement, so the arguing will likely go on forever about whether people really can taste any difference between brands. I seem to recall reading that in blind tests, people generally can't tell Coke from Pepsi, and often not even from Sprite. If you don't feel like you understand how we can't feel like we as a society know or agree about who shot JFK or whether Donald Trump really groped women, even more telling are the soft drink studies out there that involve brand labels.

In blind tests of soft drinks or vodkas, the results resemble those you get when people are guessing. But the really telling results come when people are given samples in containers with brands identified. If you tell people they are drinking Coke even though they are really drinking Pepsi, they believe you. This shows, like Hatto, how powerfully our expectations shape our judgments. Expectations rule. And this could be the key to understanding the Hatto scandal. People had no idea they were listening to anything but a frail aging woman, especially since they were hearing the music on a BBC radio show devoted to fine piano music, or reading in Gramophone magazine or the Boston Globe. They trusted their sources, and the differences were really not that great.

The New York Times, at the end of a long article in 2007, ventured briefly into what I see as the real guts of the story:
If you think an interpretation is by a 74-year-old pianist at the end of her life, it won’t sound quite the same to you as if you think it’s by a 24-year-old piano-competition winner who is just starting out. Beyond all the pretty notes, we want creative engagement and communication from music, we want music to be a bridge to another personality.

They ended by almost indicting the critics for being fooled: “But the Joyce Hatto episode shows that our expectations, our knowledge of a back story, can subtly, or perhaps even crudely, affect our aesthetic response…. The greatest lesson for us all ought to be, however, that there are more fine young pianists out there than most of us realize. If it wasn’t Joyce Hatto, then who did perform those dazzlingly powerful Prokofiev sonatas? Having been so moved by hearing “her” Schubert on the radio, I’ve vowed to honor the real pianist by ordering the proper CD, as soon as I find out who it is. Backhanded credit to Joyce Hatto for having introduced us to some fine new talent.

Is the story about Hatto, or is it about the people and the community of critics and “experts” that she fooled, or something even bigger?

Maybe many classical pianists and pianos really are very similar...

So here's a naughty thought; one that no one at higher levels of classical piano or journalism would ever say: that a lot of classical piano music perhaps does fundamentally sound the same. Yes, the culprits are Hatto or her husband, and the critics and influential people in the rarified world of classical piano music itself might need to look in the mirror or splash some cold water on their faces, being both victims and guilty of something. When you deal with such a narrow range of what is celebrated and allowed, you're bound to have this kind of problem.

Pianos themselves don't have as much diversity as guitars, for example, in the way they are manufactured, designed, how they make sound, and the kinds of strings and materials that are used. Everyone plays with 10 fingers, and many players learn the same repertoire. How could anyone keep track of all the subtle different recordings of those same masterpieces? The people are usually playing the same notes on very similar instruments, and they have been trained since childhood to play them a certain way, according to a set of "accepted standards." Are those standards themselves the root of this scandal? Go look up recordings of Bach's Chaconne on iTunes, and see if you can tell Conrad van der Goltz, Hilary Hahn, Arnold Steinhardt, Joseph Szigeti and other violinists apart. It's harder to tell piano versions of this piece apart, though the volume, reverb and miking techniques cause some of them to sound different when the playing itself might not have been. The old recordings by Jascha Heifetz don't sound like modern recordings.

Shazam & Joyce Hatto

In 2009 a new smartphone app named Shazam appeared, that has now become one of the top 10 apps used in the world. When the user presses the "START" button, it "listens" to music and identifies it by comparing the sample with a huge and growing online database of spectrogram "fingerprints." It is reported has been used by 500 million users to identify 15 billion songs. I have used it a lot for about 2 years, when I am in a restaurant or a car or even watching a movie and want to know what song I am listening to. It keeps getting better and faster, as you would expect, and a couple years ago it had trouble with lesser-known artists, and couldn't identify my CD's or many of my friends. My experience is that it is improving quickly, and it's actually quite impressive and useful. When I listen to the local blues show on the radio with DJ Bruce Pingree playing obscure blues tracks, it identifies song after song very quickly, and saves me the trouble of calling Bruce up, or waiting 20 minutes for him to list the songs while my kids are yelling. Shazam took 14 seconds to recognize my recording of Waltz of the Waves, then it misidentified my Suite in F as Benjamin Alard playing Sonata #5 in D. It then impressively took 5 seconds to identify my Racing the Storm, and about 10 seconds to identify the Coming of Winter and 9 seconds to get the Dirty Dish Rag.

I bought a used copy of a bootleg Joyce Hatto Schubert CD on eBay, and waited for it to arrive from England so I could "Shazam" the music. I put the CD in my computer, and unlike Brian Ventura's experience, it did not identify the album, based on the length and number of tracks. My Shazaming experience was quite telling. Track 1, the "Wanderer Fantaisie in C Major D.760– Allegro," gave no results, then at 0:25 into the track it announced that the pianist was David Fray. When I retested it it gave me the names Gottfried Hemetsberger and then Walter Gieseking at various points in the piece, as well as numerous "no result- try again" messages. As I "Shazammed" over and over in different parts of the track, I got a lot of "no results" errors, plus the "results" of Rolf Gothini, several unreadable Japanese language results, and even "Selection De Polcas Paraguayas 2 Las Mejores Melodies Del Mundo En Piano."

Shazam told me that Track 5 was Kei Itoh and Ivan Klasky, and that the 3-minute Track 4 was André Watts. The next morning I did Track 4 again, and during one listening, as fast as I could type the names and re-Shazam the next section, it announced results of Claudio Arrau, Viviana Sofronitsky, Lang Lang, Martin Hasselbock, Ralf Gothoni, Lisa Marie Landgraf twice, then another Ralf Gothoni!

So what does this tell us? Is Shazam just not that great at classical music? I tried my 1988 recording by Leonard Bernstein & the New York Philharmonic of Chales Ives Unanswered Question and it nailed it very quickly. Then I tried John Williams Baroque Album, with a Scarlatti sonata. It misidentified it as Mari Kodama playing The Sleeping Beauty Suite Opus 66a by Rachmaninoff. I gave it another chance and it got it right. It then got Janos Starker playing a couple tracks, A Sarabande from Cello Suite 1 and an Allemande from Suite 4, both from the 1963 Mercury recordings of Bach's cello suites. It then got Christopher Parkening's Passacaglia (1985) and Oleg Timofeyev doing Sychra: As From Beyond The Forest and I Am A Gypsy Girl from the Golden Age of Russian Guitar, a pretty obscure album.

First indications are that Shazam does fine with classical music, except those Schubert pieces Joyce Hatto swiped. It nailed David Fray's version of Schubert's Impromptu Opus 90 #3 but thought his recording of Impromptu #4 in C# was Wilhelm Kempff. I tried 2 more Shubert pieces by Fray and it got them right. It couldn't identify a cut by Jéno Janda but nailed on Murray Perahia's D. 899, then thought Joshua Pierce was Charlotte Baumgartner. It correctly identified two Schubert tracks by Claudio Arrau, and Fantasiestuck by Lissa Marie Landgraf. So it appears that both critics and robots have trouble telling classical piano performances apart.

I went back and tried more Joyce Hatto, and got more strange results. Track #9, Variations on Huttenbrenner D. 576, first came up as Michel Dalberto, then Michael Endres, then Dalberto again, then Gerhapr Oppitz, then Evelyn Dubourg, Gilbert Schuchter, Sviatoslav Richter, then Dalberto again, a "no result", then Dalberto several more times. All in a single time through the piece. Sure enough, someone identified that Hatto had stolen several other pieces from Michel Dalberto, and slowed a Liszt track down 1.22% to disguise it. So I bought a Dalberto CD of Schubert, and compared the wave forms with the "Hatto" CD, and it appears that the source of that track was indeed the Dalberto recording, though Hatto's was 14 mins 15 seconds, and Dalberto's 14 minutes and 39 seconds. Hatto's wave form this time was 1.26% faster, but Barrington Coupe apparently tweaked different sections of the piece slightly in time and also made pauses different lengths, which further disguised the recording. Once I scaled the different sections to the original speed, Shazam was able to recognize the Dalberto versions pretty accurately, though out of nowhere it identified a section as pianist Raluca Stirbat.

hatto CD

What Do We Conclude?

The Hatto scandal could be viewed as evidence or even proof that the classical piano world has ossified to a point to where it produces artists who often play the same music so similarly that even professionals are sometimes unable to tell the difference. This conclusion was corroborated by my Shazam experience. The robots can't always tell the artists apart either. It's an inbred world. I would wager that most of us have heard an unfamiliar album, concert or radio show of a genre of music and thought that it all sounded the same, whether it be Afropop, Coltrane-style saxophone, polkas, gypsy jazz or bluegrass. It’s kind of a cliché when they say you have to get deeper into something before you can notice the diversity, but in the case of Joyce Hatto, the people being fooled were not unfamiliar with the music, instrument or genre.

Part of Hatto’s success may be rooted in the subtle fact that the piano is not as personal as a stringed or wind instrument, because the human body never actually touches the vibrating objects that are making the sound. The fingers press the keys which cause a hammer to strike the string, which removes a level of subtlety in the “touch.” I have always argued that the guitar is uncommonly personal because both hands are touching the vibrating strings, and shaping the tone and timbre. On bowed instruments only one hand is touching the strings, and guitarists who play with their bare hands may have a wider tone palate than those who use a pick. There are, however, a wide variety of materials of differing densities, hardness and thickness that are used as guitar picks, so the palate of sounds that guitar picks generate is wider than the pine rosin on horsehair materials used in bows. I’m a string guy, and it’s hard to wrap my mind around exactly what ways wind and horn players shape the sound with their bodies, but the fact that the very air they breathe is making the sound would lead me to believe that a Joyce Hatto would not have happened in the world of horn or wind instrument playing. I am pretty sure that if someone sent me a guitar album that claimed to be a Dan Crary record, yet it sounded like Clarence White, I would notice and so would everyone else who knows their work. Though it is possible that if any of us were staring at the art work of the CD with Dan's picture, and reading a press release, that we could also fall for the same scam Hatto pulled off.

The next question to ask is whether all this confusion and misidentifying of music spotlighted by Joyce Hatto is good or bad. If classical piano performances often sound a lot alike, does that mean that something is wrong with that genre of music and its players, or is perhaps something very right?

Maybe it's a sign that something is wrong in classical piano that we can't tell the players apart, but it also could be seen as a good thing that there are so many players around the world who have mastered these centuries-old masterpieces. It's certainly remarkable that so many players have been able to devote that much time and energy to learning these pieces of music, and learning to perform them so precisely. It could be seen as a great achievement for the music scholars and lovers to identify a body of great piano compositions, and to develop a world-wide system to train players to play them according to a set of standards that have been preserved along with the music itself. It could also mean that it's time for some fresh ideas, and some individualism. How we judge the merits of this situation depends on which lens we have in our viewfinders.

In the age of robots and artificial intelligence, it's my feeling that the best thing we humans can do is to be as human as possible, and to not compete directly with machines at the kinds of things they do well. This kind of piano playing might fall into that category. The fact that many classical piano players sound alike might mean that this might be a realm of human endeavor robots could successfully invade. It's going to take them a lot longer to mimic Janis Joplin's singing. If robots can beat us at chess, checkers and Go, let's play games they can't.

My troubadour mind is suggesting that the idea of classical music itself could be faulted, since in a quest for "correctness," we inherently tend towards sameness. (Of course few classical music devotees would agree with this premise, and there won't be too many blues or country musicians or fans who would even weigh in on this esoteric issue, and maybe I shouldn't, but I'm pretty deep into it already.)

How did we even end up with our musical territory divided into classical music and non-classical music? Is it an error of elitism that needs to be corrected, or something beautiful that reveals something good about humans? What exactly is the turf they are defending? At the root may be partly the insistence on there being a right way to do things, and perhaps even more of it could be caused by the long-held tenet that it’s primarily about the composer. Maybe you are old enough to have been puzzled by record stores putting all the Bach in one section and Mozart in another, as if the artist playing them doesn't matter that much, or at least that the composer's name is what drives the purchase. It's a nice thing about computers, since you can easily search by artist, instrument or composer.

The player is supposed to be a clear channel and not an interpreter of the music, and it may be that this axiom is flawed. The players are allowed to interpret, but only within a very narrow band. Of course any criticism of classical music that comes from someone like me who doesn’t even read music is like a savage from the jungle criticizing the Church of England. The classical music ecosphere, with its Carnegie Halls, London Symphonies, Metropolitan Operas and assorted grandeur and glory, holds the higher ground and can easily continue to proclaim itself to be above the inferior peasant music that people like me play.

I can't tell classical guitarists apart, and that could be because I don't know or play that kind of guitar, or because they really do sound alike. Everybody who plays classical guitar pretty much uses the same strings, in the same tuning, and they strike the strings in similar ways with their fingers and fingernails, on instruments that are the same size, shape and design, and often made of the same woods. There's little diversity as compared to what steel-string guitarists do, and it takes a really sharp ear and a lot of knowledge to tell classical guitarists apart. And when they are all playing the same Villa Lobos etudes and Fernando Sor pieces, it's no surprise that they sound much more alike than guitarists who use all sorts of strings, tunings, picks and instruments, and who play more diverse and rhythmic music. Even within a genre of peasant music, as soon as something gets popular and everybody does it, then many players start to sound similar.

I was reading an obituary of Fats Domino this week, and Jerry Lee Lewis made the comment that nobody could imitate the rhythmic elements and the “feel” of Domino’s piano style, and that there will never be another Fats Domino. Which leads us to ponder the point that the classical piano music that Joyce Hatto was able to steal so effectively was not groove-based music. You might be able to copy the tone of a Professor Longhair piano recording, but you aren’t going to get the swing he had. I am no Professor Longhair expert, and I don’t play piano, but if I heard a recording of his G Jam Blues that had Joyce Hatto’s name on it, I feel sure that I would know instantly it was him and no one else. (Especially when it came time for Snooks Eaglin’s inimitable guitar breaks on that song…) Classical music has dynamics, and meter, but precious little of what we call “groove” and “swing.”

Through my Modern Troubadour looking glass, I see another point to be taken here, which involves taking some high ground. I feel certain, perhaps wrongly or vainly, that something like this would be far less likely to happen in the world of unschooled “peasant music”. Think over the panoply of sounds that non-classical music has brought us, and try to imagine anyone mistaking the voices of Dolly Parton, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Jimmie Rodgers, Lemon Jefferson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Bill Monroe, Tammy Wynette, Mick Jagger or anyone else. Most of us can hear a single second of these artists and instantly know who they are. This is the essence of art, and the guts of what often makes a particular musician popular or effective.

So what is the message of Joyce Hatto? It’s obviously about more than just her, her music, her ambition, or her husband. It’s also partly about the critics and DJ’s who were fooled by her recordings. Maybe it’s that we should celebrate more and inhabit more the musical worlds where this kind of thing could never have happened. I think we should all bask in the glory of all those myriad different guitar tones and grooves and vocal timbres, and all the joy, diversity and passion that unschooled music has brought us. Pull up a search of the Moonlight Sonata on the piano, and compare many versions. Then pull up some well-known song like "St. James Infirmary" or "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and compare 50 different versions by different artists. Quite a stunning difference in diversity.

Maybe classical music is wrong that the performer is supposed to be invisible and transparent. I believe that a performer’s emotions are important, and it bothers me to feel intimidated and looked down upon by the ivory-tower world of "higher music" that tries to tell me otherwise, as if I am ignorant. The list is endless of amazing, wonderful and impossible-to-imitate musicians in the non-classical world: Janis Joplin, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dick Gaughan, Washington Phillips, Lemon Jefferson, Louis Armstrong, Wanda Jackson, Jim Reeves, Dock Boggs, Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra— think of all those glorious, unique and distinctive and wonderful artists. I’m sure any of you could add the names of dozens of your favorite distinctive voices to any list I could make. What if those people had been sent to music academies and “trained” to play music the “right way?” Could they have been turned into musicians who could imitate others, and be imitated, by copying and adhering to norms and standards? Should we celebrate that fact that they were not repressed, strained, trained, retrained or restrained? I say yes.

Les Paul made a comment about the music business in an interview in Guitar Player magazine that I have always remembered: “…but can your mother recognize you when she hears you on the radio?” He was wisely pointing out how essential it is to have your own sound, and to not be an imitator or a mimic. Maybe the conclusion we should draw here is that all of us are better off if we listen to music, whatever it might be, that it is so distinctive that there is no likelihood of mistaking its creator for someone else; people whose mothers can recognize them when they hear them on the radio. (I doubt Joyce Hatto's mother could have recognized her music...) In 1952, when record collector Harry Smith curated the Anthology of American Folk Music, his epic and hugely influential collection of music from old 78’s, he referred to the music on it as “old, weird America.” I say bring on “new, weird America,” and give us less of the cookie-cutter stuff that sounds like any number of different artists.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,