Another View: Who Owns It?



Daniel Felsenfeld

I want to tell you a story about my new favorite composer.

A few months ago a mass was performed by an amateur choral society. Commissioned for the occasion from a local composer/conductor Tristan Foison, the piece was given to the group gratis—they would have to pay no performance rights for this first performance. As is often the case, excitement brewed around the event; it’s not often that a composer is present, let alone that an amateur group be allowed to originate a work. The piece came and went, the composer took his bow, applause on applause, but someone in the crowd recognized the piece: it was not an original creation of Foison, because the gentleman present had sung the piece a year or so before. It was a fraud. The “composer” had not stolen a chord progression, melody, bit of orchestration: he had claimed the entire piece wholesale.

After this mess more lies began to be uncovered (while Foison disappeared to Paris, allegedly to straighten things out with Desenclos‘s (the “real” composer) publisher. This man had adopted more than another composer’s mass, he had adopted an entire false identity. A look at his biography (still available on the web) claims that he was the piano soloist with an orchestra that never existed, won a competition a dozen years after it had stopped being held, and was given a prestigious prize the year that nobody won that particular award. He also claimed as teachers and mentors people he had likely never met. When recently tracked down by an Atlanta reporter, Foison hung up the phone.

So why do I admire this man, this obvious shame to my personal profession? What about this story makes me hope for further developments? I am not aware of the music of either Foison or Desenclos, so it is hardly a musical matter. I do not enjoy watching people, even guilty people, put into tense situations, so it is not the gladiator fan that lurks deep inside me (indeed, inside all of us). It is more the artistry of the man, the deft and broad strokes he painted with when creating his lies. Stravinsky said that bad composers borrow, good composers steal, so by logical extension Foison has become the greatest composer that ever lived.

Forgery (which is not what Foison did—he is guilty of fraud) has fascinated people forever, because it relates to the notion of ownership. Intellectual property we like to call it here in America. Actually owning a creation, a phrase, or an idea—in the legal sense ñ is a relatively new idea. Many composers suffered from liberation of their ideas without legal recourse. But now that there are copyright laws upon copyright laws protecting the artist (and more importantly, his or her estate) idea owning is serious business. People lose fortunes, lives, and reputations over actualities. The choral group that Foison duped will likely have to disband after being forced to pay the performance rights to Durand—they had every right do to Foison’s piece, but they performed Desenclos’s.

In the world of pop, where many millions are at stake, careers have been lost over falsities. One group watched itself become a laughing stock when technical trouble during a performance demonstrated that this supergroup never actually sang a note. People wanted to buy their image ñ glamorous, sexy rock stars—at its most real. Which is odd, because there is very little that’s genuine about the world of pop, save for very powerful enthusiasms by millions of people. But again, it is itself a labyrinth of falsities. Just take a look behind the makeup, you probably won’t recognize anyone.

I had a friend who used to be a songwriter, but he never performed his own material. He simply sent his work around to as many people as possible, hoping one day this or that pop star would steal his work and he would sue and make his millions. A strange character, but he is onto something. This was at the time that there was a lengthy court trial involving John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame. Apparently his old company was suing him because on his new record (the first on the label he had just signed with) he stole from John Fogerty, and since the old company still retained the rights to the music they had the right to sue the artist. After debate, Mr. Fogerty appeared in court with his guitar to demonstrate that the two musics were, in fact, different enough. The charges were dropped, but it does leave one to ponder.

Appropriation (a nice, academic post-modern word for stealing) has a long history in music. Imagine Pope Gregory or Diabelli suing for the use of their material in either 14th-century madrigals or Beethoven‘s famous set of variations. Or think of all the people, from Berlioz to Stephen Sondheim, who have used the Dies Irae.

Music does not have the glorious history of forgery that art does, and this culminates in a fascinating figure by the name of Elmyr. He was the greatest forger art history has ever known, able to produce an El Greco, Modigliani, or Picasso to confound the “experts.” As a young painter in Paris, to eat he “found” Giacometti sketches and sold them to collectors. But the web of intrigue only begins with Elmyr.

The official biographer of Elmyr is a man by the name of Clifford Irving, also the author of the famous Howard Hughes autobiography. This is one forger writing a biography of another, would you trust it to be deeply factual on any level? Taking it one step further, Orson Welles‘ final film is F is Fake, which is a mock documentary (long before this became popular) of Elmyr, or rather a forged documentary. Orson took some existing footage of an abandoned documentary and made it his own. In the movie Orson and Elmyr dine together, share laughs, swap stories, and yet the filmmaker and the painter never once met. This is not meant to fool—Orson makes it very clear at the beginning that for the next hour he is going to feed you nothing but lies. During the movie he recounts his own forged past, how he got his start as a young actor by convincing a Dublin theater company that he really was a famous American movie star. So a forger does a movie about a forger who had a book written about him by a forger.

Forgery exists all around us, if you think about it. One of my personal favorites is the statue of John Harvard that graces Harvard Yard. It says, on the marble plaque, that this is a statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard University, circa 1638. I used to walk by it on the way to work daily and see it being widely photographed. But that is not John Harvard, he did not found Harvard University, and the year it was founded was not 1638. This lie is prominently displayed at our nations most respected university, whose very motto—veritas—means truth.

But music began with falsity. Ask anyone who has studies formally, they will trace the rhetoric of music history from Gregorian chant to the latest innovations. But when people investigated deeper into Pope Gregory (the chant’s namesake, who apparently was granted all of these melodies by a bird who sat on his shoulder, or so the proper history goes) it turns out he was a brilliant man, an amazing pope, but no musician. He knew very little of music, certainly not enough to write the Liber Usualis, the main source to this day of chant.

So how did it come to pass? The clean version is that people sang in unison, began to discover natural overtones, from there chords were born, and the rest is a progression. But this notion has within it flaws, just like history cannot explain the pyramids or the Nasca Lines. There are chinks in this story’s armor, which come down to this: a certain governing body, namely the Catholic church, decided the way history ought to go, and since they were the ones with means to write it down, we now accept it as law.

William Shakespeare wrote a play called Richard III at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, the sovereign of the time. This was a shrewd political move on the part of the playwright, it cast him in good stead with his Queen. But history didn’t see it the way Shakespeare did—anyone who reads Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey will see that poor Richard has been unjustly maligned. (Ed. Note: To confound the truth still further, Tey’s actual name was Elizabeth Mackintosh but she used the Tey pseudonym to publish mystery novels and yet another psudonym, Gordon Daviot, for her plays, convincing at least one web site that she was a man.)

Often, because of the work of a single artist, we have a skewed historical perspective. Ask anyone about the composer Antonio Salieri (who was no saint, but certainly no murderer) and they might accuse him of killing Mozart.

And Shakespeare himself, who once wrote, “There are more things on heaven and earthÖ,” has been often called into question. His body of work, one of the most amazing canons that exists, has been attributed to everyone from Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen Elizabeth. Was there someone out there writing Shakespeare’s plays on his behalf? Did a poorly educated actor take credit for someone else’s work?

Is the work of Desenclos, Shakespeare, or the Modigliani of Elmyr any less good because of who did or did not create it? This certainly is the question: would we enjoy the bard any less than we do if it were discovered that he did not write it himself? A few years ago a groundbreaking biography of Bertolt Brecht revealed that the artist was, in fact, something of a committee—his mistresses did a good deal of his writing. Does this make the canon null and void because it did not spring from a single mind? (Brecht, for the record, was indeed the one who came up with the notion that Homer was not a single person.)

The questions I pose are unanswerable. As an artist, I know that someday I would like to be paid for what I do, and since I compose music, I would like people to pay me to play or write that music. If I had composed a mass in 1968, I sure would want to know that not only was it being attributed to me, but that I would make whatever money was to be made on its performance. But I can’t help thinking of my old teacher, who, as a populist made a very serious decision to affix to his scores an anti-copyright. It read something like “No rights reserved. Anyone may make full or partial use of this material without permission from the composer.” An odd move, but he said that taking too much pride in authorship was what was killing the dialogue of music. And he has a point ñ all of this fuss about the “right” and “proper” was to play something “authentically” is an interesting notion because in some way it might capture a different time, and for that fleeting moment we may get a sense of history. But that is really all it can accomplish.

So where does the artist stand? Atop Parnassus, creating beauty, or simply a person who has contributed a bit to the “powerful play.” If every artist were asked to deny the self, to leave off their name on a particular creation, would the creation become a purer process? It certainly would prevent forgery, deny the presence of “experts” (all of whom were duped by Elmyr’s work, or by the violinist Kreisler who liked to compose “Mozart” pieces that he claimed to have discovered, all vetted by critics and “experts”) and allow people to create in an atmosphere free of ego, free of self-doubt, and free of careerists. But of course this is a pipe dream; this will never happen. As long as people have been able to write their name they have been anxious to affix it—it seems to be human nature. In a capitalist society people ought to be paid for what they do (speaking of those who are successful, not everyone deserves to make a living on poor work) and the artists themselves ought to be the ones who decide what does and does not happen to their work.

Foison raises more questions than a single mind can answer, but he is to be inversely admired for spinning such tall tales about himself. He was bound to be caught sooner or later, and there is no part of me that doesn’t believe he knew that, and that this piece of skullduggery was somehow intended to teach us all a lesson, or at least keep us on our toes. The truth is not out there, simply because there is no one truth. There may be an author, but that author is always comprised of several authors, if not in deed than in knowledge and experience. So let’s not worry so much about copyrights, keep the channels of communication open, pay people when they are deserved, but not take ownership and authorship (viz. authenticity) too seriously. It can only lead, at best, to stilted and disingenuous work, cheap historical exercises, or scholarly treatises too dull to read.

Thank you, Mister Foison. You’ve kept something alive.