Where Credit is Due

Petty-bourgeois “innovations” lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.

—Anonymous, “Chaos Instead of Music” (Pravda, January 29, 1936), translated by Victor Seroff, from the Usenet group alt.fan.shostakovich


“[M]y first complete free composition for that class, a scherzo for clarinet and piano, was performed at the school’s semi-annual concert. It was one of the most exciting things to happen to me during those four years in Music & Art, to sit in the audience and hear my piece being performed. I was so genuinely excited that I made sure everyone around me knew that I was the Charles Fox whose music was being performed. “That’s me, Charles Fox, that’s my music,” I announced to all within earshot, as the piece was being performed. I don’t think that it was a lack of modesty on my part, but borne of a tremendous excitement in hearing my music performed.”

—Charles Fox, Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music (Scarecrow Press, 2010)


In response to a variety of topics on these pages, there has been some debate about the ethics of anonymity, both in the writings of responses to essays that appear herein as well as in the world at large. It has been a topic that has long been on my mind and which I have extremely conflicted feelings about, so now seemed an appropriate time to address this issue front and center.

In the celebrity saturated culture of the 20th century, only a few folks who created work that is somehow behind the scenes (e.g. novelists, painters, composers, etc.) ever managed to grab some real limelight. Before I ever read a word of his prose, I knew who Truman Capote was since he was a regular guest on TV talk shows that my family watched when I was growing up. And folks like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Igor Stravinsky—and much later Philip Glass—found their way into the public consciousness by connecting themselves to other celebrities or by appearing in advertisements for things that had nothing to do with the work they created. Music, of course, has an advantage over novels and paintings, in that the composer of it can also be involved in a public performance of the music. Undoubtedly Stravinsky’s numerous conducting engagements and Glass playing keyboards in his ensemble helped to make them visible within our own community before their notoriety extended beyond music fans.

But that doesn’t mean that creators who are much less visible don’t also want to be acknowledged. A resonant example is the second quote I placed at the outset of this essay which is from composer Charles Fox, who has composed music in a wide variety of genres including ballet and symphonic music but has been more widely acknowledged for the TV themes he created, as well as several Top 40 hits. Reading that passage gave me goose bumps, and not just because I’m also an alumnus of the High School of Music & Art. I do think that, all attempts at ego obfuscation (e.g. John Cage) and adamant non-engagement with the general public (e.g. J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon) aside, part of what drives creativity is calling attention to oneself. Interestingly, John Cage, despite all his attempts to erase himself from his music, was an extremely public persona.

Of course for a variety of reasons over the centuries (from fear of political or religious persecution to gender and race prejudices), there have been a great many creations that were first unveiled to the public under pseudonyms. While Charlotte Brontë is now one of the most widely read English writers, her most celebrated novel, Jane Eyre, was originally published as the work of Currer Bell. The first edition of Jane Austen’s earliest published novel was simply credited to “A Lady.” To gain a larger readership, sometimes books were credited to the fictional characters whom they were about: the first editions of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels made no mention of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. And then there are all those anonymous limericks and erotic novels from the 19th and very early 20th century whose authors were afraid of being jailed for immorality. (No musical parallels for these immediately spring to mind.) More often than not, however, time has erased the identity of the creator rather than anyone’s willful attempt to conceal it. I doubt that the sculptor of the Venus de Milo, one of the most iconic images of all time, would have wanted to be forgotten. That lacuna is perhaps an even greater loss to the art world than that statue’s missing limbs. Similarly, I find it hard to believe that the author of Beowulf or the composer of The Play of Daniel would not want to be known to posterity and I am personally saddened that I don’t know who they are.

In recent times, work that is presented to the public anonymously usually has some less than savory agenda. Think of books like Primary Colors, now acknowledged as the work of Joe Klein, or the recently published O: A Presidential Novel. Yet for the past two generations there has been something of a cult of anonymity in certain musical genres which has no nefarious intent. In the dance music scene, very few creators put their own name on their work. Richard D. James has released oodles of recordings under the name Aphex Twin, but has also issued music as Blue Calx, DJ Smojphace, Polygon Window, etc. Sometimes people work under a variety of aliases in order to explore different styles since our society is so determined to pigeon-hole creators, which is why many authors of fantasy, mystery, and romance novels also write under aliases. Then again, even as immediately identifiable a creator as Eric Dolphy had to record as Richard Lane on one of John Coltrane’s albums since his record contract would not allow him to record for another label.

The realm of criticism, however, has always operated from a slightly different agenda. Years ago a noted critic who contributed an excellent essay on these pages refused to have her face photographed since it could make her immediately recognizable to people she was reviewing on a regular basis, a stance which she believed would compromise her objectivity. So instead we ran a photo of her feet! Food critics particularly worry that if a restaurateur is made aware of their presence, they’ll get better food than what they would have normally got if they showed up as “civilians.” Yet a completely anonymous review is something that no one can completely trust. And in an unfree society, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin (as in the first quote at the top of this article which originally appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda), such unattributed criticism can be truly menacing.

Yet in the 21st century, there is a completely new kind of cult of anonymity. The internet has created a new kind of public space, one in which it is possible to be invisible and still have an impact. While I have a firm belief in anyone’s right to present themselves to the world however they choose, I must confess to having a certain uneasiness about folks who are unwilling to own up to what they choose to share with the outside world. Like the Pravda attack on Shostakovich, it seems like the verbal equivalent of a sniper attack. Much of the time, the kind of content presented to the world anonymously is easy to instantly dismiss for more obvious reasons than there not being a real name affixed to it, like all those gonzo comments posted in response to articles on CNN.com and other mainstream news sites. But sometimes there are some valuable insights that are presented to the world this way which sadly seems to lessen their ultimate take away value, at least for me.

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6 thoughts on “Where Credit is Due

  1. dB

    But sometimes there are some valuable insights that are presented to the world this way which sadly seems to lessen their ultimate take away value, at least for me.

    I’m curious if you can expand on this, Frank. This thought hadn’t occurred to me when I registered on this site, but I have seen this sentiment a few times since. Why would a pseudonym on the byline of a comment (which I think is categorically different from anonymity) alter that comment’s value?

    I’m personally more afraid that “knowing” someone (that is, being able to view their website/hear their music/read their CV) would affect my assessment of the value of their comments. I don’t want to like their opinions because of their music, or dislike them because of who the poster studied with. To that end, I tend not to pay any more attention to the bylines here than I would on a site where anonymity is the norm.

    I’m sure that strikes some as pathologically cautious, but I’m convinced that these kinds of assessments happen whether we want them to or not. The internet is the only place where conversations can happen without that type of contaminating info, and I really value it for that.

    I really don’t mean to mount a case against people using their real names here; I just wanted to demonstrate that I mostly see the pros of anonymity, where others seem to see more cons. I’m hoping to understand those objections. I also want to thank Frank for writing this post, since there hasn’t been a good forum for asking for this clarification until now.

    Reply
  2. MarkNGrant

    Of course for a variety of reasons over the centuries (from fear of political or religious persecution to gender and race prejudices), there have been a great many creations that were first unveiled to the public under pseudonyms.

    Frank, why have there been so few pseudonymous composers throughout history when there are so many renowned writers with pen names?

    In 1987 I had the opportunity to ask this question of the legendary Nicolas Slonimsky in a long distance telephone conversation I now treasure the memory of. I took notes and saved the notes but in haste at the moment I can’t locate them (it was pre-PC days). Slonimsky mostly talked about musicians who anglicized their names to hide their Jewish or other ethnic origins– conductor Erich Leinsdorf was Erich Landau, conductor Eugene Ormandy was Jeno Blau. But Slonimsky did tell me about a few pseudonymous composers I didn’t know: Mihaly Mosonyi (1815-1870), a German-speaking Liszt disciple born in Austro-Hungary as Michael Brand. Brand didn’t formally adopt his Hungarianized name until very late in his life, but Mosonyi is now how posterity knows him.

    Of course the outstanding example of a composer nom de guerre is Peter Warlock, who as a critic kept his given name of Philip Heseltine. (Which identity was he aiming at when he committed suicide?) Or perhaps Dane Rudhyar, né Daniel Chennevièrre. Then there’s the 20th century Russian symphonist and balletist Vladimir Dukelsky who wrote American popular songs as Vernon Duke. Dukelsky, born in 1903, finally settled on “Vernon Duke” for both his legit and pop music in 1955. And there are the deliberate multi-alias composers, who like some novelists (Evan Hunter aka “Ed McBain”) use both their real names and their noms de plume. Edward MacDowell did this, and Wallingford Riegger made a good part of his income doing choral and commercial arranging under various pseudonyms.

    I’m probably leaving out several other examples, but the fact is that you don’t have in music the onomastic equivalents of literary stars like Mark Twain or Isak Dinesen or Stendhal or Celine. Why? Is there some metaphysical conundrum here?

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    To a first approximation, we may reasonably say that all composers remain anonymous and nameless.

    History is long; memory is short. Who composed Sumer is icumen in? We have no idea. Who composed the Delphic Hymn? We don’t know. Why composed the Hurrian Hymn? Nary a clue.

    Of all the many thousands of plainchants written down, we know the names of essentially none of their composers. When we consider the folksongs and classic music of other cultures, none of it seems associated with the names of individual composers. We have no real idea who composed ancient Chinese pieces other than some legendary name (almost certainly fictitious) connected with these pieces. Saying that “King Fang” (a mythical figure) created this or that musical tradition is really equivalent to saying that we don’t know who created that musical tradition.

    With the internet we may be returning to this normative state of anonymity. That would prove a welcome change. Not to know the name of a composer of the piece of music represents the typical condition, and only recently have composers emerged from the shadows into the limelight. Long past time all composers returned to namelessness.

    Reply
  4. Daniel Wolf

    I suspect that there are more composers working under pseudonyms than might be assumed. The fine Czech composer, Jaroslav Stastny-Pokorny, writes under the name Peter Graham. Many composers get their names modified by rights organizations to avoid name conflicts with earlier member — for GEMA, for example, Johannes Walter had to add a completely new “Casper” to the beginning of his name, and, to avoid confusion with a long-forgotten songwriter member of ASCAP, another Daniel Wolf, GEMA admitted me only under insertion of my middle name (so please don’t think that “James” is pretentious!) Another reason for using pseudonyms is to distinguish different aspects of ones’ work, particularly work that one wishes to publicly identify differently from ones primary compositional identity or interests. Wallingford Riegger used several pseudonyms for his works for educational purposes, school bands and choirs and the like, and I’ve followed Riegger’s example when I’ve done film orchestrations, work in which one often has to suppress ones own musical personality in any case.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    To Daniel’s point about different names for different purposes: Yes, I do that (though they’re all on my resume). Some are for fun, some serious, some professional. For show music I’m Brady Kynans. For imitations of early music, Heinrich Ochslein. For extended voice performances, Grey Shadé. For photography, D.B. Cowell. For technical writing (customized bylines requested for different publications), Kerry Merritt, Calvin Dion, and Enimtu Bemanyna. I was even once Randy Johnson because the local Chamber of Commerce didn’t want my real name on their publications due to my, um, incompatible politics. Kalvos Zondrios for theatrical works, Báthory Dénes for occasional arts writings, and even my female pseudonym Orra Maussade. Most folks knew me best as simply Kalvos of “Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar”.

    Dennis

    Reply
  6. philmusic

    I guess I do this process in reverse as I use my real name for all my stylistic efforts. Serious, funny, and/or whatever- see here:

    Phil’s playa

    Phil Fried

    Oh Don’t forget Fritz Kreisler who composed numerous works he attributed to others.

    Reply

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