Shapeshifter

‘Be not another, if thou canst be thyself.’ (Paracelsus)


I have always loved tales of successful forgery, of duped experts, of artistry overcoming authority. Although admiring the audacity of triumphant fakers, I felt no urge to join their ranks. Then, whilst reading Peter Ackroyd’s 1987 novel, Chatterton, I experienced an epiphany which resolved a professional snag.


Ackroyd’s novel centres on the idea that the eponymous literary meteor faked his own suicide, aged 18 and lived into middle age, peppering the English canon with fakes, and making literary critics’ lives more of a minefield than one might normally imagine to be the case.


My prompt to rebel against normal educational and concert etiquette was a shortage of repertoire. In my work as a peripatetic teacher of classical guitar, I’ve been required to source, rehearse and direct a great deal of guitar ensemble music. A few notable exceptions aside, there is a dearth of material which fills the bill for anything other than informed enthusiasts. (Solo and chamber guitar recitals are populated largely by amateur guitarists.) The ensemble I run performs for a general audience at the county’s annual Showcase Concert: a 500-seat sell-out event attended by parents, members of school management and council VIPs. Before each performance I introduce the pieces to the audience with contextualising mini-biographies of the phantom composers. This same preparation was intended to prevent me being caught by pupils asking about the provenance of pieces – although that only ever happened once.


Why I didn’t simply compose pieces in my own name? I thought that would come across as conceited. It was enough that my name appeared as arranger of all the music.


Although the composers’ names featured in the printed programmes, I felt sure that no-one would ever engage in any post-concert detective work. There’s not as much curiosity in education as you’d suppose. Nevertheless, I took the precaution of crediting works to overseas figures who straddled pedagogical and performance worlds. It was, after all, not inconceivable in our social media age that I would be on music swapping terms with, say, a Uruguayan professor of guitar or a Bulgarian chamber musician. It surprised me more that, given our interconnected world, nobody ever tried to follow up on the music, even those who commented that they’d especially enjoyed one of the tunes.


Even more surprisingly, some of the hoax pieces were used by colleagues in neighbouring education authorities who showed no more doubt or curiosity than the original audiences.


My first dabbling in pastiche had occurred when I was a member of the Edinburgh Guitar Quartet. We enjoyed playing an arrangement of Le Phénix, a concerto for four bassoons by the French organist and composer Michel Corrette. The harmonies and rhythms of the outer movements were energetic and fulsome. However, the middle movement, with the exception of a short opening and closing section, consists solely of a bass line and a solo line and one could feel the audience drifting. So, I decided to flesh it out with harmony and counterpoint, the sort of exercise which featured in many a music course when I was a studying teenager. Not an eyebrow was raised and this gave me the confidence to widen my forging scope.


The first complete fake allowed me to include something in a showcase programme from a culture which sounded markedly different from our usual ingredients: classical, traditional Scottish, tunes from ‘the shows’ and bastardised pop songs. I decided to opt for Magyar culture and penned a Hungarian Wedding Dance. Its asymmetrical meter of seven beats per bar, grouped 2+2+3 kept the listener wrong footed but, crucially, not the rehearsed players. Harmonically, it was sufficiently non-Western, employing the Lydian Dominant scale, which features a euphoric raised 4th note and a destabilising lowered 7th note. The pupils seemed to like it as it was rhythmically dynamic and certainly unlike anything they’d played, and possibly heard before. I credited the piece to one Ferenc Lendvai - a nod to Erno Lendvai, who wrote on the music of Hungary’s musical hero, Bela Bartok.


I then went to town on ‘township’ a style I’d come to know and love through the music of South African pianist/composer, Dollar Brand aka Abdullah Ibrahim. My understanding of this style’s main ingredient was 3-part harmony and a lively bass line, perfect for our 4-part set-up. Although there were generally around 28 players in the group, it functioned essentially as a swollen quartet. The result sounded cheerfully rhythmic and this was largely because, with three parts tied up harmonising the melody, the bass had to provide the main rhythmic impetus. I called this piece Natalia from Natal and attributed it to the mythical Thandi Ntulo.


I’d always found the horn sections of American funk music infectious, especially Tower of Power. So, I fashioned a strutting piece entitled Catwalk. As a nod to Vince Mendoza, the author of beautiful orchestrations for Joni Mitchell, I named the composer Nat Mendoza. On this one occasion, a pupil asked ‘who is this guy?’ and I fibbed that he was essentially a Hollywood composer, the go-to guy for groovy brass to clinch a 70s cinematic flavour. That decade being as relevant at the Renaissance to current teens, no further questions were asked.


The most recent hoax was Blues for Konrad, cited as the work of Polish jazzer, Piotr Kaczmarek. Looking back, I realised that, somewhat like a successful serial killer, I was needing an increased sense of risk and taunting. The Polish population in our local authority was growing (before the self-harming idiocy of Brexit) and there would numerous Poles in the audience. Once again nothing came of the gamble.


Nearing the end of my career now, I feel the need to squeeze in one last ruse. Let’s see now, which culture would be a real challenge to imitate…


classical rebel, rebel composer, music