Japan's 'Beethoven' a liar and fraudster

This picture taken on December 28, 2013 shows Mamoru Samuragochi dubbed "Japan's Beethoven" reacting to the audience after his symphony No.1 was performed at a concert hall in Hiroshima, western Japan. The musical brains behind a supposedly deaf comp
This picture taken on December 28, 2013 shows Mamoru Samuragochi dubbed "Japan's Beethoven" reacting to the audience after his symphony No.1 was performed at a concert hall in Hiroshima, western Japan. The musical brains behind a supposedly deaf composer dubbed "Japan's Beethoven" claimed on February 6 that the mock maestro was a scheming manipulator who could hear normally -- but couldn't even write sheet music. -- PHOTO: AFP/JIJI 

I am somewhat sceptical of the way musicians promote themselves or are promoted these days. Talent alone, it seems, no longer is enough, which is why it helps if the musician also has a good story to tell.

Mamoru Samuragochi, 50, followed that formula and for nearly two decades portrayed himself as a deaf and tormented musician who composed by waiting for musical notes to “fall” on him while in deep meditation. He hid behind sunglasses all the time because, he claimed, bright light gave him headaches.

In 2001, he was dubbed “a digital-age Beethoven” by Time magazine, an allusion to the great 18th century German composer who created some of his finest works, including his Symphony No. 9, after losing his hearing.

But Samuragochi turned out to be no Beethoven. He is not even a good pianist, according to his “ghost composer” Takashi Niigaki.

Samuragochi’s elaborate scam was exposed on Thursday by Niigaki, a 43-year-old pianist who had composed all the works that Samuragochi claimed were his during the past 18 years.

Niigaki, who described himself as an “accomplice”, apologised for his part in the deception at a press conference.

The news hit the Japanese like a bolt from the sky.

The Shukan Bunshun weekly, which carried an interview with Niigaki in its latest edition that went on sale on Thursday, called Samuragochi a “petenshi”, Japanese for charlatan.

A nationwide concert tour featuring Samuragochi’s works was cancelled abruptly. Recording company Nippon Columbia stopped all sales of his CDs and DVDs, saying it was “flabbergasted and deeply infuriated” by the deception.

Many people said on Twitter that they had felt something fishy about Samuragochi when they saw him interviewed on television in the past.

Until Niigaki’s bombshell confession, Samuragochi was best known as the composer of “Hiroshima”, an 80-minute-long symphony dedicated to victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of the Japanese city. 

It was performed in public for the first time in 2008 during a concert held in conjunction with a Group of 8 Parliamentary Speakers Summit held in the city.

A CD of the work sold more than 180,000 copies, making it a hit in the classical music world.

Audiences were moved by his personal story, which Samuragochi repeated ad nauseam as part of his slick marketing campaign.Besides his deafness, he also claimed to be born of parents who survived the Hiroshima bombing, thus making his symphony even more poignant.

In one television documentary, he was shown standing in the shivering cold for hours, waiting for musical inspiration.

But according to Niigaki, making music with Samuragochi was a more mundane affair.

For “Hiroshima” – originally titled “A Modern Liturgy” – Samuragochi handed Niigaki an A4-sized sheet of paper on which he had scribbled detailed instructions and diagrams to give a visual concept of the piece.

In the case of the Requiem for Piano, which was dedicated to survivors of the 2011 tsunami disaster, Niigaki recorded several different musical motifs for Samuragochi to listen to before picking the ones he fancied.

“Using the motifs he selected, I then fleshed out the piece,” said Niigaki.

“From the first time I met him, I never once felt that he had any hearing problems,” he added.

In his official profile, Samuragochi was supposed to have studied composition on his own. But Niigaki said Samuragochi not only could not read and write music, but he also knew hardly anything about classical music.

In his early years, Samuragochi apparently gained some fame from composing music for computer games, an activity that Niigaki says can easily be done using computer software and did not require any detailed knowledge of musical composition.

There appears to be no doubting Niigaki’s words.

According to baritone singer Takashi Matsudaira, who has performed some of Niigaki’s vocal compositions, Niigaki, who teaches at Toho Gakuen School of Music, is a gifted composer who is much admired within the musical fraternity.

Interestingly, Niigaki says he had never set out to deceive the public. His first job from Samuragochi had been to write some orchestral music for a movie under the latter’s name.

“I saw myself as just a member of his staff and didn’t give it much thought,” said Niigaki.

“But when he later told the public he was totally deaf and started asking me to write music which he passed off as his own, I started to think there was a problem.”

When Niigaki wanted to end their relationship, he said Samuragochi threatened suicide with his wife.

The last straw was an autobiography put out by Samuragochi last year that Niigaki said was “full of lies”. He was particularly rankled by an account in the book describing Samuragochi’s piano lessons as a child which was but a rehash of Niigaki’s own childhood experience that he had once told Samuragochi about.

As for Samuragochi’s pianistic ability – he claims to be able to play Bach and Beethoven by the time he was 10 – Niigaki would only say: “He has the most elementary technique.”

An article in the monthly magazine Shincho45 last November that questioned the authenticity of Samuragochi’s music convinced Niigaki that the scam would soon be uncovered and that it would be best if he came clean first.

He has been criticised for choosing to expose Samuragochi just before the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics, in which Japan’s top figure skater and medal hopeful, Daisuke Takahashi, is scheduled to use Samuragochi’s Sonatine for Violin – a piece actually written by Niigaki – for his short programme.

“Even if I had waited until after the Olympics, the world would probably still criticise Japan. So I thought it would be better to let Takahashi know about the deception before the competition so that he can get over it quickly and skate with confidence,” said Niigaki.

But can Japan get over Samuragochi, whose reputation now lies in tatters?

wengkin@sph.com.sg