Monday, February 26, 2007

Failures of the human mind - framing and judgment

Joyce Hatto stole music from largely obscure sources and passed it off as hers. The music received rave reviews, but the originals were ignored. Netizens will vaguely remember that in 1997 a commencement speech by Mary Schmich became world famous when a trickster reframed it as a Vonnegut essay. Here are some recent comments from the NYT ...
Shoot the Piano Player - New York Times

... Yet the Joyce Hatto episode is a stern reminder of the importance of framing and background in criticism. Music isn’t just about sound; it is about achievement in a larger human sense. 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. Otherwise, we might as well feed Chopin scores into a computer.

This makes instrumental criticism a tricky business. I’m personally convinced that there is an authentic, objective maturity that I can hear in the later recordings of Rubinstein. This special quality of his is actually in the music, and is not just subjectively derived from seeing the wrinkles in the old man’s face. 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.

When Schmich's essay was Vonnegut's it was famous, when it wasn't it vanished. The same problem afflicts research articles; many great contributions by the non-famous are published in obscure journals and only recognized in retrospect. The name of the author changes the perceived value. In day to day life many of us know the feeling of saying something that's ignored, only to hear it applauded when spoken by another.

Humans are very susceptible to framing effects. It's not fair, but it's not going to change.

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