In his classic essay “Music Discomposed,” Stanley Cavell draws attention to the threat of fraudulence that pervades contemporary art music. With the erosion of convention, not only is the ability of listeners to comprehend new music called into question, so too is their ability to ascertain whether or not works are being offered in good faith. Yet Cavell's choice of the word fraudulent to describe this situation is provocative. In everyday parlance, fraud describes an act of deception undertaken for the material benefit of some individual at the expense of another. But when imposture is passed off as art, what reward does the perpetrator stand to gain? What does the victim stand to lose?
To flesh out the stakes involved in Cavell's notion of fraudulence, this article reframes the issue in terms of the peculiar economy of music. As Pierre Bourdieu and others have suggested, the art world is characterized by its disavowal of the market. Commercial transactions are disguised or renounced, while ostensibly altruistic gifts (of time, money, labor, or prestige) are valorized. Controversies involving pianist Joyce Hatto and composer Giacinto Scelsi are examined to show why fraudulence represents such a threat to the gift economy of music.