Rohan Kriwaczek - An elaborate forgery, an eccentric alternative history, a postmodern joke, a meditation on the modern West's denial of death

Rohan Kriwaczek, An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin, Gerald Duckworth, 2006.

"The art of funerary violin, although little known today, emerged during the Protestant Reformation and for almost 300 years was an integral part of European interment ceremonies. The Protestant rejection of the doctrine of human intercession left a "spiritual vacuum" into which specialist violinists stepped, their music conveying "both the tragedy of a spirit lost forever to this world and the triumphant ascension of a soul unto the eternity of the hereafter".
This golden age saw funerary violinists such as Bulstrode Whycherly and Pierre Dubuisson usher thousands of people, including royalty, to their eternal rest. Sadly, by the mid-19th century funerary violin was coming under increasing attack from extremist Catholic groups. Eventually its practitioners were terrorised into silence, or forced to withdraw into clandestine societies through whose agency the tradition has managed to survive, albeit greatly reduced, to the present day."

«It is only by staring Death in the face that you can truly say you have known Life; it is only by losing that which you hold most dear that you can truly say you have known Love; such is the Art of the Funerary Violinist.
From its origins in the Elizabethan Protestant Reformation, to its final extinction amidst the guns of the First World War, the art of Funerary Violin was characterized by many unique and frequently misunderstood qualities that set it apart from all other forms of music. Despite its enormous influence on classical music generally and on the Romantic Movement in particular, this music has almost entirely vanished. In a series of ‘funerary purges’, the art of funerary violin was condemned as ‘the music of the devil’ and the Guild of Funerary Violinists driven into silence or clandestine activity. This is the music that, despite all attempts at suppression, has haunted Europe’s collective unconscious for more than a century. Now Rohan Kriwaczek reveals its incredible history. Painstakingly pieced together from a handful of fragments and unsubstantiated and frequently unspoken rumours, and making use of a number of extraordinary recent discoveries, An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin celebrates a unique musical tradition that refuses to die.»

'The Art of the Funerary Violin is a fascinating work in its own right, an unorthodox alternative history novel filled with left-field characters and quirky details.' - Sydney Morning Herald

‘This truly is a bizarre book’ – The New Statesman

"An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin is a detailed, thought-provoking account of this forgotten musical genre. It is also a work of fiction. Rohan Kriwaczek claims to be England's leading authority on the history and practice of funerary violin, and it is difficult to dispute his credentials since the genre is entirely his invention. The Art of Funerary Violin is a work of imaginary scholarship, presented as nonfiction with nary a sly wink of warning to the unsuspecting reader. One is tempted to make comparisons with Jorge Luis Borges's early stories; one is further tempted to invent an author with whom to make comparisons. The latter would certainly be in keeping with the spirit of the thing.
In the wake of James Frey's controversial "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, it is perhaps inevitable that Kriwaczek's conflation of fact and fiction will be dismissed as irresponsible postmodern trickery. But if Kriwaczek's intention was to deceive readers then he might have invented a less fantastic and less easily debunked tale. Clever as it is, the "reality" of The Art of Funerary Violin is readily undermined: a Google search for one of Kriwaczek's imaginary composers will take care of that. Experts are even less liable to be fooled. Upon publication in Britain, the book was promptly discredited by musicologists and historians. It seems unlikely that Kriwaczek would not have anticipated this swift unmasking, suggesting that deception was never his primary goal.
Indeed, to imply that it was is to miss much of the point - and the joy - of The Art of Funerary Violin which is an attempt (in its author's words) to "expand the notion of musical composition to encompass the creation of an entire artistic genre, with its necessary accompanying history, mythology, philosophy, social function, etc".
Kriwaczek's method is playful, but his game face is deadpan, the thoroughness of his fabrication impressive. The Art of Funerary Violin is replete with reproduced photographs and paintings, some evidently mocked-up, others well known but brazenly roped into Kriwaczek's service. There are snippets from diaries, letters and poems. The author even includes a "Book of Scores" so that budding funerary violinists can run through a classic funeral suite at the graveside of their choice.
Yet just as The Art of Funerary Violin is not merely a hoax, neither is it simply a conceptual work, an adjunct to its author's extra-literary concerns. (Kriwaczek is the current acting president of the Guild of Funerary Violinists, from whom you can buy CDs of funerary violin music and even hire a "genuine" funerary violinist.) The Art of Funerary Violin is a fascinating work in its own right, an unorthodox alternate history novel filled with left-field characters and quirky details.
For example, there is Kriwaczek's account of the so-called "funerary duels" fought between rival violinists in Napoleonic France. "The soon to be deceased would leave a fragment of melody with his will, and two Funerary Violinists would improvise in turn upon the theme at the funeral, each attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent." The winner was the violinist who managed to extract the most tears from the congregation.
Then there is the authorial voice itself, which is one of Kriwaczek's most pleasing inventions. Finicky, dry, occasionally sardonic, the purported author of The Art of Funerary Violin is clearly conscious of his dual, sometimes contradictory, role as both historian and custodian of the funerary violin tradition. While the prose is for the most part affectless and faux-scholarly, there are occasional hints of triumphalism, irritation and, finally, sadness. Kriwaczek - either of them - is no Nabokov; The Art of Funerary Violin is no Pale Fire; but the voice of the slightly unreliable narrator-scholar is nicely realised.
An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin can be read as an elaborate forgery, an eccentric alternative history, a postmodern joke, a meditation on the modern West's denial of death, an examination of the role of class in the development of social ritual, or a sly dig at historical ignorance. It is also a highly original work of fiction driven by a sustained imaginative effort. That, at least, is very difficult to fake.» - Tim Howard

«It seems to be just another esoteric historical tome published to appeal to an academic audience: “An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin,” by Rohan Kriwaczek, a nonfiction account of a little-known genre of music that was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church and almost wiped out by the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830’s and 40’s, according to the winter catalog for the Overlook Press.
There is no such thing as a funerary violin, said several leading violin scholars. There were no Great Funerary Purges. And Mr. Kriwaczek did not graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in 1974, as his biography claims, or receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Federation of Funeral Directors, an organization that appears to exist only on the author’s personal Web site.
The book is the latest manifestation of a continuing silly season in the London literary world, which began with a secret message embedded in a court ruling involving “The Da Vinci Code” in the spring and has more recently produced a hoax love letter published in a major biography. But Mr. Kriwaczek’s book, set for publication in Britain later this month by Duckworth Publishers, tricked even Peter Mayer, his publisher at the American publishing house Overlook, who bought the book last year believing it was an authentic historical work of nonfiction. (Duckworth referred all questions to Mr. Mayer.)
“Maybe I have been fooled,” Mr. Mayer said after a reporter asked about the book last week. “It is possible. But it reads so extraordinarily serious and passionate. If it is a hoax, I can only say, I have my cap off.”
It is easy to see how Mr. Mayer could have found himself spellbound by the book, a sprawling 208-page volume complete with detailed biographies, black-and-white photographs and elaborate musical scores. Mr. Kriwaczek painstakingly describes the members of what he calls the Guild of Funerary Violinists, with names like Bulstrode Whycherley and Wilhelm Kleinbach. (In a photo dated 1870, Mr. Kleinbach bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Kriwaczek in an author photo.)
But the book’s entry in the Overlook Press catalog raised the suspicion of Paul Ingram, the trade-book buyer of Prairie Lights, an independent bookstore in Iowa City, who contacted an expert in the history of the violin, David Schoenbaum, who said the book seemed to be a hoax. Mr. Schoenbaum, an occasional book reviewer for The New York Times, brought the book to the paper’s attention. Database searches for the Guild of Funerary Violinists produced few results, among them Mr. Kriwaczek’s Web site, a MySpace page and a deleted Wikipedia entry on the topic. “We’ve never heard of this guild,” said Frances Gillham, a director at J & A Beare, a violin dealer in London. “Unless it’s some sort of strange folk thing, it seems pretty unlikely.”
Mr. Mayer said he had doubts of his own soon after he read the manuscript last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So before buying the book, he insisted on meeting Mr. Kriwaczek in London, a week later. “In he walks, deadly serious, with his violin,” Mr. Mayer said. “I ask him a whole bunch of questions. He gave more or less credible answers to them. Some of them, he said, ‘I can’t answer, Mr. Mayer, because it is a secret society and it’s dying out.’ ”
Mr. Kriwaczek, who through his publicist in London declined interview requests, has tried to sell his tale of funerary violins before. Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, a leading monthly magazine about string instruments, said Mr. Kriwaczek submitted a 2,000-word article about the funerary violin to the magazine earlier this year.
“He presented it as a factual piece of research complete with photographs and quotes and things,” Ms. Todes said. To prop up his story, Mr. Kriwaczek supplied the editors with pictures, letters and photocopies of articles from what Ms. Todes called “obscure British newspapers dating back to the 18th century.”
Among them was a facsimile of a letter supposedly written to Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, who Mr. Kriwaczek said was a funerary violinist. But the editors, growing wary of Mr. Kriwaczek, were not convinced of the letter’s authenticity. “It suspiciously had tea stains on it and looked like modern handwriting,” Ms. Todes said.
Days before the magazine went to press, the editors rejected the article. It was only after that, Ms. Todes said, that Mr. Kriwaczek admitted in an e-mail message that the funerary violin was an invention.
“We thought of running it as an April Fools’ joke,” Ms. Todes said, “but then thought, no, he doesn’t deserve it.”
Even as Mr. Mayer acknowledged that it is probably fiction, he said he doesn’t care. “I just thought, whether it is true or not true, it is the work of some sort of crazy genius,” he said. “If it is a hoax, it is a brilliant, brilliant hoax.”» - Jilie Bosman


«If you believe Rohan Kriwaczek, author of An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin, funerary violin is a previously unknown musical genre that was virtually extinguished by the mid-19th century in the Great Funerary Purges, said to be ordered by the Vatican.
But as first reported in The New York Times, violin dealers, string-instrument publications and other experts say there is no evidence of the funerary violin genre, forgotten or otherwise.
Despite the questions of authenticity, the book's U.S. publisher, Overlook Press, still plans to release the book, which includes pictures of legendary funerary violin composers like Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, musical scores and information on the Guild of Funerary Violinists.
Peter Mayer, the publisher of Overlook Press, bought the manuscript. Even though he had doubts about the authenticity of the material, he was hooked.
"I decided it didn't really matter to me how much of this was actually accurate. It was a life's work. [Kriwacezk] was dedicated to this guild not being forgotten, dedicated to the music. I decided this is just an amazing piece of work, and I wanted to publish it," Mayer says.
In his book, Kriwaczek writes about "funerary duels" in France in the 1810s: Two violinists improvised on a fragment of melody, attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent; the winner was the artist who drew the most tears from the assembled crowd.
"Who knows if it's true, but it's unbelievable reading," Mayer says.
Author Kriwaczek issued a statement Thursday, in which he writes that to call his work a hoax is to misunderstand his intentions. He says he wanted to "expand the notion of musical composition to encompass the creation of an entire artistic genre, with its necessary accompanying history, mythology, philosophy, social function, etc."
And he notes that as a funerary violinist himself, he has performed at more than 50 funerals throughout southeast England.» - Melissa Block

«In An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin, Rohan Kriwaczek brings to light the mysterious and impassioned past of the Guild of Funerary Violinists. Beautifully written and rich in detail, An Incomplete History relays the simple birth, royal heights, conspiratorial demise, and underground survival of the Guild and its Art. From accounts of Funerary Violinists musically dueling by gravesides to tales of the Catholic Church’s underhanded attempts to destroy the Guild, Kriwaczek shares a small piece of history that is inspiring, exciting, intriguing, and tragic. It is, apparently, also quite untrue.
When confounded music scholars, skeptical journalists, and bewildered historians began investigating the unknown Guild of Funerary Violinists and its peculiar history, they discovered that the entire premise was a hoax. Despite the intricate details, black-and-white photos, artistic engravings, presentations of old letters, and complete music scores from renowned Funerary Violinists, Kriwaczek’s book remains a work of sheer fiction; a zealous creation from the author’s overactive imagination, which captured the attention of and fooled both his publishers and readers.
Now that the truth of An Incomplete History has been revealed, though, people can simply enjoy its creative entertainment without feeling troubled by doubts about its veracity. And actually, that Kriwaczek manufactured nearly all of the facts, people, and events discussed in the book makes his work even more impressive.
Beginning with the conception of the Guild of Funerary Violinists in 1586, Kriwaczek takes the reader on a journey through the centuries: highlighting the traditions of the Guild; imparting the aesthetic of the Art of Funerary Violin; detailing the lives of the greatest and most influential Funerary Violinists; depicting the horrific events of the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s; and sharing his obviously deep adoration for the violin and its somber sound. Kriwaczek also weaves throughout his tale minor pieces of information, which add to the overall effect and impression of the obscure history of the Guild. For example, the Guild’s motto is Nullus Funus Sine Fidula, which means “No Funeral Without a Fiddle.” And there is even a mention that Ludwig van Beethoven partially plagiarized “Trauermarsch” by Ulmer Diederich (a Funerary Violinist in Munich) when he composed his third symphony. I imagine it’s a very good thing that Beethoven is not alive to read such a libelous statement, given his infamous temperament.
Aside from its fascinating information, one of the greatest elements of An Incomplete History is the manner in which Kriwaczek writes. His language is elegant and passionate and aids in the transportation of the reader into this netherworld of beautiful solemnity. In one section, Kriwaczek quotes a speech supposedly made by Charles Sudbury, as he accepted his appointment of President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists on 1 November 1829. The words dance so beautifully together that their inspirational tone immediately touches the soul:
'...And yet I come back to the Breath of God that was given to Man in the Spirit of Music. For though it has not the power to resurrect the body once its task is done; in the hands of a Godly master, well versed in the sacred secret rites of the Funerary Violin, it can draw up the Soul from its purgatorial torment, and send it, through a ritual of confession and atonement, cleansed of all Sin, to sit beside the Lord on high. Have we the right to reject this gift, now that it is given? Surely we are duty bound to raise our violins to God with every beat upon our hearts, with every single breath, and play with all the morbid subtlety our very Souls can muster, to demonstrate our Faith, and purify the many generations that the priests have left below without a thought. With such a gift comes grave responsibility. We must take the Art of Funerary Violin to every house of God, to every churchyard, and pray with all the music we can muster, for the many lost souls who are doomed to drift for all eternity without our intervention...'
While An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin may be nothing more than a spirited ruse, its stunning presentation and captivating tales leave the reader wishing that the Guild actually existed; that a Funerary Violinist could readily be employed to attend a loved one’s burial. Perhaps Kriwaczek’s invention will inspire a new breed of performers to create the Guild that never was.» - Nicola at www.writing.com

Extracts:
  1. Read the Forword
  2. Read an extract from the Introduction
  3. Read Charles Sudbury's account of a Funerary Duel
  4. Read Wilhelm Kleinbach - the Last of the Practicing Funerary Violin
Rohan Kriwaczek, On The Many Deaths of Amanda Palmer: And the Many Crimes of Tobias James, Overlook, 2010.

«Following the death of indie pop-star Amanda Palmer her fans and followers began posting anonymous texts on internet blogs and in chat-rooms, taking the form of stories, poems, essays, stream-of-consciousness explorations, each attempting in their own way to attribute her death with some meaning through art. Over time these writings, and the responses they generated, began to exhibit specific shared qualities that marked them out as a unique genre in their own right, a genre that has come to be known as the Palmeresque.
This book originally set out to be the first major study of the Palmeresque, however shortly after initial publication all copies of the book were seized by the Boston Police Department due to the incriminating content of Text Number Nine. The following investigation revealed a complex web of deceit, manipulation and literary fraud that once again raised the questions: who did kill Amanda Palmer; who were the real authors of the texts; who is Tobias James? Finally, and under strict restrictions, permission has been given for this amended edition to be published, together with an extensive appendix exploring these and other issues.»

“Through a fascinating series of essays, stories, fairy tales, poems, introductions and appendices Kriwaczek explores issues of authorship, celebrity, popular culture, marketing strategies and the culminating steady corruption of art in contemporary culture, all in a wildly exuberant, imaginative and entertaining manner. Another sure fire winner from the author of An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin” – The Guild of Funerary Violinists Quarterly Newsletter

"Inspired by the imagined death of the real-life (and living) Amanda Palmer, the front woman for the self-described "Brechtian punk cabaret" band, The Dresden Dolls, Kriwaczek puts his mischievous faux-scholasticism to work. Presented as an anthology of "Palmeresques," an artistic form of fan response to Palmer's mysterious death, each text offers its own darkly fanciful version of the songstress's demise. Also imagined are a jumble of issues concerning the shady dealings of the Amanda Palmer Trust (APT) selection committee, the possible influence of a murder suspect on their proceedings, and the intervention of the Boston police. A postmodern Russian nesting doll of realities, complete with poems, charts, and censored text, this book is successful on many levels: creepy and fun when accepted at face value; tantalizing when looked at as evidence in a murder mystery; insightful in its commentary on modern celebrity and culture--in all coy, engaging, and delightfully imagined."

"Reports of Amanda Palmer's death are greatly exaggerated. But she lives for that shit.
This book, an extended exercise in urban legend, is built on the premise that, following the death of Boston's indie art rocker, thousands of her fans take to the internet with essays, stories, poetry and song, eventually creating a new literary genre of celebrity eulogy fanfiction ... which is very Palmer-esque. The book further amplifies its own mystique with the claim that the Boston Police Department seized an early manuscript of Many Deaths, because one story curiously resembled the actual circumstances of Palmer's death.
The book contains 10 reinventions of Palmer, framed by pseudo-literary theory—my favorite: martyrdom quotients for everyone from Christ (26.476) to John Lennon (9.548) prove mathematically that the Beatle was not, in fact, bigger than Jesus—and a mysterious conspiracy surrounding the novel's subtitle (Tobias James may or may not be responsible for her meta-textual assassination). While it's a fascinating experiment, the content of the book, purportedly a collection of fanfiction, doesn't entirely work. It feels too literary and lacks the unashamed joy (or despair) of the medium. The mistakes inserted in the text don't give it an amateur effect; they just make it harder to read.
But if you're an Amanda Palmer fan, hungry for something wonderfully strange, or just love it when shit gets meta, this book's worth puzzling over." - Andrew Vanden Bossche

Extracts:
  1. Read the Improtant Preface to the Second Edition
  2. Read an extract from On the Dancing Death of Amanda Palmer
  3. Read an extract from On the Aesthetic Decline of the Mock Funeral
  4. Read an extract from On the Unsung Death of Amanda Palmer
  5. Read an extract from Appendix V
Rohan Kriwaczek, Introducing the Infamous Rev. Rohan K., Rohan Kriwaczek, 2010.

"I only met the Rev. Rohan K. on three occasions, but to say that they were memorable would be something of an understatement... So begins Rohan Kriwaczek's introduction to the Rev. Rohan K., possibly the most unconventional, and certainly the most arrogant and and deliberately offensive poet of the early 21st century. In life he was boisterous, loud, obnoxious, unreliable and frequently drunk, though he did occassionally reveal a more thoughtful side; in his works, and particularly his llive performances, he became a monster, spitting and drooling, wilfully condemning anyone who took the time to listen.
Rohan Kriwaczek's colourful reminiscences of this extraordinary and peculiar man are upstaged only by the works themselves, selected and edited from a large collection bequeathed to him by the Reverend shortly before his disappearance in July 2008. He is thought to be currently living in Peru."

Extracts:
  1. Read an extract from the introduction.
  2. Polite Notice
  3. Just Because...
  4. Everybody's Happy to be Dead
  5. The Undertaker's Ball

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