Today and this week, we celebrate the 80th birthday of a famous Canadian. If Toronto is Glenn Gould’s city we live in “Gould burg”. In the Beaches there’s a plaque not far from his high school reminding us of his childhood. Downtown there’s a sculpture of the pianist in front of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) building.
Although come to think of it, the CBC gained a great deal from Gould, an artist who seemed to put the network and the rest of us on the map. Of course you’re going to hear hot and cold running Gould on the air, when Gould is like the CBC’s godfather. Harold Innis & Marshall McLuhan are understood as our media prophets: not just among Canadians but perhaps for the world. We should have learned a few things, perched as we were on the edge of the great American Media Pond. Yet I think Gould had a great deal to say in this regard.
Every time you click on an article about Gould you’ll have to brace yourself for another barrage of attempts to explain his significance, lists of his achievements, anecdotes seeking to capture his wit unique flavour.
- Some will talk about his wit & unique personality.
- Others will discuss his pianism & his musicianship. In a summer where I’ve spoken more about piano music than usual, I surprise myself. I like some recordings more than others, but I won’t go there. Let’s leave this aside.
- And others will talk about his experimental media creations, creating the impression of a genuine visionary.
No, I have only one axe to grind concerning Gould. I think he had one insight that dwarfs everything else, or perhaps it’s where all the rest really begins. Although I think it began as his personal preference it grew into something verging on a prophecy.
The world was surprised when Glenn Gould announced that he would stop doing public concerts, and make his music solely in a studio instead. Did it begin as performance anxiety as some have said? Was it a kind of futurist project, extrapolating along a few specific trajectories from the present? Gould predicted that concerts would stop, echoing earlier thinkers troubled in various ways by liveness. Brahms once said he’d rather experience a particular symphony from a score in a chair in his living room, than in the concert hall. Maurice Maeterlinck said he’d rather read Shakespeare than encounter the bard in performance because something of Hamlet dies when he’s portrayed on stage.
It is in their tradition that I’d like to see Gould’s choice to retreat from the realm of the live into the virtuality of the studio, a pledge of allegiance to music. In the world of the concert Murphy’s Law rules, whether it’s the bad weather that disrupts airplane schedules, or a simple cough robbing us of the silence from which music emerges. In a studio you can simply record another take, whether the issue is noise or a wrong note. One can overdub or adjust the pitch (as sometimes happens for singers).
The coolness of Gould’s output has always reminded me of McLuhan. Live performance is a hot medium at the very least because of the possibility of wrong notes, the implicit drama of audience applause (or the lack thereof). By removing the applause & the errors, it all becomes much cooler, much more ambient, and therefore virtual.
When I listened to Gould’s transcription of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on youtubeI was asking myself the same question I’ve asked myself since I first heard the vinyl recording that I grabbed at the record store when the performance was first released, which can be re-phrased in this perverse way: is it even a performance?
When I listened to it, so calm and cool and balanced as the ideal of the musical academy itself, I had to wonder if Gould had overdubbed. He plays so many notes so cleanly, that it’s not the old-fashioned transcription we know from Liszt, the bravura reduction for the piano. Whether Gould plays it live or constructs it in a series of overlaid tracks, the performance is as calm as the technicians with him rolling tape. It is a triumph of musicianship even as its pristine perfection would likely have freaked Wagner out. No, it’s not music by Eno or Glass, yet there’s a kind of tranquility to the recording –no I won’t call it a performance—that belies the original.
I don’t like everything Gould plays but he brings a special excitement to his readings precisely because they’re not like what you’d hear from anyone else.
And now? We’re in a period of textual fundamentalism, when conductors & performers seem to have less leeway to interpret, when the recordings rarely have the kind of excitement to them that a Gould could generate. In this respect, however original he may have been, Gould belongs with the generation of virtuosi of the mid-century.