I want to write something about Glenn Gould. Who is he, what is his legacy in 2022?
I’m thinking about what GG means to me as I anticipate Tapestry Opera’s premiere of Gould’s Wall, a new site-specific opera opening August 4th, that would seem to dramatize the ongoing influence of the great pianist based on what I surmise from the program.
“A young, extraordinarily talented artist and musician on a quest to uncover her own voice.”
“The presence of Mr. Gould. He is Inspiration. Consciousness. Sub-consciousness. Support. The Artist. The Icon. The Man. One might call him a ghost, but he is 100% real and present: an inhabitant of the wall and the building”
The third and arguably most important character in the opera is the site namely The Wall. As composer Brian Current tells us in his program note:
“Since the beautiful new Royal Conservatory building was completed in 2009, the inner Atrium wall has been crying out to become the setting of a vertical opera. Huge thanks to librettist Liza Balkan and Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori for creating such a wonderful theatrical premise to fit the site.”
I’m reminded of the 1984 appearance of Sankai Juku in Toronto, performing butoh suspended from the sides of buildings in Toronto. Whatever the aesthetic, when the art transcends our experience and our expectation we move into the realm of “the happening.”
I suspect that’s to be the likely impact of Gould’s Wall. You can read more about the show here.
Here’s what I think of when I contemplate Glenn Gould.
He grew up in the east end of town. There’s a plaque somewhere (Victoria Park I think) attesting to this fact.
He was a great talent, but unique in his choice to give up live performance, offering his work exclusively through various media such as recordings, television, or radio.
He had a special relationship with the CBC, seemingly understanding the impact of media at least as well as Marshall McLuhan. It’s perfect that his likeness sits on a bench in front of the CBC building on Front St, sculpted by Ruth Abernethy.
His choice to stop live performance made sense given that he seemed to be someone who was more introverted than extroverted, a quirky genius. I say that without ever meeting him or knowing him. But he made the transition to cultural icon partly through rumours and stories. His piano was supposedly prepared differently; he sat lower to the keyboard than what we’re usually taught (or so said my teacher).
He died too young. Gould was born on September 25 1932, and died October 4 1982. I can’t help noticing he was born and he died in the sign of libra (the scales… not the kind of scales we play at the piano but rather the sort we use to weigh things), a classical symmetry also seen in his name (five letters in both the first and last names).
Yes, we’re coming up on his 90th birthday.
Gould seems especially relevant in this post-pandemic era of virtual work, dating, meeting, concertizing and living. He was ahead of his time. It’s funny that Gould’s Wall is in a sense celebrating him as an icon in live performance even though he could be the avatar for Zoom and the online concert experience.
The premiere of Gould’s Wall was delayed by the pandemic, postponed until its arrival next week. While that might be understood as a logistical disaster—particularly for Michael Mori and his team at Tapestry Opera—it might be a good thing. What was brand new received extra rehearsal for its second coming, making it just a bit more sure-handed, the music more secure.
Gould is associated with the music of JS Bach, especially a pair of recordings of the Goldberg Variations that bracket his life (one in his youth, one much later) like bookends. Apt for a libra.
I have been most interested in Gould’s relationship to three pieces. While none of them are by Bach, old JS lurks in the background for these three like a ghost. Originally we encountered these three in a recording of piano transcriptions of the music of Richard Wagner: the prelude to Die Meistersinger, the Dawn & Rhine-Journey from Gotterdammerung, and the Siegfried Idyll. I can’t decide whether Gould’s approach points at the influence of Bach on Wagner or simply shows us Gould’s own fascination with counterpoint, bringing out something in Wagner that I’d never noticed.
Later Gould published the transcriptions. Two of them are oxymorons in the sense that they aren’t really playable by a single person in live performance, but require either a second pianist or –as in Gould’s case—the overdubbing of a second pianist into a recording.
It’s arguably a practical joke he was playing on those who would insist on live performance.
Somewhere I think Glenn is laughing.