Friday, April 01, 2011

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould
photo sourced from Roger Ebert's review of
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
Unusual Pianist - Pianist par excellence - Special Chair - Favourite Rug - Solitary Genius - Changed Classical Music Forever - Twentieth Century's Best Pianist - Sudden Death - Eccentric Life

When one tries to look up details on Glenn Gould one often finds a combination of the keywords above. When one reads the lives of several geniuses it starts to seem like 'eccentric' is the equivalent of 'normal' in geniusspeak.

So who was Glenn Gould? Some people have tried to explore this question through books and movies:

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

The Music Itself: Glenn Gould's Contrapuntal Vision *

Glenn Gould at the Metropolitan Museum *

In the Chair * (Review of Peter Ostwald's Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and the Tragedy of Genius)

Glenn Gould, the Virtuoso as Intellectual *
There isn't much point here in going over the characteristics that made Gould the extraordinary eccentric that he was: the low bench, his humming, gesticulating, untoward grimacing and conducting as he played, the strange liberties he took with composers like Mozart whom he disliked, and indeed, the odd choice of repertory that would include the Bach that he made uniquely his, plus composers like Bizet, Wagner, Sibelius, Webern, and Richard Strauss, who were not widely known for using the keyboard as their medium. But there is no way of denying that from the moment Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations appeared, a genuinely new phase in the history of virtuosity began: he lifted the sheer mastery of playing before the public to an elevation, or call it a side-road or deviation, of an unprecedented kind. What made his appearance a more pronouncedly original event was that he had no known precedents in the history of music.

Statue of Glenn Gould
Toronto
photo sourced from Wikipedia

Glenn Gould shot to fame in America (he was Canadian) with his rendering of Bach's Goldberg Variations in 1955. He recorded the Variations again in 1981.

As a listener, it is amazing if you can remember the exact moment when you first heard an artist play and knew that you would become a fan of his for life. Lorrie Moore captures one such moment in her book A Gate at the Stairs when the protagonist Tassie Keltjin listens to Gould the first time:

She put a CD in the car player. "Bach's first French suite. Do you know it?" 
After some clicking and static, it began, stately and sad. "I think so," I said, not sure at all. My friends had already begun to lie, to bluff a sophistication they felt that at the end of the ten second bluff they would authentically possess. But I was not only less inclined this way but less skilled. "Maybe not, though," I added. Then, "Wait, it's ringing a bell." 
"Oh it's the most beautiful thing," she said. "Especially with this pianist." It was someone humming along with the light dirge of the Bach. Later I would own every loopy Glenn Gould recording available, but there in the car with Sarah was the first time I'd ever heard him play. The piece was like an elegant interrogation made of tangled yarn, a query from a well-dressed man in a casket, not yet dead. It proceeded slowly, like a careful equation, and then not: if x = y, if major = minor, if death equals part of life and life part of death, then what is the sum of the infinite notes of this one phrase? It asked, answered, reasked, its moody asking a refinement of reluctance or dislike. I had never heard a melody quite like it.


Let the music speak for itself.


Notes:
Bach's Goldberg Variations

Edward Said: Music at the Limits

Glenn Gould at Grooveshark

PostScript:
I am a relatively new listener of Gould's work. I came to them through Edward Said's writing. Gould's rendering is so alive that I dare not describe and therefore thereby flatten them into words on a page. Also I am still soaking them and it is hard to isolate liking at this point.

Originally posted at Notes on Tones