Re-imagining Glenn Gould

Re-imagining Glenn Gould

Posted on August 16 by Peter Goddard in Non-fiction
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Circumstances surrounding any writing about Glenn Gould these days can best be explained if I point to what happened one Saturday afternoon years back in St. Peter's Anglican Church in Erindale, the ever-morphing suburb where I grew up. For a pre-Christmas event for children to help explain the meaning of the season, a parishioner known to play a little piano was asked to provide accompaniment on few hymns.

And so it came to pass on that day. A piano was rolled out and our accompanist sat down ready to romp through "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," everything neat and easy sailing until he looked up and noticed sitting there, just off his right elbow,was no less a figure than Oscar Peterson. It seems the great jazz pianist was as dutiful and devote a congregationalist as this good church had ever known. He turned up for everything. Including this kids' concert. So there he was, the great man himself, smiling benevolently — and waiting. Waiting to watch our poor trembling, accompanist play… the … piano.

Going in to writing a book on Glenn Gould, I had one advantage over that piano player. I knew what's what going into it as he didn't. I understood the intense scrutiny attracted by anything touching on Gould; about extent of the expertise, real or imagined, exhibited by Gould's dozens of biographers, researchers, and voluminous bloggers. Yet, that said, it was too late. I was fascinated by what remained in the waning memory of my subject's life, times and music-making. I was in.

Early on in the process, I contacted Kevin Bazanna, Gould's most exhaustive biographer, who said I wasn't crazy. He suggested that more digging through the Gould archives — and he's done more than most — might uncover something new and never-seen-before buried under the multi-layers of information left behind by Gould.

So I did just that. I dug. I dug deeper. I copied and annotated and cross-referenced and kept stacks of photocopied images of Gould…of, let's see, Gould doodling or notating the temperatures of major cities across the country. Photocopies I have by the bundle are bursting with Gould reviews from major newspaper reprinted in minor newspapers (melancholic evidence of the days when music reviews were a daily staple of the press.) And yes, from all of this there emerged a sense of Gould himself — him many selves: Gould the pendant, the self-taught musicologist, the funny Gould. (Gould, writing about Mendelssohn as "the goody two-shoes of music," gets Mendelssohn right about as close as it gets.)

As a writer, Gould came to remind me of Max Beerbohm, the British Victorian aesthete and essayist with "a whim of iron" as someone wrote. Beerbohm was a windy writer who used excess to his advantage, as does Gould. I eventually got used to the rhythm of Gould's writing and the way in the middle of a piece of serious musical analysis he might interrupt the flow dropping in a slangy word or two. Gould loved language of the day and was an avid reader of newspapers, particularly the Toronto Star.

What surprised me most was what was not there in these files — like, say, any evidence or sense of his extra-musical sensual life. I knew it existed. I knew a few women he'd courted over the phone. One or two would even later say a guarded word or two about their relationship or, at least, about him: how vulnerable he was; how needy and how relentless the calls. Evidence of this was scant in the archives, though. Why? Was he embarrassed? What came increasingly clear, as I went on,was the degree to what revelations were to be found were right there on the surface of things, in what he did and not in the maze of his writings.

The three central chapters in The Great Gould mean to reflect this, each following a dominant theme in his life and work: Media, music and the Canadian landscape. Robert Fulford, the respected Canadian journalist who grew up next door to Gould, insisted in an interview that whatever interested Gould had to have an intellectual basis. This was evident in his life-long preoccupation with the potential of electronic medias, an inquiry which shaped his life and career to a degree not entirely equalled by his music-making.

Yet there it was, his playing and thinking and composing, mostly reflecting a prodigious mastery rarely attained or even imagined by most other classical pianists. The mastery allowed him to abandon the concert world with all its demands and perks, and to bend his recording activities to his will. Gould more than reproduced and realized music: he appropriated it, starting his 1955 recording of The Goldberg Variations, a performance and simultaneous commentary on the performance.

Many felt this was an outrage and earned him more than his share of detractors. To some, his wilful performances were offences. I discovered this one weekend afternoon in the part of central France where I turned up late for a concert by Jörg Demus, given annually at his Chateau north of Limoges. Still welcoming people on the lawn, Demus accepted our excuse for lateness, and, nevertheless offered one of his CDs.

And where was I from? "Toronto," I said, "not far from Glenn Gould."

Demus' face froze. Himself a brilliant child pianist, Demus was unfortunate enough to release his recording of The Goldberg Variations in 1957, a year after Gould's. He loathed Glenn Gould.

Then there's Gould and landscape. Gould's Canada is a subject on its own, a subject which leads many photographers or cinematographers to feel the need to frame him in some place against some particular background. (I'm now looking at a photograph of him sitting on a porch, seemingly content, the sun on the left side of his face.) Most commentaries on Gould — indeed, many of the most insightful and heartfelt — reflect on Gould and North, his North. The Mystic North. The Solitary North. North as a subject represented the triumph of his career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. North helped define the man himself. But there's much more to Gould's north than a compass direction. For him, the North — his very thinking about the North — provided him with the means of locating himself in his imaginary world, as he himself points out in his writing; that the real Canadian north — the edges of which he only skirted as a traveller — provided the imaginary landscape to be explored by his thinking.

Certain concerns may be raised in certain quarters about about what's not here in this book; about this or that concert ignored; about some crucial recording not mentioned. I spend far more time on two of Gould's lesser radio broadcasts — The Search for Petula Clark in 1967, the same year The Idea of North was first broadcast, and his "Sports Report" on The Scene, in 1972 — than on his ground-breaking sound documentaries, Solitude Triology. I feel that my picks however are revealing than the others, and more lively. I've also sought to show the importance of a select number of performances — the controversial Brahms' Piano Concerto No.1 concert on April 6, 1962 with Leonard Bernstein and The New York Philharmonic — than to try to encompass them all.

So in a way, the book grew shorter the longer I spent on it, climbing the mountain of Gould information. I found the need not to let the information scatter every which way. I was guided in this by a recent number of relatively recent shorter biographies which crystallize key ideas about their subjects as they come to them before getting a move on. Julian Bell's Von Gogh: A Power Seething, from 2015, is an example. At 176 pages it's relatively short compared to most Van Gogh studies, particularly the mammoth 953-page Van Gogh: The Life (2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. When it comes to Glenn Gould anyone wanting to know everything about any aspects of his thinking or actions will likely find answer in the Gould sites at Library and Archives Canada.

I make a brief appearance here and there in the text in order to give, I hope, a better sense of where to place Gould Gould in old Toronto's fusty ways and in its glassy modern ones. I'm a decade younger than Gould and went through some changes he missed in the institutions we both knew — the Royal Conservatory of Music and the CBC. My newspapering days began in Toronto of the '60s and '70s where the city had a new-found lustre, fame, and zest thanks to the writing of Marshall McLuhan, Jane Jacobs, a rowdy gang of visual artists and curators and a entire generation of singer-songwriters, Murray McLauchlan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and so many more. But (full disclosure) when it came to hanging out in hip Toronto I was a flop, even as a music critic. Gould might have been worse — a worse hippy I mean, not critic. (He maintained he liked critics. He just wouldn't let them use his piano.)

My presence is not to suggest any particular intimacy or any other manner of closeness with him although I've always live a short walk away from his place. I found out only recently that a close artist friend of mine now lives in Gould's old St. Clair Ave. apartment. (My friend had complaints about the rugs when he moved in.) Gould and I talked a number of times. We knew and worked with a number of the same people. We both appeared on different occasions on different CBC radio shows hosted by the formidably bright and funny Margaret Pacsu, who understood Gould better than anyone I knew. But my relationship with Glenn Gould pretty much stops there.

Well, not entirely. I realize there's another reason for my few walk-ons in the book. The closer you get to Glenn Gould —for all his gnarly, obstreperous, secretive, off-putting, friendship-forbidding way — the more you're left feeling the need to be kind. Kind to him; kindly about him.I didn't get this sense during my own contact with him over the years. These connections, usually by phone, were all about business, mine (journalism) and his (being Glenn Gould). But researching him much later — looking into his thinking, thinking about his thinking — was different. Here, he draws you close. He makes you feel him. You inevitably imagined a connection between the two of you.

For this reason the Gould archives in Ottawa, for all their anonymity, even sterility, are oddly welcoming. They're his place.


Peter Goddard

Posted by Kendra on October 27, 2015
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Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard, music, film, and visual arts critic for the Toronto Star (and a winner of a National Newspaper Award), has written for radio and TV and a good many magazines. He is the author of The Sounding, a novel, and multiple musical biographies, including those on Ronnie Hawkins, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Trained as an ethnomusicologist, Peter played piano for rock and blues bands.