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Art of the Hipster: Glenn Gould

Lawrence Russell

ƒƒ Visually, Glenn Gould was very interesting, as his Byronic pose fitted his artistic anachronism perfectly. The long overcoat, the gloves, the scarf, the cap, the dog, the lordly coach (Lincoln Continental, Chrysler 300, Chevy Impala), the lingering illness and the sense of exile no matter where he was -- these things contributed to his image as the romantic desperado. He was a reincarnation of the nineteenth century artist, a neoclassical hipster seeking the perfect groove in the modern world, famous, idealized, doomed to loneliness and an early death.

Fame came quickly, as he was in the right place at the right time. His first US concert was in Washington D.C. in 1955, the true centre of world power at that time. Within a few days he was offered a recording contract by Columbia Records in New York; he recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations, then -- like Lord Byron -- went to bed and woke up famous. He was 22 and had recorded the biggest selling classical album of the time. While it didn't go "gold" he did achieve that status in 1977 when his Bach recording was included on the gold disc launched into space with the Voyager satellite.

His playing was secular, because he personalized the scores of the masters to suit his own taste and emotional need rather than play to the communal, religious design. Hence he was considered a heretic by old school musicologists. But he was just part of the modern instinct, deconstructing the classics as would a painter -- for, having copied the Masters, he must seek a new narrative landscape. Not as radical and obvious as Picasso, say, but towards the end of his short life he was moving in that direction by abandoning the concert hall recital in favor of the recording studio montage.

Even watching him today on some film clip, GG's technique is so good, it's heartless. He squats at the keyboard like an overgrown child playing with a toy, talks to it, babbles, sings, exhales the alien entity that controls him. The love whispers, the threats, all this emotive exposition as the alien leads him through the capricious corridors of godhood, the power and the glory. Has he ever turned on the instrument, attacked it, smashed it in an act of sadism or tragic therapy? If only. The piano was never his victim, rather he was a victim of the piano. Yet his genius is all technical, a worker within the mind of another. He talks about the architecture of music like a stone mason on the edge of a mystical revelation.

He dies at 50, too young to succeed, too old to fail.

a duet with yourself

The three DVD documentary set Glenn Gould Plays Bach (1979-1981) by Bruno Monsaingeon shows the pianist's physical decline in accelerated detail. Three years pass between the first and the third, yet the metamorphosis looks like thirty. The sessions are close, intimate, with Gould at the piano, and Monsaingeon nearby, leaning on the frame, or sitting tete-a-tete, the cultured interlocutor coaxing the mysteries of Bach from the more-than-cultured artist. In 1979, GG is still as handsome as Hollywood, his skin youthful, his hair full and sleek, his sensitive playing killing with its deadly accuracy. In the next session his hair is thinner, less obedient, his skin moist as old stone... and in the third he looks old. Could be the movie lights or the crazy bifocals, of course, but with hindsight you know it isn't. One year later, he is gone. As usual, the romantic poet arrives late, leaves early.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould: Russian Journey

The Art of Fugue

Evening, November 1979. The art deco auditorium on the 7th floor of the old Eaton's Department Store, College Street, Toronto, where Glenn Gould plays piano and records.

As usual, GG's left hand conducts his entrance to the tomb, finds the tempo like a medium catching the vibe... his body draws in and out from the keyboard like a rower pulling across an invisible surface. This physical expression -- an integrated one -- seems like an illness at times, a leaching of the soul. Every time he plays, he pays a price, surrenders part of his being to the dead.

Imagine it as an archaeological dig, and Johann Sebastian Bach as a mummy with a heavy mojo.

It's been more than 200 years and Bach's need is powerful. He placed "the stranger maiden" in his choir (no women allowed), then married a cousin with whom he had seven children, and when she died, he married another woman with whom he had thirteen children. You could reason that "the art of the fugue" was the only thing he understood. He went blind, then died. Years later when the composer Schumann went looking for his grave, he was told "there are many Bachs". In 1894 a skeleton was found that was supposed to be J.S. Bach; it was taken to a museum, dressed up as the famous composer, put on display. This pagan travesty was an odd fate for the musician Glenn Gould calls "the greatest craftsman of his time"... but of course there were no photographers in 1750 when Bach died in Leipzig.

GG pursues his archaeological exhumation with impressive clairvoyance, as he rolls through Bach as easily as if he'd written the works himself. Prelude in D major... Sonata in C minor... the Italian Concerto... The Well-Tempered Clavier... etcetera. In his conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon, he doesn't really get into the pros and cons of harpsichord tuning or the mechanical problems of tuning at the time (circa 1700), but rather sees Bach as an intellectual and artistic advance, especially how he could create architectures in all the keys. There's a magic mirror here, and Glenn Gould is staring into it in selfless admiration. He sees himself as Bach -- perhaps we do too -- yet he realizes he's just a messenger, has been given "a tonal visa to pass through E sharp minor" into the future.

The music doesn't fill Time -- it subtracts it. No wonder GG withdrew from concert performances. No wonder he died early. His face is flushed, fevered, and sweaty -- no wonder Bruno Monsaingeon ends the biopic on a freeze-frame of the artist leaning close to the keys like a supplicant.

The Glenn Gould Bach heresy is overstated (he dared to play Bach on a modern piano). It's like saying Hitler's radio broadcasts should only be heard on a 1933 Volksemfaenger VE 301 or Sparky's Magic Piano on a 78. Bach is often referred to as the father of the modern piano, as he introduced the thumb and the little finger into the hand action. And before Bach, harpsichord players would find only two keys in tune, the rest out, so this "howling wolf" situation formed a default orthodoxy; Bach picked up the "well-tempered" circle of fifths tuning from an organist predecessor called Werckmeister, and, ripping-off the Italians, was able to compose The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Goldberg Variations. No more wolf fifths, no more two key lockdown.

The Goldberg Variations Redux

Evening, New York 1981. GG is rerecording The Goldberg Variations, this time for a Bruno Monsaingeon French TV documentary. His head rolls counter-clockwise as he stretches for the keyboard, back bowed like a hanging ape in brutal apposition to the beauty of the music.

Commissioned by Count Kaiserling -- the Russian ambassador to the Saxony court -- as a placebo for his insomnia, the Variations have become known as "The Goldberg Variations" as Goldberg was the name of Kaiserling's harpsichordist, and who had to stay awake to play them when needed. As GG says, the composition is thirty remarkable views of an unremarkable theme. In the context of today, this could be an algorithm for a synthesizer patch.

Why has GG chosen to rerecord this Bach composition? The advance in recording technology. Stereo field, Dolby noise reduction and all the rest. "I thought I might find a harmonic thread," he said. What he doesn't say is that the tape can be edited.

As lecture-recitals go, this is pretty good, and the playing is more than good. He grasps all of the polyphony, all of the voices. The music? Baroque to be sure, full of curls and shivers (trills and appoggiaturas), and that prancing meter that sent legions of brutes into war and women into pregnancy. Amazing. The groove is so far removed from the modern and post-modern vibe as to be ridiculous. It's life as a free-hand sketch, a doodling by candlelight as rodents run freely in the shadows and bats seek blood from the sleeping patient. Insomnia? Dream fever beauty? Sound wave narcosis? As music, it climbs all over itself in a tangle of crossing lines and hallucinatory hands. The diary of a madman, Bach, mad with religion and sex, and Gould, with neither score nor humility, channels it perfectly.

Baroque art is a pre-electric world where the sleeping and waking minds are drawn together in an easy occult mix of the natural and the supernatural. Lords and ladies cavort with demons as easily as with one another. The mathematics of superstition is the dance notation of the Minuet. Hop, hop, one two three four. You are reminded of jack rabbits gathering in the early sun. The groove might come from horse riding or a natural need to elevate in order to see above the crowd or simply telegraph the sexual impulse. The formality is a disguise for something, yet as music, the disguise is perfect. It's a windup, like a clock or a bucket from the well. If only life was as well-tempered.

In his eloquent introduction, Bruno Monsaingeon says that GG was trying "to reclaim the unity (composer-player-listener) shattered by the artistic concepts of the Romantic Age" and that his withdrawal from public performance was an attempt to "harness the undissipated intellectual power that only solitude can give". This is interesting, because the classicists were desperate to find a star who could stand between them and popular culture, revitalize the concert hall, bring it back from nostalgia and high-culture fatigue. Before Hitler (or Stalin), the songbook was always for the aristocracy; then, by his command, mass hypnosis for the industrial public. Glenn made nice records, and records were like books. Books are solitude in code. And then, solitude is just solitude, the solipsism that surrounds us all.

"On the other hand, contrary to what has been written here and there, our dialogues were not scripted. They were improvised and completely spontaneous, all the while following a carefully thought-out dramatic sequence. Every take was to have a different verbal content. We would leave it up to the editing process to reconcile improvisation and preconception." [Bruno Monsaingeon]

Wilshire Ebell (Los Angeles)

madness in the conditional

Much has been made of Glenn Gould's hypochondria, and given his swift decline, you have to wonder if his fear wasn't justified. His posture at the piano was simply preposterous. Anyone who plays an instrument knows what a toll it takes on the shoulders, the neck, the arms, the hands, the fingers --- never mind the back, the hips, the legs all the way to the feet. The concentration, the tension required for balance and hand locomotion... these things wreck the muscles, damage the nerves. When he put himself in a body cast, he wasn't kidding.

Peter Oswald, a San Francisco doctor and musician, who knew and treated GG for many years has a paper entitled Glenn Gould As Patient which sympathetically lays out the facts in professional detail. From the start, he was lazy about personal hygiene, as careless as a strung-out rock n roller like Keith Richards. "One of his worst habits, in my opinion, was of not informing his doctors about who else was treating him and prescribing medication, thus causing confusion and probably over-medication. He had little respect for the side-effects of drugs."

Gould lurched from crisis to crisis like a junkie trying to score in a strange town. His physical pain and social anxiety drove him deeper into prescription drugs in a game pattern not dissimilar to that of a heroin addict. He hid in his penthouse like Howard Hughes, feared pushy fans, refused to answer the door. Says Peter Oswald: "Glenn called me to say that disturbing things were happening in his apartment. Some neighbors were spying on him from the roof, shining lights into his windows, making strange noises, and sending him coded messages." Paranoia? He used TV as means of falling asleep, so no doubt he remained in the Twilight Zone even when he awakened. His condition was a celeb condition, especially when the celeb was an introvert. He had bona fide reasons for selective paranoia, yet the paranoia came to include nearly everything. Isolation had a lot to do with it, a bit like the goal-keeper's fear of the penalty shot. The audience? The parasites in the darkness sucking the splendour out of his music? The fear of failure drove him to say, ""I detest the audience... en masse... they're evil." The self-loathing here has a post-coital sense about it, the brief trauma that follows orgasm, as if every spasm subtracts from life, robs the future. Some artists know it as manic depression.

Neuropraxia... a facial tic... jawline asymmetry... fear of germs, fear of sunlight, fear of the cold, fear of people, fear of anywhere but Toronto... long midnight telephone calls to people he's never met except by mail or wire... the death of his mother, his first piano teacher (she was a Grieg, same family as Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer)... his valium intake out of control... the safety of a childhood forever receding, he becomes a monologist in search of a listener.

What sort of person does this? Alcoholics make midnight calls, junkies, burglars and bad girls, and somehow Glenn Gould slid into this desperado culture of off-road loneliness. He came to look the part, got stripped by the border guards, too many pills, man. While you couldn't exactly call him the Midnight Rambler, he was weird. He started out eccentric, ended up mad. The madness was conditional, but as his brain collapsed, it might have been clinical. "Electroencephalographic studies showed massive destruction of the right brain hemisphere, and other tests revealed death of the medulla oblongata, the brain's central controlling mechanism of bodily functions," is how Peter Oswald, MD, describes it. It was a stroke, the final chord of his strange, orchestral decline.

Autism? Asperger Syndrome? The doctors continue to debate.

first of the bourgeois infiltrators

Yet before all this, before the fear and loathing, he had all the glamour that comes with youth and divine talent. He was born with perfect pitch and the monomania to exploit it. Flash fame in the US, flash fame in the Soviet Union. When he was in Moscow blowing them away with Bach and Beethoven... with the second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg), he met Sviatoslav Richter, the German-Ukrainian pianist who'd recently played at Stalin's funeral. What a contrast in playing styles and temperament -- about the only thing they had in common was a fear of flying and an ad hoc education. Yes, both attended the conservatory, but Richter was a pounder, a player for large venues and large audiences, frozen churches and frozen squares. His style was preelectronic, declamatory and theatrical, whereas Gould was in love with the microphone, even before he saw its face. His touch, while staccatissimo, was light and personal, free of propaganda and false religion. As commentators have noted, the Russians responded to Gould's playing as if it was sunshine breaking through the gray overcast of state socialism. Because of the external repression, the average Russian could only turn inwards for freedom, so the phantasmic beauty of Gould's aural loneliness had great appeal. In 1957 there was no rock n roll in the Soviet Union but the coming of Glenn Gould was the nearest thing to it.

You could say he was a jazzman within a classical context. He liked to improvise... "in the manner of". He could drop into the style of any composer, any player -- even George Gershwin. He went off-script eventually, yet the need for control eventually had him scripting interviews, seeking perfection through acting. He was a frontman, a bandleader without a band. He clashed with Leonard Bernstein, and in frustration quit the scene. Who is the boss? When you remember that Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel, things could've gone bad fast. It wasn't just Bernstein, of course, but the whole rigid musicological nightmare of evocation and necrophilia. The fundamentalism of the maestros was killing. So he went off-road, allowed the forest to swallow him.

anxious Schoenberg atonal blues

Gould was completely smitten by the work of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) (GG's first CBC radio documentary in 1962 was Arnold Schoenberg: The Man Who Changed Music). Schoenberg is associated with German expressionism, was a painter as well as a composer, could be considered a numbers mystic. His mature method is chromatic 12 tone serialism, which allows dissonance or "atonality" i.e. spirit world or blue note cries. He fled to the US in 1933 to escape the Nazi purge of art decadents and Jews, settled in Los Angeles where he composed and taught until 1951, when he died, aged 76. He anticipated his death as the number 7 + 6 equals thirteen, which he believed to be fatal ("triskaidekaphobia" or fear of the number 13).

Schoenberg didn't convince everyone with his aesthetic. The American jazz pianist Dave Brubeck clashed with him on the second day of class. Why did Brubeck use that note? "He wanted a reason for every note," said Brubeck. "I said, 'Because it sounds good, and he said 'That is not an adequate reason,' and we got into a huge argument in which he was screaming at me." Exit Dave, stage right.

Enter Glenn Gould... in his speed boat called "Arnold S" in homage to the great innovator. GG was introduced to Schoenberg's music by Alberto Guerrero, who taught the young Gould piano at the Toronto Conservatory. He included work by Schoenberg on one of his recitals in Russia, despite the disapproval of the Soviet authorities. Yet they never met, and by the time Gould ever played in Los Angeles, Schoenberg was dead.

[there's an oblique irony in the fact that Glenn Gould's last public concert was in 1964 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre L.A. where Dave Brubeck recorded one of his famous live gigs (Live at the Wilshire Ebell, 1953).]

Glenn Gould Arnold Schoeberg Piano Concerto

trance, sex, and dimension

He appeared asexual in a vaguely protestant way, his seclusion masking his need for love. He wasn't a womanizer, even though one or two women have confessed. He stole another musician's wife and children, although perhaps the musician's wife stole him. It was a selfish interlude, stupid in that 60's way that excused folly if you called it love, pain if you called it art. In the excellent Hozer/Raymont 2009 DVD documentary, Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Cornelia Foss inserts herself into the frame easily, then painlessly removes herself by saying "Glenn became someone else" i.e. a paranoid control freak strung-out on anti-depressants. Listening to her (and her son and daughter) there's a benevolent sense of nostalgia, that it was no bad thing, as if fame and history made it all right -- like being the mistress of the King or some other essential sacrifice. Orpheus was needy, what the hell. Without the kids, of course, it would've been just another day at the beach. The romance with Roxy, the singer who liked the Mary Hartman Show, is just plain normal by comparison.

Classical music is trapped within history, within its religious exhortation, and always will be. Its function is communal and orchestral, and its acoustic instrumentation fits the baroque societies of the past. How can you be modern within this narrative? While this might not be the sole reason why GG failed to move persuasively into composition, it certainly had something to do with his move into media art. "Writing" -- whether it's music notation or script -- is less relevant when working with recorded sound. The plan, the script, the score, becomes a schematic at best, and the rest is in the mind of the creative artist. Extemporization/improvisation becomes the narrative, and linear exposition less important. GG's "scripts" were geometric sketches, describing stereo-fields and sound transits rather than plotted narratives. He was a prisoner of the piano, yet knew instinctively that the architecture of sound is bigger than any instrument.

Improvisation wasn't new, and it didn't even start with jazz. It was the root of Beethoven's compositional method. When he was in Vienna in the early 1800s, Beethoven lived in "the final years of public improvisation" (extempore playing). By 1817 when he was almost completely deaf (some blame lead poisoning, others, Napoleon's bombardment of Vienna) he battered his new Broadwood (London) insensible... and the Broadwood was the loudest, most powerful piano of its time. Is the piano the devil's instrument, a death machine that requires a fatal compact? Beethoven's withdrawal from public performance, his decline and death is similar to Glenn Gould's... ill-health and madness, fame and deification. Sometimes Beethoven is viewed as the greatest artist civilization has ever produced, and while a case can be made based on his piano sonatas and concerti, it would be difficult to extend this superlative to Gould. Essentially he was a performer -- not a composer -- and his fame was/is a modern media event, a fractal shiver in the electronic nervous system that determines culture globally. Like Elvis, he lived in someone else's song. Like Elvis, he became a cult.

Every ten years there's a parade to commemorate "Saint Glenn" in Toronto. Children and teenagers march bearing icons of GG, others dress like Daleks wearing cones and packing shields in a mobile geometry of mass surrender like the robot dancers in a communist party tattoo. Yes, they're in it for the free donuts and pop, nothing to get alarmed about. It's perfectly normal, a simple celebration for a favorite native son. 1992, 2002, 2012... in 2013, Glenn Gould posthumously received a Lifetime Achievement honor from the US Recording Academy at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Thirty-one years after his death, he's still sexy.

"As the performer's once sacrosanct privileges are merged with the responsibilities of the tape editor and the composer, the Van Meegeren syndrome can no longer be cited as an indictment but becomes rather an entirely appropriate description of the aesthetic condition in our time. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization." [Glenn Gould, The Prospects of Recording, 1965]

Glenn Gould tape session

the world of sound is essentially a unified field of instant relationships (Marshall McLuhan)

In the mid sixties GG lived not far from the soon-to-be-famous media analyst Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto professor. Gould visited McLuhan often for long discussions in the philosopher's study, so you can assume there was nothing naive about Gould's move into media art. The recording studio as a means to performance perfection was already underway in the jazz industry, where tapes were being cut and spliced into new realities before being pressed to disc. Sometimes bungled parts were cut; sometimes better parts from several takes were assembled into a new take. With serial montage, the artist was no longer a victim of Time, but a co-conspirator.

Montage can be used to dramatize (or fictionalize, if desired) a narrative; it can also jazz it, or musicalize it, if metric montage is used. Eisenstein's famous treatise on montage in film editing examines the possibilities in terms of poetic configuration, the creation of a new image language by symbolism, Time-compression and psychology.

GG's first "sound-text" piece was a one hour documentary broadcast in late 1967 as part of the CBC "Ideas" series. It differs from orthodox radio documentaries in that it uses audio montage and contrapuntal voicings to develop the narrative, which is vaguely linear in the sense that an essay -- rather than a drama -- is yet the approach is soft drama. The interviewees or characters are not in conflict (except occasionally with themselves) but function as an ambient chorus of emerging and submerging voices. It starts with a female (a nurse) reading her poetic impressions of the northland as she flies over the lakes and forests; her voice is soon overridden by a discounting male with a less glamorous impression... then another male joins in like radio station drift, creating a babble which then submerges behind the female voice, which once again becomes the foreground. GG then appears as narrator, talking about "the North" and what it means to him, and then introduces the "characters" in the usual radio program set-up. Thereafter the action is basically on "the Muskeg Express" -- the train that runs from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba (on Hudson's Bay about 57 degrees north). The rail chatter is faint, the train horn less so. The monologues are intellectual, informed, abstract and moralistic, and listening to them 50 years later, you can discern the thinking that led to white guilt and political correctness. It's the chattering classes, the bourgeois, talking about the false romanticism of the Eskimo, "the articulate protest of alcoholism", aboriginal "stooges" and the aggravating "noise of civilization". Today, some will like it, some will yawn.

Basically, The Idea of the North is about solitude... what solitude does, and how to deal with it. Art for the artists? Might be. Obviously GG felt an affinity for the subject, growing up in Ontario, often in the summer solitude of Lake Simcoe where the wilderness extended northwards as a wall of sleeping mystery -- forests, lakes, rocks, on and on into the frozen dead zone of the sub-arctic. As the sound of the wilderness on such a large scale is silence, it could be a subject for sound but not sound itself. The listener does have a choice: music or talk, or talk with music. GG uses his fugue music knowledge to construct a narrative that is as concerned about how it sounds as much as by what it says. Although technically not a tape loop, the fugue-ing voices act as transitions or dream passages from one monologue to the next. The babble fits nicely with the sound of the train, and over the course of the journey, you wish there was more of it. Avant-garde for CBC radio in 1967, but less so for other jurisdictions such as German radio which had a strong tradition of electronic music and concomitant editing techniques, and certain university music departments hip to musique concrete, tape loops, and ambient recording.

His move from the piano to the recording studio is that of producer (rather than auteur) as he used a technician to cut and splice the tape, move the dials, do the mix -- a union issue, perhaps, although he was the "big ear" and the concept was all his. It was like the movies or playing with an orchestra: collaborate or stay home. Had he lived longer, he would have seen recording technology move from the corporate studio (with its division of labour) into the accessible domain of the individual. Certainly he had the dough to buy, say, a professional Ampex 2000 portable reeler or a Studer J37 and get into it himself... but he also had the fame that opened the CBC recording studios in Toronto when other artists could only dream.

The Latecomers (1969) is an aesthetically more successful "contrapuntal" documentary. A montage of voices talking about Newfoundland against the recordist art favorite, the restless sibilant hiss of big surf in stereo sweeps left and right. "This thing that has happened to us... robbed us of our solitude... the rush of civilization," begins the first male voice, setting up the familiar GG theme of lost romanticism, nostalgia for the wilderness and the beauty of nature. Laments, lap-dissolves, vocal fugues, clarity and abstraction... it's all coming at you like voices from the spirit world. It certainly works well as history, and as a social gestalt. It also has an authentic sonority, is more the way we actually hear life, which is not order or disorder, but rather a shifting mix of sounds. The mind focuses, the mind unfocuses, the relevant and the irrelevant blend and separate. As a narrative, perhaps its only weakness is Time -- the action is conversation rather than drama, although the soundscape does dramatize. Without the conflict of real drama, exposition is always a failing narrative over time.

His 24 minute aural essay on Petula Clark (In Search of Petula Clark) -- which really starts at 4:20 into his monologue -- is not going to win him any fans outside of an alienated few in the music conservatories. He starts with a long discourse about life along Hwy 17 between Toronto and the "timber town" of Marathon on Lake Superior. Driving this route is where he probably listens to Petula Clark on the car radio, although you'd never know it by the way he falls smugly into the quotidian, kills his subject with deadening details about small towns, reservations, pulp mill smells and the "1984 prefab" mentality everywhere to be seen. No doubt meant to be pithy humour, yet it just comes across as tight-assed and patronizing.

And this attitude only gets worse when he gets to Petula Clark and the pop music scene. Petula is "pop music's most persuasive embodiment of the Gidget syndrome" which is no more or less than adolescent rebellion and conformity in its relentless diatonic expression. Yes, the man can be funny, but not hip and funny. He's a rebel in the conservatory or the concert hall or behind the wheel of his Lincoln, but otherwise he's as conservative as a school district superintendent. Armed with all the musicologist's architectural terms, the classical nazi holds forth on the "harmonic primitivism of the Beatles", "false tonic releases" and other sex crimes on or against classicism. "Strawberry Fields suggests a chance encounter between Claudio Monteverdi and a Jug band" -- yes, that's a good knock -- even an accurate one -- yet it gets lost in the pontificating (you wonder if, in fact, it was the Beatles who finished him off as a recitalist). Well, the verbosity is a mask, isn't it? Everyone says he was obsessed with Petula Clark, wanted to collaborate with her. Perhaps he fancied himself as a Burt Bacharach doing a Dionne Warwick gig, knock old Tony Hatch off the Petula lectern. These catchy road songs -- Downtown, Do You Know the Way to San Jose -- and other pop radio hits would be a piece of cake for a savant such as him. Parody... could it be? You just don't know.

requiem for an alchemist

He rents a country estate, then walks away from the deal. He halts a concert in San Francisco because of a draft from an open door. He puts himself in a plaster cast to get real. He accuses a Steinway technician of assault and Steinway of crippling him with the heavy action of their keyboard, launches a lawsuit. He wears biker gloves, poses for fashion photos, makes home movies, plays on the beach, admires divas from near and far, monologues, monologues, his charming babble following him like locomotive smoke. He was real gone, as Elvis used to say. He was a classical rebel searching for a modern coma. He had the instinct of a hipster without knowing what hip was.

You don't have to be a witch-doctor to recognize that he wrecked his posture by using a kid's chair to sit at the keyboard. He did this, apparently, in order to expedite Alberto Guerrero's "pull-down" method for striking the keys. He squats or he clings like a child losing a grip on his mother. His performance is always a Freudian study of Oedipal isolation and the occult, as if the scales he follows are the pathways back to the origin of everything. He has an act -- entirely natural and spontaneous -- that is both infantile and intellectual, ecstatic and degrading. His loathing of the audience is the confused self-loathing of desire and expression, of being mad in public and being celebrated for it.

His obsessive drive for perfection suggests a fear of failure, as does his early retirement from concert performance. Fear of flying, fear of germs, fear of the public, fear of the wrong note -- any one of these phobias by itself isn't irrational, yet as a combination, they are viral and lethal. Public adoration is a disease, eats at the soul, and he seeks seclusion. He hides in his penthouse, he hides in his car, he hides in his overcoat, he hides in his Chickering, he hides his Steinway, he hides in the night, he hides. Yet... we all hide. Civilization is a physical and psychic shell. We hide in clothes, houses, cars, aircraft... words, symbols, math and all the rest. How crazy was he?

Bottom line: people liked his work right from the start, and they still like it. While all things artistic are a matter of opinion and personal taste, his ability to play the piano with transcendental consequence is beyond question. Perhaps he didn't write a great original symphonic work or piano concerto, yet he was able to keep the faith, help others understand history. He was moving in an independently creative direction with his radio art -- the sound-text montages he called documentaries -- and had he lived, he would have explored synaesthesia (multi-media) as technology advanced. He remained, as he started, incomplete. His private life is neither here nor there -- it's a melancholy tale, not a shabby one. He was possessed, like a medium who receives instructions from another world. His tragic flaw was his belief in perfection. His success was -- and still is -- a metaphor, and his failure impossible to define.

LR March 2013 | Culture Court/ Media Court/CC Audio | my novel RADIO BRAZIL

Further GG views:

1974 Bruno Monsaingeon The Alchemist
Yosif Feyginberg: Glenn Gould The Russian Journey

Glenn Gould, Object of Desire »»»»

Narrator: 6 soundscape stories by Lawrence Russell now available on CD from Amazon. Downloads available from Tunecore:

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