Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Glenn Gould and the Voice of God

The flu hit our household hard just after the holiday season. All three of us—James, John, and I—were laid low for a couple of weeks. We’re only just now returning to full health.

The chief feature of the bug, other than fever and severe respiratory congestion, was the fatigue it inspired. For a while, we were sleeping up to eighteen hours a day.

I normally spend a lot of time at the computer, but with all the Zs I was catching, there wasn’t much I could do, so I set it to download, via BitTorrent, a number of recordings by Glenn Gould I've been wanting for a while. I knew they’d take a couple of days, since classical music tends to have fewer torrent seeders than Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.

Mostly, I was interested in what I call Gould’s orphan recordings: performances that Gould pundits generally overlook, or would prefer didn't exist.

Gould has long occupied a hallowed place in my creative and intellectual life. As a young pianist, I was drawn to the dashing, Romantic figure crouched over the keyboard, coaxing such daringly unconventional, utterly right-sounding music from the strings. Whenever the CBC aired a Gould documentary or special, it was always an occasion for excitement. I'd sit glued to the TV or radio, captivated not only by the music, but by his unapologetically “for those in the know” discussions of it.

Gould, I have always felt, was first and foremost a great teacher, one who used the piano as a medium for communicating his ideas. His performances were often less interpretations than analyses, exquisitely presented theses that helped me grasp the genius of Bach, or Beethoven, or Berg. No other pianist I can think of, except perhaps Schnabel, has ever brought so much intelligence to bear on performances that are as satisfying to the mind as they are to the ears and heart.

I was fortunate while at university to study musical aesthetics with Geoffrey Payzant, author of the first in-depth study ever of Gould’s oeuvre. The book was in pre-publication at the time, and Professor Payzant used photocopies of the galley proofs as the textbook for his course’s second semester.

Significantly, the book was entitled Glenn Gould: Music and Mind. Written by a philosopher from the same university as Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan (the University of Toronto), it was determinedly not a biography; rather, an exploration of Gould’s aesthetics and his theories of media, communication and technology.

Gould was an intensely private man with a paradoxically intense need to communicate. He resolved the conflict by creating a media version of himself—performer, writer, lecturer, documentarian, occasional comedian. The man himself was almost never seen in public, nor did he need to be. The media creation wasn’t a facade. It was designed to shift the emphasis from “man” to “mind”, to force his audience to focus on what really mattered: his musical ideas as communicated through the medium of the piano.

In his lifetime, Gould succeeded in this strategy. However, in the decades following his death, there was a trend to poke around his dirty linen, so to speak. Not satisfied with genius, writers and filmmakers felt it incumbent upon themselves to delve into his personal life, thereby trivializing what he'd striven to accomplish.

Early evidence that Gould would be disrespected in death came in the form of the Toronto International Bach Competition held “in honour of his memory” in ’85, three years after his fatal stroke. Gould despised music competitions. Some of his most scathing and provocative comments are on that very subject. Yet there was Nicholas Goldschmidt, a friend of Gould’s no less, putting together precisely the kind of circus Gould detested. The only saving grace of that slap in the face was that it launched the career of Angela Hewitt.

No amount of biographical data will ever illuminate Gould’s genius better than the man himself, and attempts to understand him by pawing through his private life are nothing more than prurience.

Furthermore, Gould’s erstwhile biographers often end up looking like fools. I recall a CBC Life and Times biography in which a woman psychologist held forth on Gould’s mannerisms at the piano: his hunched posture, his hand gestures, his tendency to croon along with the music. According to her, they were symptomatic of some sort of psychopathology. Clearly, she wasn’t a pianist. Gould’s unusual posture was integral to his fleet, nearly superhuman technique. His hand gestures were those of someone conducting himself at the keyboard. And the crooning, along with the conducting, was Gould's response to a frustration known to every classically-trained pianist, namely that the piano is at heart a percussion instrument and cannot “sing”, for example, the way a violin does. We’re all taught to hum along while we practise. Gould’s doing so, even on recordings, was evidence of unselfconscious passion, not neurosis.

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If Gould’s particular genius lay in the ability to enrich his interpretive art with a running analysis of the music he was playing, it was his extraordinary technique that gave the genius voice. Listening to Gould, one can’t help but form the impression that each of his fingers possessed a separate brain. Even in the five-voice C-sharp minor Fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (four is the usual upper limit for voices in a fugue), which has not one, but two, countersubjects (melodic fragments that, whenever the principle subject appears, are always heard along with it), every one of the five parts seems to proceed independently, each with its own articulations and expressive contours. The effect is rather like five people playing the fugue instead of one, each responsible for a separate voice.

This phenomenal ability meant that Gould could lavish attention on every note he played, precisely shaping the beginning, middle, and end, with the result that, listening to Gould, one can almost hear a composer’s thoughts between the writing of one note and the next.

For Gould, there were (or should be) no superfluous notes—none that merely coloured, or padded, or served a purely transitional function. Furthermore, the suppleness of his technique afforded him an almost unholy ability to spit out trills with devilish speed and utter precision, which in turn allowed him to use ornamentation as a structural, rather than decorative, element. Amongst the albums I downloaded during my bout with the flu was Gould’s recording of music for the virginal by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. His performances are incandescent. Glittering, myriad trills anchor the fine melodic threads like jewelled pins in a gossamer tapestry.

Given his unprecedented musical and intellectual gifts, it’s no surprise that when Gould turned his attention to a particular composer, the composer didn’t always fare well. It’s been said that his genius wasn’t suited to every composer. Frankly, I think it’s the other way around: not every composer was up to the level of Gould’s genius.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his recordings of Mozart’s piano sonatas. Gould had little use for Mozart, lip-service protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and he seems to have used the recordings as an opportunity to reveal the paucity of musical substance beneath the grace and charm of Vienna’s native son. He tears the music to shreds, exposing clichés, uncovering (and sometimes fixing) shoddy voice-leading, and hammering home the absence of harmonic inventiveness.

In an era where culturally pretentious urbanites (read “yuppies”) have elevated Mozart to godhood, Gould’s didactic analysis of the Viennese prodigy’s weaknesses comes as a bracing and welcome tonic.

Overall, Gould steered clear of nineteenth-century piano literature, in part because he was deeply uncomfortable using the legato pedal, but mostly because he found it musically unsatisfactory. I know, from my own experience, that learning the Romantic virtuoso repertoire is largely an exercise in mastering too many notes sketched over too little musical material.

Gould’s aversion to the likes of Chopin and Liszt led to a widely-held belief that he simply couldn’t play the Romantics convincingly, that his approach to music was too intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. His recording of Brahms' Intermezzi from various opuses is breathtaking in its emotional scope, from the bittersweet nostalgia of the B-flat minor (Op. 117, No. 2), to the otherworldly heroics of the E-flat minor (Op. 118, No. 6), to the achingly tender E-flat major (Op. 117, No. 1). The latter is one of those performances that truly deserves the adjective, transcendent.

Of the albums I downloaded, by far the most surprising was Gould’s Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue, by J.S. Bach). Unfinished at the time of Bach’s death, Kunst represents the culmination of the composer’s sublime mastery of counterpoint. As such, it is a work of suprahuman genius.

Gould’s recording was unique in his canon in that he forsook his beloved Steinway CD318 for the organ. Furthermore, it is unusual in that he insisted the microphones be placed close to the pipes (”close miking”), whereas it is a near-universal convention of organ recordings to place the mikes well out into the hall in order to capture the reverb that is so much a part of the organ’s magnificent sonority.

Gould’s Kunst also holds the honour of being his most universally reviled recording (with the exception, perhaps, of his legendarily perverse rendering of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major KV331, the one with the famous Rondo Alla Turca at the end). Even his most ardent fans were left scratching their heads.

Though I knew it by reputation, I was unfamiliar with Gould’s Kunst until I downloaded it. I remember seeing the black-and-white cover in the old A&A Records on Bloor Street in Toronto where I spent a goodly amount of my student allowance, but for some reason, I always flipped past it.

Scarcely had the twelve-note subject out of which Bach spins his eternal golden braid begun when I understood why even Gould fans viewed the recording with embarrassment. While well-schooled in organ technique, Gould had chosen to transpose his détaché piano style holus-bolus to an instrument that virtually demands a legato touch. His playing on the album could charitably be called un-idiomatic; more forthrightly, just plain ghastly.

But Gould never did anything without a reason. Not infrequently, what at first sounds like interpretive whimsy—a peculiar tempo, say, or a seemingly arbitrary articulation—proves to be a device for revealing hitherto inaudible or unsuspected connections in the musical fabric.

Taking it on faith Gould knew what he was doing, I kept listening to the strange, choppy, decidedly un-organ-like music. Listening intently. So intently that somewhere around Contrapunctus IV, I got hypnotized. As the work continued to unfold, I began to feel I was listening not to music, but a dialogue. And not the normal sort of dialogue associated with the subject-answer of voices in a fugue; rather, a colloquy between two masters, a conversation between Bach and Gould. At times, Gould would seem to hold forth: “Awesome, Herr Bach! I know you wouldn’t play it this way yourself, but if I articulate this entry thus, and phrase the corresponding countersubject like this, you can actually hear how the puzzle pieces fit together.” And Bach would reply: “Wow! I never even thought of it. But if you wouldn’t mind sliding over on the bench, let me have a go at the manuals for a while. I want you to check out this next bit. It’s totally cool.”

And so on, back and forth, two counterpoint geeks in private, passionate discussion about their favourite subject, revelling in their respective interpretive and compositional prowess.

Surely, I found myself thinking, the voice of God must sound something like this.

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The recordings I've referred to in this article are all available for peer-to-peer downloading via BitTorrent. Assuming you have a BitTorrent client on your system (Deluge and Ktorrent are good choices for Linux; for Windows, I don’t know since I don’t do windows—Vuze, maybe?), go to a site like, type “Gould” in the search bar, and choose the ones you want from the results. Be aware, though, that some are in .ogg and .flac format. Make sure your media player can handle them.