Lately I’ve been listening to the work of Glenn Gould (when am I ever not these days?). I was impressed to discover that Spotify has his Radio work. In this post I will reflect upon Gould’s CBC production of ‘The Idea of North’ (1967) and ‘The Latecomers’ (1969).
The Idea of North
I’ve talked about this documentary in the past so I will be more brief. The pianist Glenn Gould was offered to commission some radio work and came up with what has now been referred to as the Solitude Trilogy. Putting things together in a moniker is very fashionable these days, but I must say that there is a distinct sense of continuity to call it a trilogy that is concerned with a single theme (of solitude).
The Idea of North examines and debunks the romantic notions of living in a wilderness, the rosy eyed idea of being away from it all is to be replaced by living in a barren land of scarcity and survival. Being in such strong elements does make one think whether we are in the mid-late 20th Century in this documentary, or if we are still in the age of Captain Scott. Living in a city as I do things move very fast and for many that is also a downside as well as a positive. Being away from it also shows the downsides and upsides.
Racial themes are explored, economic factors and personal stories of isolation and changed perspectives. One of the interesting techniques of the documentary is the fugue like way that different vox pops are interlaced with each other all at once. We hear multiple voices telling their individual stories and it is played at once.
It made me think of the fugue in terms of as a listener. As a listener to contrapunctal music do you focus on one subject and hear how the others resonate with said subject? Or do you focus one one and sound out the others? Or, as a good music listener ideally should: listen to them all, in the same way that a good Organist sight reads their 6-stave music with panache.
The Latecomers is a piece about inhabitants of Newfoundland. Again the fugal technique is used but not annoyingly over used. Perhaps Gould took his own advice to never be clever for the sake of being clever. I was astounded to hear how political themes were discussed in this documentary. One inhabitant of Newfoundland pointed out how there is not much sight of the police because not many crimes happen when people know one another and when there are so few people. Likewise the politicians and civil servants only appeared to introduce a new lighthouse or during election time and never any other time. There was a distinct individualist
bent to the life of isolation.
I wonder if the Hobbesian state of nature of a life without a state would more be like Newfoundland than a world of chaos. There was a decidedly political bent to the notion of how big government hardly interferes and has no place in such a community, perhaps because their involvement in such isolated communities are so minimal, that people live as if the state did not exist.
Of particular interest was the view of one woman who spoke of the gendered dimension of living in such an isolated place. Flirting and casual sex almost did not exist in a community where few people were around because they knew each other so well and the sense of familiarity between few people did not allow for much fun interaction, but that was suggested by the woman to change as more men appeared and people became more strangers to each other in a community. It is here that Gould has a Goffman-like edge to his documentary in capturing the micro of social interactions.
One particularly interesting point made in the documentary was on how living on the fringes shows you a perspective of society that is much wider than being in the mainstream. One of the speakers referred to Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ living on the edge of society having the most eloquent overview of 19th Century life. This panders to another sociological insight, from Becker, that sociology should be the study of the underdogs, losers and outsiders of society, for they tell us the most about what our society is about.
On reflection there might be interpreted as a moralistic tale to these Solitude documentaries. The life of solitude has a distinct moralistic dimension, that is to say, of a kind of life that affects our character and perspective on life and other agents or even our environment at large. It seems fairly evident that the world Gould portrays is of his native Canada, and reflecting on other perspectives of the solitude that he valued so much in his life. These documentaries serve not just as an interesting historical insight into the 20th Century at its fringes, but also as a way of interpreting the pianistic work of Glenn Gould.
Gould himself is a character who wished to be on the fringes and outside of the gladiatorial concert stage and the world of music tours. Gould’s playing style is a result of his own solitary practicing and lifestyle and the insular sound-world created by his playing. I am also fascinated at how a pianist could also make their life as a broadcaster as well and by being both it confuses the clear roles people seem to impose upon being in front or or behind the microphone.