The Cult of Glenn Gould


As many of you can tell, I’ve been blogging a lot about music lately. I have always had thoughts and Ideas about music and I always considered that eventually I would come to speak my views or embed them in unsystematic places through other discussions, such as my commentary blog pieces on Adorno.


However I thought I might just try and address some of the thoughts and issues directly. With that in mind I thought I would write about my favourite Musician: Glenn Gould, and try to articulate some of the things I find interesting about the pianist-broadcaster. Part of the reason I felt it important to talk about Glenn Gould is because part of his insight will, I suspect continually be referred to if I continue to write on issues musical. Gould is as a pianist, as influential to me as say Kant is as a philosopher.

Why I like Glenn Gould 


Glenn Gould is one of my all time favourite musicians. I say musician and not concert pianist. Gould composed works in his own time which have been of little recognition, Gould also had very deep thoughts on music history. Glenn Gould worked with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in producing programming that engaged with the public about music, in the way that the likes of Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins did for science, or Marcus deSautoy for Mathematics today. I consider Gould not just as a performer, but someone who was a performer with a composer’s mentality, someone with ideological views on music, its direction and its history. Gould was someone who lived in the age that transitioned the end of classical music as we know it and saw the emergence of popular music styles which took the place of the big composers.


Gould is a divisive figure, many have a dislike for him for giving the impression that’s okay to play the piano with poor pedagogy, or while humming, using an inappropriately low chair. On the other hand, it is the eccentricity of the man that I love. It is the out of this world nature of his personality, that also reflects the other-worldiness of the composers that he favoured: Bach and Schoenberg. I will consider the many different dimensions of Glenn Gould and have some closing reflections on the ‘cult’ of Glenn Gould.


Who is Glenn Gould? 


Gould the performer 


One of the things I am attracted to about Glenn Gould are his performances. The way that Gould makes 18th Century J.S. Bach come alive in a way that gives it a distinct freshness. Gould’s interpretation of the Brandenburg Concerto is considered a benchmark, and Gould’s career can be book-ended by his early recording and his late recording of the very same piece


One thing I find particularly interesting about Gould is the choice he made for his recordings. Gould avoided Romanticism a great deal, and expressed a certain Baroque-ness in all of the pieces he recorded. Gould’s choices in music reflects a lineage, from Bach to Schoenberg, from Rhineland old to Rhineland recent. There are however some choice exceptions to Gould’s work: his interpretation of Mozart leaves much to be desired, and the choice of recording Scriabin leaves me unsure of what to think. I am particularly surprised at some of the Richard Strauss lieder recorded by Gould.


Gould the ideologue 


Gould nailed his colours to the mast about many issues. Perhaps bold enough to say that Mozart ‘died too late’ as a form of disapproval of the latter’s later work. Gould was a pianist who was known more for their voice than his hands. Gould was very vocal on his feelings for Bach and Schoenberg and many of the ideological baggage that he carried has chimed a lot with my own musical upbringing and influences. In a way Gould is a natural extension of my musical worldview. I particularly like the way that Gould conflates or expands (depending on how you see it) the role and position of what a concert pianist should be. Should a pianist play, or contribute to a conversation about music and what music means?


Gould the Studio Musician/perfectionist 


Glenn Gould famously refused to be part of the concert scene and chose not to engage in live performing. Gould had distinct reservations about the way in which music is performed to an audience, and the way that the distinction was made between performer and audience. Gould was then led to taking a more studio oriented approach to performing and propagating his music. There are amazing videos out on youtube showing the ways in which Gould had been involved in the studio process of making music, not just in terms of playing the piano, but in the post-production stages of mixing audio and cutting tape. I’ve lately been working in some home studios with very fancy software like Digital Audio Workstations, but I am astonished at an age where cutting up a recording and splicing with other takes literally involved cutting tape! Gould was a perfectionist of the classical music variety, in an age where the studio was emerging. Gould made himself a recording artist from a performer, and this is something very telling about the status of musicianship today and the scope of what musicianship involves.


Gould the firebrand/anti-conservative 


Gould is a figure who is inherently disagreeable to some, or may I even say many. This is a fundamental aspect of what makes anyone a firebrand. There is a story of Glenn Gould meeting another notable musician (and musical intellectual) who found Gould’s interpretation disagreeable, but noteworthy enough to deserve engagement. That musician was Leonard Bernstein, someone who I also have great admiration for as a musician and a composer (and no I’m not so big a fan of West Side Story).


Gould held strong opinions, from Romanticism to Modernism; Bach to recording methods. Gould remained a distinct face and one who ruffled feathers by his distinctness and presentation. Glenn Gould was not just an eccentric and a passionate person of the world of classsical music, but was distinclty a person of 20th century sensibilities as well, doing things that other classical performers would not do. Like this!


Gould the broadcaster 


Glenn Gould’s greatest legacy may very well be not in his playing, but the efforts he made to educate the public in music and culture. Very similar to Leonard Bernstein, Gould made entertaining material from discussing the history of music, discussing style and reaching audiences through CBC broadcasts in an accessible fashion. We speak of the public intellectual like a rare breed of broadcaster these days. We also normally think of such intellectuals for science, mathematics or even history and philosophy –  but …whither music? The Unanswered Question.

I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Gould would parody the pretentiousness of the world of classical music by the various fake characters that he would perform, and at the same time embody in all seriousness the very kind of persons that he would lampoon. Such a strange and contradictory state of affairs it is to be Glenn Gould. It is with greatness that one can both parody experimental composers and music critics, and both be an advocate of Serialism in all seriousness as well as having very strong views on issues musical. This contrast between the serious and playful/funny Gould is something that any public intellectual can learn from. Gould contains great comedy as well as seriousness. As evidenced from things such as hisso you want to write a fugue’. A fugue about writing a fugue. Talk about parody as a form of art.

Gould the ‘bad example’

Gould is, lets face it, a bad example to emulate as a pianist. Gould does a lot of things ‘badly’, pedagogically speaking. The chair he sits on is too low, Gould strikes with an overhand that is too dominant; humming is not desirable plus the movements are far too eccentric. Of course when it comes to virtuosi they are a law unto themselves. Like performers like Louis Armstrong, their eccentricities are evident of their skill, but not things for mortals to emulate.

Gould’s in wider historical cultural context

Glenn Gould was born in an age where notable composers wrote notable works, but then composers became less notable and their works less notable still. We think of composers more now as institutionalised figures from the universities who studied composition, or jobbing composers who work in film or commissions. This kind of historical situation gives less of a scope or an opportunity in my view, for the kind of classical music we may have envisaged of earlier centuries, or perhaps the whole notion of a classical music is an anacrhonism in itself. Gould acknowledged that there was a world outside of the classical, there was music outside of the world of R. Strauss and Hindemith. In that way I see Gould as a transitional character in the grand scheme of things. One who engaged with a changing world, where things like television and radio media are innovative ways of engaging with the public, and that engaging with the public is a social good. It’s a vastly different world from the old masters. Although to a lesser extent than Bernstein, Gould did make an effort to bridge these worlds together in a way where he seemed to both belong to them and be apart from them.

Conclusion: The Cult of Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould has something of a cult of personality about him. Gould’s eccentricities and his views are a package deal. I refer to Gould’s following as a cult in that fewer people these days are familiar with his work and fewer people still remember what he represents. As I am getting more engaged with music I find some inspiration from Glenn Gould, not just as a musician and as someone with a stylistic outlook, but as someone who talked about these things rather than just doing it, and as someone who shows the potential of being a public intellectual about music. That, and few other people in the old world of music make me laugh as much as him.



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