The Idea of North (1967) and The Latecomers (1969)

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

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.

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.

Michael