Fifty years ago today, April 10, 1964, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gave his last public performance.
Sometime around twenty years ago, I discovered Glenn Gould, first through Evan Eisenberg’s book The Recording Angel, and later, and more importantly, through Francois Girard’s film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which my father and I went to see at the Drexel Theatre in Columbus on its first release, sometime in late 1993 or early 1994. Coincidentally, I’ve been showing this film to my music appreciation students this week. I love it for my own reasons, of course, but I love the way it (and Gould’s story) portrays the eternal triangle of composer-performer-audience, and shows that this triangle is perhaps not as eternal as we once thought it.
I also love that it’s a grown-up movie. It isn’t a romantic comedy, and there are no explosions, which right away make it very different from what my students are accustomed to seeing. On the other hand, the movie’s structure as a set of short vignettes, no more than about five minutes long each, is perfect for the way that many of them have encountered media–through YouTube clips, Vine videos, and the like. It deals with genius, with the plans our parents set into motion for us, with what an intelligent person does when he can no longer tolerate the path of his life, it deals with the consequences of personal decisions, and it deals with death. And it’s funny. Very funny, on a couple of occasions.
But more importantly, trying to explain Gould to my students every semester makes me rethink why he was so important to me in the first place. So here’s what I have this time around.
In 1993 and 1994, I was excited about going to college, and I didn’t only consider going as a music major. I prepared my own audition repertoire, and when I took auditions, I hadn’t had a regular private trombone teacher in two years. I practiced, and I played, and I began to study music theory. I had some experience on piano to fall back upon, and I had started to compose a little. I would eventually complete a trombone concerto as my senior thesis, without much guidance other than my own reading and listening. It wasn’t particularly good, and I wasn’t a standout candidate for conservatory. I’m still amazed that Tony Chipurn took me into his studio at CCM because I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my technique, although I was just fine in theory and history classes.
It has been said that it is a mistake to make a career of music if one has other options, and I certainly did. If I had really understood the differences in the educational approaches of different schools, I might have made a very different decision. I also might have made a very different decision if I hadn’t known about Glenn Gould.
I learned about Glenn Gould the man before I ever heard Glenn Gould the pianist. What struck me was his personality, both as displayed in Girard’s film and in Otto Friederich’s Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. A musician, yes, but a true intellectual. A man of staggering intellect. And a man whose personality seemed to fit my own–exacting, idealistic, introverted, yet brilliant (I thought quite a bit of myself), uncompromising (at eighteen, I hadn’t had much to compromise over). Seeing a potential future self in Gould, I could begin to see a future as a musician. Composer? Perhaps. Band director? If necessary. I’m not completely sure what I wanted from my years at CCM when I got there, except to immerse myself in this musical world and somehow come out transfigured, shining-faced, prepared to be audacious, brilliant, uncompromising.
Almost the first thing I did on arriving in Cincinnati was find my way to the listening center in the music library, and have the attendant–Ben Rydell–put on Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations. My first hearing, the first music I heard as a college student. Even though it is the 1981 recording of that piece that I have played again and again after finally receiving it for Christmas that year, the notes of Gould’s breakthrough record were what bracketed my time in college. My idea of what Bach could be was transformed, of course, and when I took piano lessons with Dianna Anderson, I drove her nuts trying to play Bach the way Gould did, but it was more than that. I genuinely attempted to channel Gould, in my young, awkward, deliberately boisterous way, at once musical, literary, philosophical. Those who were there may remember some of it, the heart-on-the-sleeve, Young Werther-type who walked around Cincinnati that year, reveling in the freedom to simply be a student of music, to keep my own hours, to determine for myself just how much solitude I needed (perhaps it was because my birth cohort is relatively small, but it seemed that there were any number of places for a person to be alone on that campus).
What does Gould mean for my students, then? I wish I could get them to think more deeply about it–they aren’t always in that habit. I think that Gould is the precursor of the postmodern performer–after all, he quit performing three years before the Beatles did. There are any number of popular music stars today, particularly in techno and EDM, who only give lip service to the idea of public performance. Is playing a set of recorded music a public performance? Not in any kind of traditional sense, but I think Glenn Gould would have appreciated it. While “artists” (and my students use this word more frequently than “musician” to describe musical performers) may appear before the public, many do not truly perform their music before the public, preferring to lip synch instead. YouTube is filled with mashups–the result of the public doing just what Gould imagined–creating performances out of existing material. In a sense, we have arrived at Gould’s future.
The world of Glenn Gould recedes from us a little more each year–I noticed this particularly on this week’s viewing’s of Thirty Two Short Films, with its typewriters, phone booths, and newspaper stock prices. In 1993, only ten years on, things were not so different–after all, Gould’s second reading of the Goldberg Variations was recorded digitally and released on CD. Now I find myself explaining some of the technology to the students, alongside with the idea that a man might then (as now) devote his entire life to performing the music of someone else. This in particular baffles my students, who think of a “song” (always a song) as being linked with a specific performer rather than a composer or songwriter. I try to imagine what Gould and his producers were doing–making the first recordings which have withstood the test of time and changes of medium, and I see that if it hadn’t been Gould to quit the stage, it would have been someone.
And yet, the man fascinates me, and I think will continue to do so until I am older than he was at his death when I was only six years old.
Congratulations on fifty years of solitude, Mr. Gould.