It’s tantalizing to imagine Glenn Gould sitting at a computer in his apartment on the eve of his 80th birthday, madly finishing up some final edits to his daily podcast.
The reclusive pianist has not been seen on the street in 30 years. But thanks to a blog, streams of enigmatic tweets – “colour can be an enhancement of black-and-white, but it doesn’t have to be,” to use an example from a 1970s interview – and occasional uploads to YouTube, the translucently pale, stooped Canadian fuelled by the occasional Arrowroot biscuit and plate of scrambled eggs looms large on the World Wide Web, stalking its every strand with a strangely compelling mix of wit, wisdom and prophecy.
Unfortunately, this balloon of fantasy needs the pinprick of a reality check. Gould, when examined from afar, was such a mess of contradictions that it is impossible to tell what he would have made of the technological tools we use today to create and propagate art.
Gould was fascinated with sound in tiny details, such as the effect each of a piano’s 88 hammers has on its strings. But he was also a big-picture artist, stating numerous times that he played in such a way that the bar lines on the printed score would disappear.
Despite his obsession with sound, Gould would fondly recall the childhood satisfaction of practising while someone had the vacuum cleaner on, so that he could focus on touch and motion rather than its results.
The pianist evolved with technology, but it was in the service of his art, not his popularity.
The Goldberg Variations recording of 1955 was laid down in analog monophonic sound, while Gould's valedictory remake in 1981 was in digital stereo. Gould’s was the age of the audiophile who would shell out thousands of dollars for the best turntable cartridges, amplifier and speaker sets. These fanatics would carefully align seating in the listening room for the optimal experience of shutting out the world and focusing on the music. In so doing, we had the mirror image of Gould, who strove for similar ideals on the performance side.
Contrast that with the 21st-century triumph of earbuds streaming compressed MP3 files over the roar of a subway train. Would the hi-fi Gould have accepted this new, lo-fi world?
The pianist was addicted to radio long after it had been deemed uncool by television. He was fascinated by counterpoint, which is the coexistence of two or more voices speaking at the same time. But nowhere in the Torontonian’s legacy is there any sign that a visual and aural counterpoint had much of a place in his universe.
Here was a man who thought and played in long paragraphs, not short sentences. He was notorious for his late-night telephone monologues, which were all about him, not the listener. Even seemingly spontaneous radio and television interviews were meticulously scripted by the loquacious pianist.
Gould was a loner who would absorb, contemplate and refashion material over weeks and months. His was a long-form existence incompatible with the short-form sphere of social media, where people post as much as they can as often as they can in order to see what sticks. Endless fussing and re-editing hardly mesh with mainstream success in a world of viral videos and trending tweets.
Instead, Gould’s legacy is to have left enough music, words and video to engage, provoke, goad and inspire others to keep listening and help propagate his art into a world he did not live to experience.
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on Sep 23, 2012