Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Idea of Genius

(A young Gould, with the original chair but before he took to raising the piano on blocks.)

I've been thinking the last few days about the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (the Wikipedia summary is excellent). (I also seem to have forgotten that I started this topic a year ago in this post.)

For those not familiar with his story, he is one of history's most gifted and eccentric musicians, someone who burst onto the scene in 1955 with a revelatory recording of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. He was 23 years old at the time. He was immediately hailed as a phenom and the Goldberg recording took off in a fashion then unheard-of for a classical release. An otherwise obscure work suddenly became mainstream, and Glenn Gould became a household name overnight. His manner of playing was, and remains, immediately recognizable: dry and dynamically-constrained (especially his Bach) with a kind of spare, puritan beauty, and with an astounding faculty for counterpoint. His was a very un-luxurious--un-romantic--approach to the piano for the time (not to say unemotional), and he revolutionized how we think of Bach on a modern grand piano.

He is renowned for his almost obscenely wide-ranging and exhaustive musical mind--and we'll come back to this--but also for his eccentricities. Indeed, more people probably came to know of him by his oddities than by his brilliance with what is after all a fairly obscure musical specialty. I feel a bit like a brain-cell-killing People Magazine article talking about his tics and mannerisms and his very odd career path, but in the final analysis they are extraordinary things, unavoidable aspects of one of history's most significant and noteworthy musical personalities. They are part of his story.

One of his oddest traits was his hostility to performing in public. He came to feel there was something competitive and gladiatorial in live musical performance, and so in 1964, at age 31, he renounced playing concerts, and he kept this resolution for the rest of his life. But for the few years where he graced the concert stage, he presented quite a spectacle (which, of course, played some role in how he viewed the music-consuming public).

If his playing were not so transporting, his manner at the piano might suggest some form of mental illness. He could not keep himself from vocalizing audibly and swaying precariously while he played; he often conducted himself and others if either hand were not in use, and he could not keep still when he was not playing; his posture at the piano was most unorthodox: he insisted the piano be raised a few inches on wooden blocks, and he sat on a low, folding wooden chair with the legs chopped off, and he slouched in the chair so that his nose was not far above the keyboard (this chair, which was originally altered by Gould's father, traveled with him everywhere, eventually coming to look like something salvaged from a junk yard--very odd indeed in Carnegie Hall! When it finally fell into splinters, he was bereft and unable to play properly, and he eventually commissioned an almost identical custom-made replacement, which he used until his death); the chair would creak distractingly as he swayed around during the performances, and between the squeaking and the singing his recordings all sound as though a brilliant pianist kept a disturbed friend at his side for the performances; his appearance was almost comical, as he slouched on his child's chair with his legs crossed and pedaled in his stocking feet, often with the wrong foot--his clothing was ill-fitting and often dirty and unkempt, and he played at least one concert with mismatched shoes; he was a legendary hypochondriac, traveling everywhere with a huge cache of pills and wearing a heavy topcoat and hat and scarf and mittens even in the hottest weather.

This list can go on and on, but it takes us ultimately in the wrong direction, I think. What remains to us after his death from a stroke in 1982 (at age 50) is a legacy of really extraordinary recorded performances. The recordings are of piano music, primarily, ranging from the pre-Baroque up to really compelling advocacy of contemporary composers. But he also left quite a bit of writing, and he worked in radio and television as well. One of his passions was for experimental radio quasi-documentaries (which he called "contrapuntal radio"), and he was one of the first people to see the possibilities of the new and emerging technological media.

He was particularly innovative with his own recordings. His rejection of concertizing stemmed in part from his conviction that recording was going to revolutionize how we consume music. It seemed quite reasonable to him that we might assemble our own favorite Mahler symphony by cobbling together individual movements from different recordings according to our preferences. And he was one of the first to record many takes of a work, or a part of a work, and then assemble a "perfect" version from the bits and pieces. This is, of course, commonplace today. The recording studio (or radio studio or television studio) enabled him to experiment almost without limit, and gave him absolute control over what was put forth to the public.

In the end it's his piano work which has set permanent hooks in me. So many of his recordings--of Bach particularly, but of other composers too--set the bar for the repertoire he tackled, and many remain the gold standard decades later. He had an ability--unique, in my experience--of seeming to portion his brain off into however many segments as he had lines or parts to play, and to give each line what seems like top billing. He simply does counterpoint better than anyone else. Whatever his approach, whatever the admixture of composer and performer, his musical output remains absolutely compelling. To watch him playing on video is to observe complete mastery. More than mastery: his command of the piano itself makes this technical part of the process seem the least of his challenges, and I don't know that I've ever heard or seen a single incorrect note from him (I say this not because I think it should be anybody's priority, but because it shows something of how seamlessly he melded with his instrument).

He came from quite unextraordinary circumstances, showing signs of his odd, savant-like personality from a pretty young age. He rarely strayed far from Toronto, especially once he stopped concertizing, and as time went on he lived more and more of a hermit's life where he interacted with people mostly over the telephone and tinkered with his technology in his own spaces. But it's hard to find fault with his approach when it yielded the results it did.

So here's a tip of the hat to one of my favorite geniuses.


There are a whole host of videos on YouTube with which to make one's introduction, and I'll just finish up with a few of my favorites.

Here's one that shows how he thinks and speaks about Bach. He had a pretty dense and high-flown way of talking and writing, but his understanding of his subject matter is always encyclopedic. I'm especially amazed at how he plays while he's talking, and in the same four-brained way!

And here's one where he plays the first movement of Bach's Sixth Partita:


Dzesika said...

Thanks for the photo of The Chair - I think all my reading about Gould happened in pre-Web times, so it hadn't occurred to me to check out YouTube. Nifty!

wunelle said...

There's a link earlier in the post about his chair--which goes to another short video of him talking about the chair.

He's just entirely too interesting! It's 8:am here and I'm an hour overdue to get to sleep and here I'm rewatching those videos.

...must ...get ...away ...and sleep...