Monday, April 23, 2012

Glenn Gould, the CBC, and the new CBC ‘Lite’

Yes, this is an article about Glenn Gould, but also about recent cuts to our beloved national broadcaster. But first, I need to start with a short (I promise) paragraph about politics and then get to the meat of my discussion. You can skip ahead if it’s not your cup of tea.

The recent cuts to the CBC will do irreparable harm to Canadian culture and development of future heritage moments. This should be regarded by and large as an affront to every Canadian and musicians, authors, and visual artists especially. Early in Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister he made his position on the CBC and Mother Corp’s ‘cultural elites’ crystal clear. This, combined with years of disparaging remarks and vicious cuts, has eroded a productive and decreasingly daring champion of national and international news, music, film, and the visual arts.

(more after the jump)

This post is not about politics, rather it is about the collateral damage of fiscal blunt trauma inflicted on the CBC and what it means for the artists who give Canada its voice at home and abroad.

I want to bring this topic around to Glenn Gould, as I’ve a vested interest his work for CBC radio and television in the 60s and 70s. If no one else, we may look to Gould as a model for CBC’s role in discovering, promoting, and canonising Canadian talent.

Gould was the national broadcaster’s darling for nearly 40 years. He appeared often as a soloist in the CBC Toronto radio studios, and as a concerto soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His first television appearance on CBLT (CBC Toronto) coincided with the broadcaster’s premiere television broadcast in 1952. It spoke volumes of his local and impending national celebrity. Between the many reviews in the hometown newspapers, concert tours, and media exposure, Gould reached national renown before heading South for his concert debut in Washington, DC in 1955. Courtesy of the CBC he was Canada’s best kept secret before Columbia Records put him on the international stage.

Canada came to know him primarily as a performer and after his retirement from the concert stage in April 1964, we discovered the intellectual Gould, the composer, producer, experimental recordist, and media theorist. The CBC provided Gould the refuge and freedom needed to reinvent himself. The radio show Ideas was a frequent pedagogical mouthpiece for him to champion his musical heroes, amongst them J.S. Bach, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schönberg, et. al. An early short documentary “The Search for Petula Clark” represents an important, if slightly odd, venture into the world of popular music studies and critical commentary.

Glenn Gould, ‘the producer,’ ventured into some ambitious experimental projects, the most significant of which was The Solitude Trilogy: The Idea of North, The Latecomers, and The Quiet in the Land. Together they form an important entry in Gould’s compositional oeuvre and a milestone for Canadian public broadcasting. It is difficult to imagine The Idea of North’s opening scene appearing on commercial radio station anywhere in the world, let alone in Canada.*

The layered voices of the first three-minutes is a challenging listen, even overwhelming, but is the result of untold hours of careful planning, conception, and physical stress of technical production. This established Gould’s aesthetic for future projects and CBC listener expectations. There were eight documentaries in total:

  • The Search for Petula Clark 
  • The Idea of North 
  • The Latecomers 
  • Stokowski: a portrait for radio 
  • The Quiet in the Land. 
  • Casals: a portrait for radio 
  • The Bourgeois Hero (about Richard Strauss) 
  • Schoenberg: a man and his music

Gould and the highly capable and willing CBC technicians and producers composed bleeding edge works that pushed the envelope of audio production techniques and the technical limits of radio broadcasting. Union rules aside, these projects each consumed literally hundreds of man hours of work and, in today’s climate, would be considered cost prohibitive.**

Gould’s relationships with the television departments was just as productive. Regular specials smattered the primetime schedule between 1964’s Anatomy of a Fugue which ended with his novelty earworm “So you want to write a fugue” through to the end of his collaboration with CBC TV fifteen years later.

Gould was given nearly free rein to wax rhapsodic on music and composers that were, no doubt, not at the front of many viewers minds; most notably his special with Yehedi Menuhin on Schoenberg and later shows featuring works by Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Scriabin, Ernst Krenek, Paul Hindemith, and Anton Webern introduced these ‘obscure’ twenthieth-century composers to a national audience. Clearly, the culture of cultivating the arts at the CBC, at least internally, encouraged Gould to take on these ambitious educational shows no matter audience or music reviewers’ reception.

Each successive radio documentary and television production exploited the CBC’s investments in new audio and video production technology: Mono sound, stereo broadcasting, multi-track recording, experiments in quadrophonic broadcasting, and colour television. In a ten year span, the broadcaster undertook a significant series of technological developments unparalleled until, perhaps, CBC’s internet presence and recent music-on-demand site. It is fair to say that Gould rode the wave of a golden era at the CBC. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Gould became Glenn Gould in part due to the CBC’s indulgence.

But what does this have to do with the CBC now? So much of what made the broadcaster a truly Canadian media entity is already gone or on its way out. This year’s cuts start a three-year, 10% decline in its operating budget. This coupled with an already troubling operating shortfall put the CBC even further behind. This comes three years after a $171 million dollar funding cut and 800 layoffs in English television and radio programming. This year the layoffs continue: 475 immediately with an additional 175 by 2014.

Of course, this also effects programming: 175 fewer hours of original programming, no more radio drama, the in-house documentary department will be reduced, and fewer one-off specials. Live concert recordings are to be cut by 2/3 from 300 to 100 and recording facilities across the country will be closed. This, not to mention cuts to news and current affairs have downsized all the departments that made the CBC a vital voice that unified Canada and, in some way, pushed for a distinctly Canadian ‘voice.’

This spells disaster, irreparable harm to the Mother Corp. The next three years will demonstrate if/how it can reinvent itself to make do with fewer resources. But what will happen to the scores of artists and musicians who will never be afforded the opportunity for national exposure?

What will happen if, as a result of near terminal fiscal wounds, we miss out on another Glenn Gould?

*It’s worth noting that in the most recent civil service downsizing, the Harper government cut three jobs in the North from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. This at the same time ‘Northern Sovereignty’ is a government priority. 
 **Digital audio production would have reduced significantly the production time. Working with magnetic tape and mixing consoles without automation capabilities consumed the bulk of the man hours.

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