Sunday, May 6, 2012

Steve Jobs on Glenn Gould

I might as well rename this blog “All things Glenn Gould,” as he comes up quite frequently in my posts. I preordered Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs last Fall, and read for hours at a time (dissertation be hanged). I came across the following gem close to the end of the book, in the same chapter as Jobs’ discussion of Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, unlike Dylan, Jobs didn’t push Sony to release the complete Gould edition [the Original Jacket Collection] on the iTunes store.


"Bach, [Jobs] declared, was his favorite classical composer. He was particularly fond of listening to the contrasts between the two versions of the “Goldberg Variations” that Glenn Gould recorded, the first in 1955 as a twenty-two-year-old little known pianist and the second in 1981, a year before he died. “They’re like night and day,” Jobs said after playing them sequentially one afternoon. “The first is an exuberant, young, brilliant piece, played so fast it’s a revelation. The later one is so much more spare and stark. You sense a very deep soul who’s been through a lot in life. It’s deeper and wiser.” Jobs was on his third medical leave that afternoon when he played both versions, and I asked which he liked better. “Gould liked the later version much better,” he said. “I used to like the earlier, exuberant one. But now I can see where he was coming from.”
-Excerpted from Walter Isaacson. Steve Jobs. (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
The above excerpt doesn’t strike me as special or unusual apart from the fact that I’d never think Jobs a Gould fan. The comparison with Gould is interesting, in that both men (performers and intellectuals alike) were of the conviction that they would do great things and die young; both did.


I can totally see how Jobs identified with the ’56 ‘Gouldbergs,’ what with the blistering tempi and jarringly percussive articulation, each an independent vignette with only a brief nod to the Aria’s bass cantus firmus. So mirrored Jobs’ early career with one string of independent projects after another without a true vision of the big picture. It was Jobs’ second stint at Apple when he ‘got it.’ The whole digital hub strategy was Apple’s big picture and, lead by Jobs, the company was (and still is) quite successful, or at least profitable.


Gould conceived the latter Goldberg recording with a constant pulse in mind. In an interview with Tim Page he outlined his idea with illustrative demonstrations on an in-studio piano. A similar interview with Bruno Monsaingon reveals the concept in, perhaps, more detail. Yes, the 1981 recording is slower and more introspective; it’s certainly more intellectual but also conceived as a whole. It became thirty-two movements cooperating to fulfill the big picture. For Jobs, at the time of his death, Apple became his ‘big picture,’ the unified whole. The company became his 1981 Goldbergs.


As Gould’s 80th birthday fast approaches we’ll probably hear more people reveal their affinity for Canada’s performing intellectual and, I’m sure, there will be some interesting anecdotes and even more interesting connections.

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