Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review of Glenn Gould Variations. "The Dilemma of Gould at 80"


On September 25 every year a faithful few fête Glenn Gould for his birthday. We celebrate it as a form of remembering someone who brought us so much joy (or anguish depending on the recording). This year we celebrate Glenn Gould's eightieth birthday. I'm not sure why 80 is a significant year apart from the nice round number. The striking thing about Canada's patron saint of music is that his death follows his birthday very closely. October 4 this year marks the thirtieth year of his death. On this anniversary in particular we ponder his birth as much as his death.

Gould was a unique figure in many respects. He was a polymath: His productive career as a writer/essayist, producer, broadcaster, recordist, composer and, early in his career, concert performer gave us significant fodder for discussion. There are few Canadian musicians to leave as significant a creative output of recordings, essays, and radio and television performances. But his productivity ended abruptly after his fiftieth birthday, a year he promised to give up the piano and focus his attention elsewhere. He also dreaded the big 'Five-O.' Surely, he was one of those artists who burns brightly but burns out quickly like André Mathieu, Claude Vivier, and Pierre Mercure (Canadian musicians and composers, all).


The Glenn Gould Estate manages shrewdly all elements of Gould's legacy. It spares him the indignity that has befallen so many other performers and composers as others try to capitalise on the 'name' and 'image.' It also helps that all of his materials are still sheltered by the safety of an interminable copyright term. Not many artists are in this enviable position. Gould sells more albums post-humously than when he was alive and this extends to many media. His work and works about him circulate on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, vinyl (I've spent more on Gould vinyl than I care to admit), and digital downloads.

However, despite the commercial momentum and perpetual interest from the Gould faithful, cracks are forming in the foundation. To paraphrase him, "The good ship Glenn Gould has come to grief upon the rocks of a demographic shift." Nowhere was this demonstrated more amply than at the Dreamers, Renegades, Visionaries: The Glenn Gould Variations event the weekend before the Gould anniversary.

A huge advertising blitz ensued in the months leading to the event. The press poured thousands of words into describing the artist, the significance of this year, the event, and the impressive lineup. It got coverage all over the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and even on BBC Radio 3! I followed the Glenn Gould Variations twitter feed for weeks before the event and purchased my tickets the day they went on sale. To say I waited for this weekend eagerly is a bit of an understatement. I marched to Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus, found my seat in the first balcony and waited for people to finish filing in so we could start. 10am came and went and the event started but the hall didn't fill in; not even through the remains of the day. The crowd was woefully small. The hall, by Wikipedia's estimation, holds 1731 people but there were maybe 200 people spread out between the mainfloor and the balconies, 300 tops. A friend of mine from Ottawa who came to the city for the event joined me in the balcony. We both despaired about the turnout. Like a parent concerned for their child we wanted only the best for this event. Where was everyone? Despite the ubiquity of advertising and media hype the hall was still nearly empty. Perhaps more people would show up on Sunday (they didn't). Why doesn't Toronto want to celebrate the hometown boy? I conjectured that maybe the ticket price had something to do with the lack of bums in seats; more on that later.

The host, Rick Miller, clad as Glenn Gould strides confidently on stage. He stayed in character all weekend. He certainly cut a striking figure as the young piano. He also bore an eerie vocal similarity to the young pianist (I'd wager moreso than Colm Feore in Thirty-Two Short Films). There were a few character slips over the weekend, including a clearly punctuated "shit" very early on. Some of his segues while he stalled for time fell flat but not for his lack of humour or convincing act. I sensed often that the audience just didn't appreciate this sort of narrative. The energy level was underwhelming. In fact, the audience was mostly the 'over 60' demographic. These were the hardcore Gould fans, the ones who probably expected a lot of musicians playing a lot of Bach, some documentaries, etc. Whatever their motivation, they emitted almost no energy and so much of the weekend felt really awkward because they just didn't respond as a younger crowd might have.

Something struck me as somewhat bizarre about Miller as Gould and his role as emcee. Through all the speakers, he sat perched on an elevated platform, stage left, on a reproduction of 'the chair.' How strange to see him, risen from the dead, to observe his own Festschrift. It's like Huck Finn attending his own funeral. A few times he referred to his 'second lifetime.' This was kind of odd but humourous in a pleasantly dark way.

The event programme offered a lot of great names in a very impressive lineup of guest speakers. Each presenter had nineteen minutes to deliver their spiel and pass it off to the next speaker. I got the distinct impression that the event was structured like the ever-popular TED conferences. Lots of speakers who take to the stage briefly to deliver condensed lectures on any number of topics. They are rich with soundbites and popular enough to spawn their own regional conferences, the TEDx events. I loved the idea of this structure. There were some amazing speakers distributed evenly over the programme. They spoke of Gould or projects, philosophy, or topics in the spirit of Gould. These presenters were the most compelling. Tim Page took the stage first and recalled his famous 1980 phone interview with Gould. He played a three-minute excerpt of the interview. The quality, befitting the technology of the time, was a bit low but still offered a tantalizing tidbit of Gould at his most candid. This was the first time the public heard any of this recording. It was a definite 'wow' moment.

World record breaking speed skater, Johann Olav Koss launched the 'Playright' organisation to bring sports equipment to children in underdeveloped nations. Along with the sports came a healthy spirit of independence and competition. Though Gould was not a fan of organised sports (he hated competition), Koss' social activism certainly embodied Gould's own spirit of equality and making the world a better place. Alan Cross delivered a brilliant presentation on how technology mediates our perceptions of beauty. His demonstration of 'tone tests' illustrated how recording technologies effect the sonic characteristics of our music. He played three music excerpts, played back on CD, vinyl, and MP3. Our job was to guess the format and decide, quietly, which one we found the most beautiful. This was a very Gouldian sort of exercise and something he likely would have engaged if he had so many consumer audio formats at his disposal. Apparently, Gould could identify several different brands of analog magnetic audio tape based on the sonic characteristics of the playback. His last recordings, the Haydn piano sonatas and the second recording of the Goldbergs, Gould identified which of the two digital tape recorders the engineers used in the studio.

Former journalist, broadcaster, and Governer General, Adrienne Clarkson conducted an interview with Adrienne Clarkson, à la Gould. Sitting alone on stage she engaged an interview dialogue that was both serious and comedic, revealing and insightful. This was an Adrienne Clarkson that few people in my generation ever saw. Another of the speakers had the courage to speak a little more candid of Gould.

Chilly Gonzales, aka. Jason Charles Beck, reminded us that 'genius' is not always genius. In contemplating Gould's creative legacy he had this to say:


Though shocking at first, there's a ring of truth about this. I quoted this on Twitter and got into a short flame war with other Tweeple in attendance about his compositional capabilities. To be fair, Gould wasn't a mature composer. His childhood efforts are simple and tonal. The string quartet, Op. 1 sounds like a series of counterpoint exercises in a musical idiom that sounds more like second-rate Strauss than the contemporary vogue of serialist modernism (though, personally, I like parts of the quartet). Even Gould acknowledged that the quartet had its weaknesses. He completed the work in 1955 but didn't get its first recording until 1960. He even concludes his album liner notes, "It's Op. 2 that counts!" Still, it was refreshing to hear someone remind us that even the 'genius' has his weak points.

Honourable mentions go to pianist Uri Caine whose facility at the keyboard is astounding. His brand of improvisation is comforting, whimsical, and always enlightened throwing in one musical quote after another. He makes it look so easy! Robert Wilson of theatrical fame gave a contemplative and sage presentation that started with a very uncomfortable minute of silence while he surveyed the audience with his ice blue eyes (the hipster in the seat behind me found this exciting). The Argentinian Lombard Twins got the stage twice over the weekend. Their choreography was impressively slick though the stage seemed a bit too small for their expansive moves. I'd never seen anyone dance to a fugue before but they certainly did Astor Piazzola justice ("So you want to dance a fugue?"). Dr. Jordan Peterson's lecture on music and meaning was very entertaining and clearly Gouldian in scope and intellectual rigor.

However, many speakers' connection with Gould or anything remotely related to Gould was tenuous at best. The less than great (read: Bad) speakers often ran overtime. I can pinpoint three or four speakers who rambled for so long (or at least felt like longer) that it was physically uncomfortable to watch them. Famed Canadian choreographer, Marie Chouinard delivered what felt like an unprepared presentation on a recent piece of hers. Dancers leaned on prosthetic aids, and other equipment one normally sees in a physiotherapist's office. I don't know much about choreography or have much exposure to it but purported connection with the Goldberg variations seemed absurd to me. This pattern repeated itself over the weekend. Any work with 'variations' on a theme seemed to take its cue from the Goldberg Variations.

Dr. Jennifer Snow, a piano instructor at the Royal Conservatory took to the stage to wax rhapsodic about the Yamaha Disklavier piano. It's kind of a digital player piano. Her presentation amounted to a commercial about the pedagogical benefits of this technology. This technology impressed me when it was nearly new in 2001. I'm not sure why she considered it so impressive now. It was a glaring example of the positivist nonsense that saturates the field of education and pedagogy. Of course, a lot of people attending the event seemed impressed by the flood of technobabble and 'whizz bang' demonstration. Snow recorded the young Anastasia Rizikov playing the piano in advance and then played back her performance to the audience, wowed by the piano as it played itself. These sentient Disklaviers will destroy us all! Rizikov followed Snow's commercial with her own presentation. I'm not trying to bully a 13 year-old but I have to get this off my chest. This girl is precocious beyond her years and this is not a good thing. We got 300 years of music history crammed into 19 minutes of offensively generalised statements, a performance of the 'A minor' prelude and fugue from book 1 of J.S. Bach's "Well-Tempered Klavier," and a jazzy little number by Eastern European composer, Nikolai Kapustin. If anything, Rizikov's performance, though technically impressive, bears more resemblance to the young Gould's own precociousness. It was her shameless self-promotion that struck a raw nerve more than anything else.

I was disappointed that very few speakers mentioned Gould's radio work (but I'm biased). Tim Page referenced it first thing on Saturday morning but that was it. One pre-produced segment, "The Idea! of North" by Damiano Pietropaulo and Dennis Patrick took its inpiration from The Idea of North but sounded like a sound collage that used a lot of overlapping sounds without an internal musical logic. I don't want to disparage their hard work, but anyone can layer sounds like that. It's much harder to make something meaningful by those techniques.

Other speakers begged one to ask the question: Why is he/she here, anyway? The magician Brian Bushwood made his reputation demonstrating the macabre.


Most of his tricks involved him inserting hardware implements into his body. This was not for the faint of stomach. Two ladies sitting in front of me got up and left the balcony halfway through his act. The highlight for me was "Mr. Happypants" a hand puppet that resembled a Lousiana voodoo doll more than anything happy.

As the weekend came to a close I quipped to my friend, "You know, I'd really love to hear the 'Aria' [from the Goldberg Variations] again." I wager that at least 60% of the speakers made use of the aria in While grateful for the 'heavily discounted' 2-day student ticket, $100, it was still a princely sum. I booked a ticket for the first balcony thinking I'd have an unobstructed view but had to sit three rows back, as the first three rows were taped off for the large television camera and operator. Luckily, I could see around the camera but this left a bad taste in my mouth. The main floor seats were off limits to us despite the distinct lack of bums in seats. On Sunday morning, the GGVariations twitter feed advertised this:



My friends and I felt shortshrifted and greatly annoyed. I may have felt more charitably inclined to the event's bad speakers if I hadn't spent so much on my student ticket. Sure, it's great that an 'anonymous donor' decided to pay for more students to come see the show, but it was too late. I didn't see any evidence that the tweet had any effect. I just don't understand why the organisers thought $100 for a student ticket was a good idea. I paid it because my whole PhD revolves around Gould and Gould-related work. This was an essential event for me. But what student can really afford that much for a ticket? When I was a TA, that ticket price would have chewed up 1/10 of my monthly salary. I heard an anecdote that a University professor teaching a course dedicated to Gould requested student tickets for her class but was firmly rejected. Advance ticket sales must have been pretty low, so why not do something about it before the event?

On Sunday afternoon one of the many volunteers came to the balcony and suggested we move down to the main floor. Someone decided to offer 'open seating.' This was likely for optics for the event photographer and for pianist, Lang Lang. What international superstar wants to walk onstage and perform for a nearly empty house? The event ended with the Canadian Opera Company's children's chorus with a choral rendition of the Goldberg aria and one or two of the variations. The performance felt like a funeral derge. To end the whole weekend, they performed Purcell's "Dido's Lament." It was a literal funeral derge. The choir left the stage and revealed the reproduction of Gould's chair draped with the trench coat, scarf, and cap as if Gould had been sitting there and suddenly dissolved into thin air. It was dramatic, to be sure, but in a way that recalled a flamboyant high school teacher's quest to reproduce a broadway show on too small a stage. The crowd, mostly the older set, loved it! I thought it was just plain tacky and maudlin.

If anything, this well-conceived event revealed a strange divide in the Gould community that will only grow wider before it narrows again. For years, "Gouldies," scholars, and biographers coasted on biographic materials and essay anthologies. Unfortunately, now even the details of his romantic life are documented in distasteful detail. Ok, the once rich soil of Gould biography is over-farmed and now barren. Every few years Sony releases 'previously unreleased' recordings, and other small labels release radio recordings or 'forgotten concert recordings.' At the risk of sounding crass, Sony prepares a disc launch everytime they find evidence that Gould so much as farted within hearing distance of a microphone. This is unadulterated hero worship, fetishizing any aural evidence of his 'performative genius.'

The demographic of Gould fans is slowly changing. The original Gouldies, the white hairs in the audience that weekend, remember his performances on CBC radio and television. They bought his recordings on vinyl when they were new. They might have actually seen him in performance or at one of his late night feedings at Fran's diner. Slowly they're being replaced by a new generation of Gouldies and scholars. This new crowd represents a significant shift in how we talk about and study our beatific pianist. Increasingly, we're moving away from talking about Gould, 'the man,' and away from the laudatory events that he found distasteful. Instead, there is more discussion and focus on things in 'the spirit of Glenn Gould.' This is a far more sustainable approach to celebrating the man but here lies the dilemma: How do we actualise this shift to introduce Gould to a new generation without alienating the original legions of Gouldies?

Tone down the lofty genius rhetoric! Gould was not a lone genius working in isolation. He never worked alone even if he was alone most of the time. He relished the company of friends and professional associates either by long discussions in the car, during recording sessions, or by late night telephone calls. Sure, he was an amazing 'idea man' but he relied on others to actualise those ideas. The contrapuntal radio works he did for the CBC were largely the work of Lorne Tulk and other extraordinary technicians and producers. They met with aplomb the challenge of translating Gould's lofty aesthetic ideals into something practical for the radio medium; Andrew Kazdin was Gould's record producer during his most productive recording period in the 1960s and 70s. Their work together produced some of his best and most innovative work (check out Paul Theberge's realisation of Gould's 'acoustic choreography' experiments here).

All that said, we still indulge in 'Gould the genius.' There was lots of mention during the Glenn Gould Variations event about what Glenn 'might have done' were he alive today. Tim Page got the ball rolling on this, "I'm sure Glenn would be using the internet for distributing recordings that he'd made that afternoon. He could get feedback from his fans and re-record the next day." I think it's more accurate to say not "If Glenn were alive today..." but "If these technologies were around when Glenn was at his creative/productive peak..." Many of his ideas were not realised until far later, some ideas were incredibly prescient. His writings on a configurable cultural product (remixing and mashups) allude to the listener taking a greater role in the production process. I wrote about this topic a little while ago.

If Glenn was alive today he would have the technology but would he have the drive or motivation to use it? He wanted to give up playing the piano at 50 to focus on other projects. What's to say his physiology would have held up long enough to still play at 80? What of his chronic prescription drug abuse (let's call a spade a spade) and its potential physical and mental ramifications of this? Digital audio recording wasn't really a viable alternative to tape until the late 1990s and early 2000s. The podcast wasn't really a 'thing' until nearly 20 years after his death. Recording technology was still largely tape-based (albeit digital) until well into the 1990s. What would Gould have done in the intervening 20 years? Would he continue to use tape or experiment with early computer digital recording? Two decades is a long time to wait for someone to realise the 'potential' of solid-state digital audio recording. This talk is conjecture in fantasy, a refusal to let the man die. In asking these questions we impose our fantasies on a very talented man, long since dead. Why do we continue to ask these questions and assume that only Gould could achieve such marvelous things with this technology? Why don't we we reach out to do the things we imagine him doing? That's what makes great innovators. Conversely, why don't we celebrate more loudly those artists that are doing the things Glenn "would have done"?

The Glenn Gould Variations weekend was an exciting and innovating way to celebrate this milestone. There were some very enlightened and enlightening presentations and discussion. Even still, it amply demonstrated to me the dilemma of Gould at 80. Maybe the Centenary celebrations will demonstrate a renewed interest in 'the spirit of Gould' for a new generation. By then he will have been dead as long as he was alive. By then we will realise the sustainability of Gould's legacy.

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