The music of a man's life

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST



A look at the life and philosophy of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.

THE Canadian pianist Glenn Gould evoked many varied responses but it is universally agreed that he was eccentric. Of course, along with that there was the remarkable profundity and musical freshness of many of his interpretations, the integrity combined with controlled passion that he brought to his playing, and the extraordinary course of his professional career - all of which elevated him to a cult-like status in the late 20th century musical firmament.

Gould, who was born in 1932, was a musical wunderkind who was already performing at major concert halls with internationally renowned orchestras by the age of 20. He quickly achieved superstardom, being feted for his highly proficient but very unique musical approach. Even then, his personal idiosyncrasies were much talked about, but the musical world was startled when, in 1964 after just nine years of an amazingly successful concert career, he abruptly announced that he was withdrawing completely from live concert performances and henceforth would only make recordings.

While this decision appeared sudden and inexplicable to many, Gould explained that this was the logical culmination of his approach to music and indeed to life. As a perfectionist, he disliked the inherent imperfection, the lack of correctibility of the concert experience. He also hated the hectic life of the itinerant performer (in a comment on Yehudi Menuhin, he would speak of how "futile and irrelevant" it could be, with "the banal drudgery of its routine... the constancy of its anxiety, the certainty of its frustration"). He complained that "at concerts I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillean".

He was motivated in his rejection of live appearances also by a distaste for the competitive nature of such events - he abhorred competition as the source of all true evil and even had a problem with the concerto form because of his perception of it as a form of competition between soloist and orchestra.

This rejection of the public concert was accompanied also by a positive embrace of the enabling possibilities of technology, which allowed for exploitation of broadcast media and playback recording. In a typical Gouldian intervention - a review by Gould of a biography of Gould by Geoffrey Payzant - he spoke of "his almost mystical belief that technology possesses a mediative power which can minimise or even eliminate the competitive follies which absorb so large a share of human activity".

His subsequent discography is naturally, therefore, of immense interest. It too has achieved cult status, much as his live concerts did earlier, with fervent admirers and detractors in almost equal proportion, and has survived despite his predilection for singing rather loudly while he played. His early recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations has become a landmark while his subsequently huge recording output is bound to remain as stimulating for future generations as it was for those who first heard it. His early death (at just 50 years) came when he was still at the peak of his powers, as expressed in his recordings of the time.

With all this musical innovation, it comes as a pleasant surprise to note that Gould also had tremendous facility with the written word. His creativity in this is best brought out in the recently reprinted Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page (Vintage Books, New York), which captures some of his most scintillating pieces, as also several of his particularly controversial assessments.

In terms of controversy, Gould almost seemed to revel in it, in cocking a snook at the most established and pious musical traditions. Many of his assessments are not merely surprising but downright shocking and inexplicable. Thus, he described Mozart's piano concertos as "unfixable" and declared himself to be "absolutely at a loss" as to how some of Beethoven's best-known works such as the Emperor Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony ever became popular or retained their appeal. For him, Chopin was not a very good composer, and "the whole centre core of the piano recital repertoire is a colossal waste of time".

His proclivity is towards composers of the baroque period, but even here his favourite composer is not the more obvious master Bach but the little known Orlando Gibbons!

Yet, when he is not out to shock, Gould also reveals some philosophical insights into musical activity, which become a useful guide to his attitude to life itself. A particularly perceptive passage comes from a speech given at a graduation ceremony of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. This ruminative statement is far from the standard hortatory, clich-ridden speech that graduating students typically get. Instead, Gould makes it a testament to his attitude to art and creativity.

Gould argues that "the most impressive thing about man, perhaps the one thing that excuses him of all his idiocy and brutality, is the fact that he has invented the concept of that which does not exist". He finds the principle of negation to be the most important concept in the history of human thought because it teaches restraint, and "is the concept which seeks to make us better - to provide us structures within which our thoughts can function - while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic".

How does this relate to music? It relates deeply because, according to Gould, "the more one thinks about the perfectly astonishing phenomenon that music is, the more one realises how much of its operation is the product of the purely artificial construction of systematic thought". This is not meant as criticism of music since the artificiality itself springs from the wellspring of human invention. But it is important always to be conscious of that artificiality and not be overwhelmed by what Gould calls "the dangers of positive thinking", so as not to lose sight of its more significant other.

"When people who practise an art like music become captives of those positive assumptions of system, when they forget to credit that happening against negation which system is, and when they become disrespectful of the immensity of negation compared to system - then they put themselves out of reach of that replenishment of invention upon which creative ideas depend, because invention is, in fact, a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system."

As with music, so with much else in life. This is why Gould's final argument on the importance of imagination is so persuasive: "What it can do is serve as a sort of no-man's land between that foreground of system and dogma, of positive action, for which you have been trained, and that vast background of immense possibility, of negation, which you must constantly examine and to which you must never forget to pay homage as the source from which all creative ideas come."

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