Gould the Hipster – Early Recordings and Composition

The one thing you’ll find in any reading about Glenn Gould is that he “burst onto the scene” in 1955 with his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  He did, however, compose, perform and record music prior to then.  He was actually fairly well known (at least in Canada) prior to the first Bach recording.  In all his pre-Goldberg Variations endeavors, he strikes me as having been the consummate hipster: opting for obscure and less-crowd pleasing pieces to perform, and trying to emulate them when he composed. 

At the outset I note again – I really don’t know how to write about music.  It’s an interesting question to me whether that’s possible, where you write about your experience of listening to it, as opposed to just write about its context (or yours), as in, what its composers/performers were wearing, how the crowd reacted, or how much money it took in.  I don’t know enough about music theory to approach it from that angle either.  But it seems like a well-intentioned amateur who’s able, in general, to give voice to their thoughts and feelings through writing should be able to come up with something when music is in question.  So here goes.

The First Recording

I actually had to buy this on ebay, and on record, since I could find it neither on iTunes nor Spotify.  The version I got was released in memoriam, in 1983, and had only about 20 minutes of music.  The first side is a 11-minute or so Berg piece.  I barely know that composer’s name; the music sounds dense and difficult to follow.  I didn’t feel super-inclined to invest more time in trying to follow it, but may be I will in the coming days.  On the back of the record it says Gould loved its “counterpuntal” qualities.  My first impression, even if there was a lot of counterpoint, there was not enough “point” – but I know this is an uninformed opinion I probably have no right to.

The B side was shorter pieces for piano and violin.  The piano parts are really more like accompaniments than interesting pieces in their own right.  They’re from Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and a last composer whose name I didn’t recognize and can’t remember.  The liner notes (not Gould’s own – apparently the original edition, which I do not have, has liner notes by Gould himself) stress that all these pieces are the compositions of young men.  The Berg was written when he was 23 I think; the others were even younger when they wrote them.  There is some romance and whimsicality (at least there was on first listen) to the second side, which is strange because Gould is sometimes portrayed as a total anti-Romantic.  This is a contradiction in his character that seems like it played out through his whole life (considering the Brahms recording I’ve previously written about).  But the B side was again, only about 10 minutes or less, so I didn’t have too deep of a reaction to it.

The selection itself is atypical apparently – I guess a lot of first recordings are from the late-Romantic canon, Chopin etc. being the perfect choice for a young performer who wants to illustrate their virtuosity but still make a relatively conservative selection musically.  The intentional obscurantism is, of course, the hallmark of the hipster.  In performances around this time, Gould was apparently often given to impromptu lectures delivered prior to his performances.  He’d try to explain why he was playing what he was playing and what its important theoretical aspects were.  Audience members sometimes audibly complained – at least once, a woman yelled something to the effect of “we paid a lot of money to hear you perform, so shut up and get to it!”  And that was in Canada!  [I just imagine how much throat-clearing and shirt straightening such a comment would have been produced by the rest of the audience in reply]

The First Composition

It’s a string quartet that seems equal parts 20th-century obscurity and then also pockets of more straightforward melody.  Gould wrote it largely while in self-imposed exile at his parents’ country cabin.  While he was doing that, he was also reading hosts of books (both on musical and non-musical subjects).  It sounds like sort of an introvert’s paradise.  He’d read, compose, take walks, and once a day drive into town to get dinner.  He wasn’t averse to small talk with locals, but didn’t seek out social interactions either.

The quartet’s form is not one that is familiar to me – it’s a 35-minute piece in one movement.  I’ve now listened to it 4-5 times (this is on Spotify – a recording by the Symphonia Quartet – it’s from the Sony Glenn Gould Edition, on a disc with a few other things he composed) and it’s hard to hold in my head long enough to make sense of.  That’s how all music feels, more or less, the first time I hear it, but it was especially the case with this piece.  There are little moments that produce a sense of mood (tough to say what mood exactly), but it’s really hard to get a sense of the whole.  I’d say it was “impressionistic” in that way, but it’s really not like Debussy or Ravel.  It feels more esoteric than that, less of a sense of physicality or even representation at all.  It’s not unpleasant to listen to, but its relative lack of melodic continuity make it feel more like white noise.  It’s very angular.  Now that I think about it, it has something in common with Bartok string quartets, in that angularity and fierceness.  It’s like a set of interesting sentences that don’t come together to make paragraphs or a full essay.

[I know these are all analogies to other forms of expression, but that’s what feels like is available to me to talk about it.]

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