The Glenn Gould Project

Quick – who’s your favorite introverted left-handed Canadian genius?  (Other than Nates of course…)

I’ve been looking for a successor to the Dostoevsky reading project for some time, but I think I’ve finally admitted to myself, there just won’t be a replacement.  It’s so sui-generis and so enormous that I just won’t find anything that “logically” comes next.  So I’m trying something completely different.  I recently bought Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould by Kevin Bazzana, and was planning to read the book while listening to to Gould’s various recordings while making my way through that book.  This project strikes me as harder to organize than the Dostoevsky one, mostly because Gould contributed to the culture in multiple different modalities: he recorded music (most famously) but also wrote music, wrote essays, and recorded radio interviews, and probably other things I don’t know about yet.  And even just for recorded music, it’s hard to be deliberately chronological, since in addition to recordings that resulted in actual records, there are also hosts of one-shot events, some of which have been recorded for posterity and some not.  I’m sure there are even Glenn Gould bootlegs.

Another big methodological qualifier is this: I have no idea how to write about music.  From what I’ve read, few critics (classical or popular) really do either.  Years ago a friend pointed me towards Elvis Costello’s remark, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture.  And where even with pop music, I might, from time to time, feel like I’ve got something insightful to say about it, with classical, I have very little sense of how even to make a start.  I can barely get a handle on the composer, much less the performer’s particular take on that composer.  I marvel at those who can distinguish between performance and have insights about them (though I’m a little suspicious sometimes that those are real distinctions…)  I can’t hold one recording in my head long enough to hear any but the most superficial difference between the two.  Glenn Gould, for example, tends to be heard humming in the background of his recordings.  Other pianists don’t.  But I suspect that pointing that out isn’t much better than those students of mine that, from time to time, write full paragraphs about typographical errors of no significance, like “why did Walt Whitman underline the first word of each paragraph?”  [True answer?  He didn’t – the copy of the text we’re using just came from the internet and it had hyperlinks I forgot to delete…]

All of which is to say I’m going to proceed more casually and free-form with this one.  I’ll start with my most significant Glenn Gould experience. (It’s actually not the Goldberg Variations, though I’ve listened to those quite a few times, and will probably have a lot to say about them in time)

I started college in the fall of 1995, in the golden age of the CD.  Often, as a remedy for homesickness or just straight-up sadness, I’d walk down to Main Street in Middletown, Connecticut, to a place that’s surely no longer there:  it was a pretty nondescript record store, the name of which I don’t even remember.  Maybe “Record Express?”  I’m not really sure.  The sort of place that had posters for new releases (and not just the hip ones, in fact, probably not the hip ones).  They still had a “cassette tapes” section.  So one day, I walked down there intent on beginning a classical music collection.  I had played piano consistently since I was 5 or so, and now, having traveled off to college, I was away from it for the first time I could remember.  Don’t get me wrong-  I was by no means a prodigy.  I barely practiced one time between lessons most weeks.  As I neared the end of high school, I reversed this a little bit.  Having gained in maturity, I started to find value in the experience; it made me feel better about my life, I guess I would say.  In keeping with the late-adolescent thing, my piano teacher had steered me towards the romantics: Chopin, Brahms and Mussorgsky were the last composers I remember playing.  The Brahms was particularly special to me, two Intermezzi in particular (don’t remember the numbers).

So I walk into what we’re calling Record Express (Record City?) and go to the classical section, under “B” and start thumbing through CD’s.  I’ve always been dreadfully nervous when doing so – I’m worried the whole time about what others are doing, like watching me and seeing what bands I’m looking for, making conclusions abut how un-cool I am, etc.  Somehow with classical that’s easier – mostly because I’m identifying myself as not really playing the hipster game if I’m in the classical section, right?  So I flip through the Brahms recordings, looking for piano.  Not piano concerto, not symphony, not strings – just solo piano.  By some fortuitous act, I discover a nice-looking two-CD package that says “The Glenn Gould Edition” by Sony, and it’s got the intermezzi for which I was searching.  At the time, I had no idea who Glenn Gould was.  Like I said before, I can’t really even appreciate the nuances in a given performer’s take on a particular piece of classical music.  I just bought this 2-CD set because it was Brahms intermezzi, and that’s what I was looking for.

I probably made like $28.99 + tax for it.  It does not feel like an understatement to say that that $28.99 + tax was probably the best money ever spent by me on CD’s – possibly even the best $28.99 + tax ever spent on anything cultural, and while we’re at it, on anything.  I’m sure I will struggle to express the ecstasy with which I experienced those recordings the first times I listened to them.  The first CD (not the intermezzi, but Ballades and Rhapsodies) made me feel like every other bit of recorded music I had ever heard was black and white, and how here was the color.  The final piece on that CD – Rhapsody Op 79 No 2 – announce itself almost as though it’s the last piece of music you will ever hear, or would ever need to hear.  Like to follow its opening arpeggios would lead you to some transcendent place beyond our mundane existence.  Ballade Op 10 No 3 made me feel like I had discovered  some long-lost piece of my psyche I did not, until that moment, have either the language or the feelings to describe or experience.

I have nothing else I can really say about it – the timber of the recordings (and yes, Gould’s humming, even moaning accompaniment all adds to that).

After that time, I made a mental note – find out who this is, who recorded this.  Why are they so important as to have an “Edition”?  I met a much more musically literate (and actually a REAL) pianist around that time, who told me Gould was actually best known for recording Bach.  And I’ve listened to a lot of those recordings.  I do love them, but really for me, it all goes back to that Brahms recording.  I would sit on my bed in my college dorm room and listen, either with headphones or on speaker, and feel, not “stress relief” (like so much of the marketed classical recordings claim to provide) but more serenity – from the transmutation of the base elements of my experiences into whatever it was Gould had produced on those recordings.  The Ballades and Rhapsodies are amongst his very latest recordings (the intermezzi being earlier).

I’ll try to write about these pieces and recordings as they become known to me.  I just wish I had better language to describe the attendant emotions.


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4 Responses to The Glenn Gould Project

  1. Juan says:

    Ha ha, I have the same suspicion about the distinctions critics make. I’ve always wandered about those judgments, and the language music critics use, which is hard to understand because of its imprecision. For example, one often hears the claim that so-and-so played technically perfect, played all the notes and such, but something was lacking. My question is, what was lacking? Maybe the critic was not in the right mood, maybe it’s all in his mind, these subtle diaphanous qualities he is after.
    I’ll try to listen to that Gould record, see if they have it at the Naxos library on the UIC website. From what I’ve heard of him, he had a weird unconventional way of playing Bach, that’s why I haven’t been too keen to listen to him. Plus you say he is humming, which would be distracting and annoying for me.

  2. Josh says:

    It’s on spotify I think.

  3. Pingback: Gould Recordings 11-15 – Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schoenberg, R. Strauss | Original Positions

  4. Pingback: Top Five Glenn Gould Records That Aren’t Bach | Original Positions

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