Gould’s “Solitude Trilogy” – 3 Radio Documentaries

Surprisingly, these documentaries have nothing to do with music.

The first, called “The Idea of North” (1967) documents the experiences of southern Canadians travelling to or dwelling in the extreme northern reaches of the country.  Next comes “The Latecomers,” (about the province of Newfoundland.  Last is “The Quiet in the Land,” about Canadian Mennonite communities.

It’s an overstatement to say they have nothing to do with music.  Gould called them experiments in “contrapuntal radio.”  Just like a Bach fugue, there are usually at least two or three “themes” going at once, but here, the themes aren’t melodies or motives, they’re spoken words, responses to interviewers’ questions (though we never hear the interviewers, just the responses).  Gould was really taken by the idea that we do some of our best listening when we’re forced to be active listeners, not in the sense that someone makes us take notes, but more like how you have to actively listen when you’re on a crowded train, there are several conversations going at once, and you are trying to listen to one.

You could probably listen to these documentaries multiple times, because you are often forced (I was anyway) to listen to one voice, and tune out the others speaking simultaneously   Sometimes I could vaguely hear two voices at once, sort of know what they were both talking about, but not really follow both of them.  It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you’re reading and also overhearing a conversation you’d rather not be listening to — except it’s more pleasant than that.  Which is not to say there aren’t annoyances in listening.  I think they were probably things intended to annoy me, particularly those of Gould’s interlocutors that sound like blowhards who were glad to have an audience (this seems to have been part of his intent, to juxtapose articulate people’s ideas with inane prattlers).  Also – I did notice something I had only vaguely noticed before about Canadians’ diction – they love love love little nothing-words and nothing-phrases (“you see”, “I suppose,” “anyhow,” “if you will,” “as I see it,” “how does one put it?”, “as it were,” “and this sort of thing,” “at least it seems to to me,” etc. etc. etc.)  Listen to like 10 minutes of one of these (all came up on Spotify and Youtube) and see if you see what I mean.

Nates will probably just think they sound normal.

If I were choosing names, I wouldn’t have called them “documentaries” at all, much more like sound or interview collages.  Sometime it sounds a bit like listening to “Revolution 9” or The Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery.”  There are no really odd sounds but there are overlapping and stereo-separated narratives that create a kind of eeriness   They work a bit like poetry as well.  Repeated words gain traction over the course of the recordings (they’re 1 hour each or so).  Even though the different interviewees (and each of them has about 5 total voices) were recorded separately, in fact never met each other, they’re made to sound as though they’re in dialogue with one another.  Each is underlayed with what Gould described as a “basso continuo” sound.  For the first, it’s the sound of a railroad; the second, it’s some waves crashing, and the third, it’s the sounds from a Mennonite service.

What are they “about”?  First, “The Idea of North.”  This is about different people’s memories of living in and travelling to the far North of Canada, and their ideas about what “the north” means, both to them and to the country of Canada.  The names of the people behind main voices are introduced by Gould at the beginning (this is the only of the 3 documentaries that contains Gould’s voice, but only briefly).  The main character is a weird autodidact sort of know-it-all Gould met on a long train ride once.  There is also a government official given to abstruse pronouncements, and others whose professions I forget.  Their personalities come to the fore as they’re each heard talking differently about similar subjects.  They get towards talking about what I was taught as the “Turner Thesis” (at least the Canadian version) – that the frontier maintains the sense of freedom in the country.  They also spend the latter third discussing what’s to be done to/with/about the Eskimos (I gather not a politically correct term anymore?)

“The Latecomers” is about people’s experiences, memories and ideas of living in or travelling from Newfoundland.  There’s a lot of talk about whether/how Newfoundland should be developed, the cultural context of which was largely lost on me.

“The Quiet of the Land,” the final of the trilogy, is mostly first-hand accounts of Mennonites describing their faith, their communities, their attempts to integrate into contemporary Canadian society, their criticisms of that society, etc.  This all sounded pretty familiar to me, having attended my father’s Mennonite church for several years when I was younger.

Common themes emerge – the most obvious being the one signaled by their collective title the “Solitude Trilogy.”  Also, there is introversion (individual and communal) and the challenge it poses to more extroverted people and communities.  The issue of modernization and the advance of technology are prevalent as well.  Since these are Canadians, there is the everpresent sense of futility about disengaging and distinguishing themselves from the U.S. (in that weird way Canadians do, where they at the same time both underplay and overstate the presence of their neighbors to the south), There is an implicit gender thing too – each recording features one woman’s voice, and it’s often in tension with the other men who otherwise dominate.  Another unifying thread is their preoccupation with politics.  Not politics in the CNN-24-hour-news-cycle sense, but politics in the “how are we going to make collective national decisions?” sense (i.e., the one you never find even a trace of on American cable TV).

Gould is described as a “Renaissance Man” in one of the chapter headings of Bazzana’s biography.  This is one of those sorts of secondary interests of his that actually worked out pretty well.  They definitely advance the genre (at least what I know of it, which is basically a handful of This American Life episodes).  They were well-reviewed at the time, and are a great way for you to spend about three hours some time (they’re especially good for a commute on which you can wear headphones).

I found a lot to like in listening to them while watching the desolate post-industrial Chicago far south side glide by outside the Metra Electric on its trip northbound towards the city.  The view through the somewhat dirty window, the dreary weather, and the antiquarian feel of the recording on my headphones made the world outside start to turn black-and-white.

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11 Responses to Gould’s “Solitude Trilogy” – 3 Radio Documentaries

  1. Nates says:

    Huh, it sounds a little bit like Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, except with less musical accompaniment. I’ll have to check it out.

    It’s an Interesting experiment. It’s curious that we find it much easier to follow counterpoint in music than in speech. It’s not immediately obvious to me why that would be. (It’s not like speech data is more complex, for example.) I imagine there’s some science-y answer about speech involving a different part of the brain.

  2. Josh says:

    Do you think it’s easier to follow counterpoint in music? I mean in speech when we say “follow” we mean “understand the words spoken by”, in some sense of “understand” that means we get words, sentences, and even paragraphs in the context of one another.

    I don’t know that I *ever* do that with music involving counterpoint. I can “follow” the melody in the sense that I can here that it *is* a melody, but I always feel like with music (especially something especially contrapuntal) I’m not even *close* to understanding anything more than that. I feel sort of like someone who barely knows Spanish, and can tell vaguely what’s being talked about, but that’s about it, when there are three different melodies going at the same time.

  3. Nates says:

    Yeah, I’m not denying that there are tons of subtleties that the average listener will miss in musical counterpoint. (I’m sure I’m missing them.) My point was more basic than this. It just strikes me as a curious fact that, in music, distinct melodic lines can combine together in a way that almost any listener can appreciate (even if they sometimes struggle to sharply distinguish these lines). And that the combination is often better than the individual lines.
    Speech doesn’t work that way. You might (with difficulty) manage to follow two conversations at once, but there’s no sense in which this is a better way to communicate. Given my Kantian background, you won’t be surprised to hear that I suspect this has something to do with the discursive character of thought.

  4. Josh says:

    Can’t speech work that way if the different speakers are coordinating their speech in an artful manner? In music, if the left speaker were playing Bach and the right speaker were playing Arcade Fire it probably wouldn’t sound so good. In speech. if two random people are having two random conversations it won’t sound so good either.

    But, If the right speaker and the left speaker are both playing a Bach fugue, with the left melody starting one measure after the right, you have a different story.

    If two people were communicating in a way that tried to take advantage of a conversational fugal structure (whatever that would mean) it might actually be pleasant to have such a conversation provided you had a sense of the rules of harmony, rhythm, etc., modulated for a conversational context. Not that we have such rules but they COULD exist, don’t you think?

  5. Nates says:

    Oh yeah, that would be interesting. I wonder if anyone has tried this. Seems like it’s not really what Gould is doing. But it would be a curious experiment to see if you could make this work — even just functionally, let alone aesthetically.

  6. Josh says:

    On a related note: I’m reading this massive tome of intellectual history called _The German Genius_ by Peter Watson. Relevant to this discussion, he writes” Immanuel Kant had dismissed instrumental music–music without voices, without words–as simple pleasure, a form of ‘wallpaper,’ not culture” (59). No citation is given but it sounds of a piece with your suspicion that “the discursive character of thought” means that music can’t convey thought, and only language can?

  7. Nates says:

    That’s from the Critique of Judgment (529). It’s true that he lumps in instrumental music with wallpaper (and Maori aboriginal tattoos!), but the exact significance of this comparison is unclear. In some respects, these decorative arts are actually better. This is because they aren’t contaminated (my word) by non-aesthetic concerns. He thinks that when we look at representational art, we’re always judging it in terms of some standard of perfection. So, our assessment of a drawing of a fish will involve our understanding of what a fish ought to look like (perhaps for biological reasons). By contrast, when we listen to a piece of instrumental music (his example is a fantasia), we simply appreciate its pure beauty (his words).

    But this isn’t to deny that there are other kinds of value (cultural?) that non-representational art is incapable of producing–precisely because it doesn’t have the required concepts. This is probably what Watson is picking up on. But it’s an incomplete picture.

    I read a bit of the Watson book last summer. The stuff on Kant’s theoretical philosophy is pretty weak. Still, the larger story seems interesting. Perhaps I’ll get back to it this summer.

  8. Nates says:

    I feel like I should add a disclaimer to all of the above: IANAA. (I am not an aesthetician.)

  9. Josh says:

    I’m wondering about this Watson book. I did just read the Kant section; it felt like a blend of things you would hear in a mediocre undergraduate introduction to early modern philosophy course. This gave rise to two thoughts:

    1) Does this mean the rest of the book is suspect? I don’t know as much about the other people discussed as I do about Kant, but if the Kant section is representative, is this book just too broad to capture anything in enough depth to make insightful conclusions?

    2) On the other hand, what would *you* do if you only had a brief chapter in a much larger work to devote to a figure like Kant? I’ve tried to explain to many people what’s so important about The Critique of Pure Reason, and come up a bit short. Once enmeshed in its ideas, it’s fascinating, but summarized in a few paragraphs, it tends to sound either overly obvious (“our mental structures contribute substantially to our experience!”) or just baroque and needlessly confusing (“that depends whether you’re talking about the A deduction or the B…”, etc.). I know that it’s neither, but I don’t know that I can really say so to someone who hasn’t tried for themselves to comprehend that book.

  10. Nates says:

    It’s definitely worrisome. I find it difficult to judge these sorts of books. It’s their accounts of Kant that I’m in the best position to assess, but he’s also the most difficult philosopher to summarize. (Well, except maybe Hegel.) So I’m never quite sure what to make of them.

    I spent some time a few years ago working on the Kant Wikipedia page, so I had to deal with the issues you mention. It’s hard. (The site has since mutated in various ways, although I think there are still parts of my biographical account remaining.)

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