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.