The Glenn Gould Reader

I just finished the compilation of things Gould wrote and have been collected by Tim Page in The Glenn Gould Reader.  I’m guessing a lot of the excerpts in here are available elsewhere online.  I’ve extracted some quotations that might spark discussion, or at least amusement (see below).

About the book more generally – there’s about equal parts album liner notes, longer pieces either written by Gould or transcripts of interviews of him, and then lastly some quasi-Kierkegaardian pseudonymous parody of music journalism and academic pomposity (the latter would probably not meet with universal acclaim, but I laughed out loud on several occasions). 

If you’re looking for just straight talk about music, his interview titled “On Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon” was impressive in its scope and the willingness of the interviewer actually to engage in some really sharp dialectical questioning (though they knew so much more about the Mozart ouerve than I did that it was hard to follow at points).  In a different way, “Glenn Gould Interviews Himself about Beethoven” does the same thing, in a surprisingly penetrating way.

Anyway, instead of  a comprehensive take on book – since it’s not really comprehensive in itself anyway – I’ll just share some quotations.  Maybe they will spark some discussion?

I’ll start with a really profound (and oft-quoted) insight (probably the best line from a pretty strange piece called “Let’s Ban Applause!” in which the hortatory claim of its title is seriously proposed as a potential law):

The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

A reply – by way of parody – to numerological speculation about Bach (these people are serious sometimes – Google “Bach numerology” if you don’t believe me):

I have recently been delving into the numerological significance of my own family and Christian names and I am delighted to report that the respective totals are 52 and 59, of which, as everyone can see, the numbers 7 and 14 are the horizontal sums.  Moreover, I would point out that they jointly tally 111-a figure that renders all further comment superfluous.

A quotation from Leopold Stokowski, a well-regarded mid-century conductor (with whom Gould recorded the Beethoven “Emperor” concerto), from a really very well-written piece of extended journalism called “Stokowski in Six Scenes”:

Black marks on paper… we write black marks on white paper–the mere facts of frequency; but music is a communication much more subtle than mere facts.  The best a composer can do when within him he hears a great melody is to put in on paper.  We call it music, but that is not music; that is only paper.  Some believe that one should merely mechanically reproduce the marks on the paper, but I do not believe in that.  One must go much further than that.  We must defend the composer against the mechanical conception of life which is becoming more and more strong today.

On recording as a superior mode of musical production to the concert-hall (one of the most pervasive themes in all of the essays in the Reader):

… when you’re making a recording you are left alone.  You’re not surrounded by five hundred, five thousand, fifty thousand people… but that seems to me a great advantage.  Because I think the ideal way to go about making a performance or a work of art–and I don’t think that they should be different, really–is to assume that when you begin, you don’t quite know what it is about.  You only come to know as you proceed… and it does depend upon listening to a playback and saying “that doesn’t work; it isn’t going to go that way; I’ll have to change that completely.”  It makes the performer very like the composer, really… Well, obviously, this is something that you cannot do in a concert, if only because you can’t stop, as I always wanted to, and say, “Take two.”

On interviews and supposed expert knowledge:

the most illuminating disclosures derive from areas only indirectly related to the interviewee’s line of work.

On the shortcomings of much music journalism:

The determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal.  Indeed, it strives to avoid appraisal on any ground other than that which has been prepared by previous appraisals.  The moment this tyranny of appraisal-dom is confronted by confused chronological evidence, the moment it is denied a predetermined historical niche in which to lock the object of its analysis, it becomes unserviceable and its proponents hysterical… we have never really become equipped to adjudicate music per se.”

Presaging the musical processes of the digital age by around 50 years (a little too optimistically, to my tastes anyway):

At the center of the technological debate, then is a new kind of listener-a listener more participant in the musical experience.  The emergence of this mid-twentieth-century phenomenon is the great achievement of the record industry.  For this listener is no longer passively analytical; he is an associate whose tastes, preferences, and inclinations even now alter peripherally the experiences to which he gives his attention, and upon whose fuller participation the future of the art of music waits.

On technology an aid to the creation of, and not merely a medium through which to record music:

I had learned the first lesson of technology; I had learned to be creatively dishonest… perhaps you will remind me that “the camera does not lie,” to which I can only respond, “Then the camera must be taught to forthwith.”

On audio and video directing (an observation stated more eloquently than my previous musings about what’s so good about David Simon’s shows):

Indeed, all aspects of the interplay between audio and video badly need reconsideration… that audio and video should serve one another rather than simply come packaged together seems obvious enough.  Yet up till now, no one active in the field has done more than pay lip service to the premise… It should free us from an expectation of a redundant coordination between production components.  It should permit us to treat art as a source of greater mystery than symmetry and unity and all those analysis-imposed and analysis-limited conventions can define.

More in the same vein:

Obviously, if you wish people to make distinct compartments for every piece of information you pass onto them, they will–that’s the easy way out.  If, on the other hand, you want them to be caught up, in the old Wagnerian sense, by a work of art, that’s not the way to do it.  The way to do it is to keep all of the elements in a state of constant flux, interplay, nervous agitation… so that one is buoyed aloft by the structure and never at any moment has time to sit back and say, “Oh, well that’s going to be the bridge to Act Two”– you know.  Of course, that’s the problem with Mozart opera, really–it just comes to a halt; one can predict its caesurae.


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