Mediamatic Magazine vol 6#1 Lex Wouterloot 1 Jan 1991

The Glenn Gould Reader

Tim Page (ed) Alfred A. Knopf (pub) New York 1985

ISBN 0-394-54067-0, English text, pp. 475, $25.00


The Glenn Gould Reader -

When I learned that the German composer Carl Orff had put his creative abilities to the service of building of the Third Reich, I wasn't surprised. The community music college which I once attended made use of a pedagogy in which the Orff instrumentarium had been assigned a modest function. Young people were instructed in the art of music with a method which was considered modern. This meant that the theoretical foundation of music, its notation, was taught first. Gradually, after simple song and rhythm exercises, we actually became acquainted with a real musical instrument, the soprano recorder. The difficult transition from the world of sheet music to the dangerous domain of interpretation was made with the aid of the Orff instruments. With simple xylophones, triangles and tambourines, a bunch of students, bored stiff by sheet music, was transformed into a disciplined chamber drum corps. Order in the classroom, regular exercises at home and playing what was written summarize the Prussian musical pedagogy which I learned to associate with the name of Orff.

Classical music was the great example upon which this form of music pedagogy was modelled. Once a year, there was a performance in which the students publicly displayed their progress. I played in a sort of choir of soprano recorders which filled the gymnasium where the performance was held with its rarified sounds. The choice of the gymnasium was a consequence of the lack of a real concert hall in the steel workers’ neighbourhood that I grew up in. but it established an unconscious bond between the pedagogy of Orff and the ideals of Turnmeister Jahn. At the ceremony’s end. the chairman of the music school made a speech to the parents in which he spoke of the joy of making music together which the school imparted to its students. This was an appropriate reference to a cultural ideal to which the middle class professed a passion, precisely because it couldn’t be reconciled with the forced music instruction from which I and my classmates derived so little pleasure.

Somewhere, the awareness must have begun to dawn that something was wrong with the ideal which young people on the concert podium were confronted with. Public interest in the serial concerts which the provincial symphony orchestra gave in that same gymnasium began to dwindle. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who felt ill at ease in his Sunday clothes, got up as I was for such occasions, because the decision was taken to organise special, popular concerts in which the pop and classical repertoire were to be mixed in one and the same program. One part of the program, with serious music provided by the Noord-Holland Philharmonic Orchestra, was followed by a performance by the Trio Hellenique which performed Zorba s dance. On this occasion, the artists were awarded a thundering ovation, but, in the long run, this attempt to connect up with the experiential world of the young was to fail, anyway. Nowadays, Dutch art sociology interprets this as the failure of the policy of social art distribution. At roughly the same time, the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould drew the world’s attention with an essay entitled Let's ban applause. Gould's views would have brought the teachers at the community college, the provincial performing musicians and the official art functionaries to the verge of despair. Gould once called the concert a contemporary vaudeville show. In an interview in 1981, he talked about how ...a great many contemporary concerts are like reincarnated versions of the kinds of shows that Hans von Billow did in Toronto a hundred years ago, when he played Beethoven's Appasionata sonata immediately following a trained-horse act!

Gould himself knew quite well what the meaning of success was. For nine years, he triumphed as an idiosyncratic artist and eccentric figure on the international concert stage. But Gould caused more of a sensation with the unexpected announcement in 1964 that he would henceforth only work in studios. However astonishing this decision may have been, it was the logical consequence of his plea for a gradual but total elimination of audience response. The long-playing record was the medium of the future. We failed performing musicians and aspiring concert-goers at the community college experienced something like this when the most talented student announced that he was stopping the recorder lessons in order to become a member of a volleyball club.

It would seem that Glenn Gould was cut out for the role of superstar, with his eccentric appearance, sitting behind the concert piano on a little stool which was much too low, in a duffel coat on the big stages, because of the draft and the danger of catching a head cold. What was generally considered to be eccentric artist’s behaviour was. in reality, also the expression of the suffering of the performing musician in anachronistic working conditions. Success forced the pianist to appear in bigger and bigger concert halls, with an instrument which was wholly unfit to fill such spaces. The concert hall hindered the appreciation and the quality of the interpretation more and more. Added to this was the fact that modern recording technique actually made the concert superfluous. It was this frustration with the concert hall as a medium that made Gould not only into a studio artist, but also into a thinker about media and technology. The arrangement of his articles in the collection in which they were republished after his death into Music. Performance and Media, indicates the emphasis of his thinking.

Gould also had a psychological reason for his withdrawal from the concert circuit. At his performances, he didn’t really experience what Arthur Rubinstein called that very special emanation from the public. He wasn't stimulated by the presence of excited listeners. As opposed to Rubinstein, who wished to enchant the audience with his playing, Gould strove to make his music sound convincing. The concert situation was only detrimental to the attempt to achieve an optimal artistic effect, because, inevitably, mistakes were made while playing which could not later be corrected. It was the ritualisation of the concert and the mystique of presence which he rejected, together with the dramatic role which he’d been assigned in this cult as an artist. Gould embodied the negation of the social aspect of the concert. For him, in a certain sense, art was hardly a human phenomenon. At the same time, he was an opponent of live TV broadcasts of concerts, because, ultimately, images of musicians are irrelevant and often even disturbing for the listener. There are musical moments of such grandeur that no screen can represent or interpret them adecjuately and for which the only appropriate visual response is abstraction, test pattern, or post-test-pattern snow.

It was in the essay The prospects of recording, two years after his withdrawal from the concert circuit, that Gould expounded on his conception of contemporary musical practice. In my community college, the record player was a piece of equipment that was only used on very rare, exceptional occasions. The following quote was applicable to the students at my school: The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation oj public school solfege will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves. It's records which modern music culture revolves around. Unconsciously, its already the quality of the recordings against which live concerts are measured. The only alternative which the contemporary musician has is the choice of the employment of recording technique for artistic goals. The recording studio has become his new podium. This new professional position, borrowed from the media, created the conditions for a new view of the profession of musician. From the studio, the artist works on the production of divergent interpretations, which future listeners may even be able to reassemble with the aid of sample equipment, creating variations which they personally prefer. The media elevates the performing artist to the role of creative forger. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture.

Having been absorbed into the global networks of technology, music can no longer be geographically or historically localised. Glenn Gould wrote a review of the songs of Petula Clark, which he heard on his automobile radio when he was driving down the Queens Highway No. 17 in the province of Ontario. The situations in which the listener comes into contact with music are no longer to be found in the public realm. He perceived an impulse towards the enrichment and diversification of the musical idiom in the employment of background music, which causes a huge increase in the number of musical cliches and simultaneously creates a need for differentiation. Goulds pronounced, puritanical views on art attach themselves to ‘mediatisation'. and thus grow out into a personal, coherent cultural philosophy. He opted with all his heart for anonymous situations which were offered by the technological society. In my opinion, the motel is one of the great inventions of Western man. Gould surrenders whole-heartedly to life in a media milieu. How far he went in this became apparent in an interview about the writer Jonathan Cott, in which he said: A very interesting man, and a friend of mine. We actually never met; our relationship is... terribly telephonic.

Privacy and anonymity are the characteristics of the life style which technology forces upon one. In spite of the optimistic view of progress which Glenn Gould evidenced: (I believe that technology is a charitable enterprise) he also goes into what perhaps may be called the problematical aspects of the modem condition. He made a number of radio plays for Canadian radio, in which he treated language like music. He figured out a musical montage of takes of the spoken word as he went in which he used the concept of ‘contrapuntal radio’. This first occurred in The Idea of the North and later in The Latecomers, a program about Newfoundland... the Idea of the North is itself an excuse — an opportunity to examine that condition of solitude which is neither exclusive to the north nor the prerogative of those who go north, but which does perhaps appear, with all its ramifications, a bit more clearly to those who have made, if only in the imagination, the journey north. He used the journey to the north purely as a metaphor for what he elsewhere called the problems of maintaining a minimally technologized style of life in a maximally technologized age. Modern conditions of life in isolation and solitude are portrayed as the only conditions under which art can still be made. People are ecstatic about getting into the mainstream. I think it's a little stupid, since the mainstream is pretty muddy, or so it appears to me.

translation Jim Boekbinder