Thursday, August 09, 2007

Glenn Gould: Arias From The Goldberg Variations, 1-7

Sorry for my unexcused blog absence this week, there has been much to talk about going on in the world of First Life, most of it not so good if you're into the whole freedom thing. Turning to beauty has always been effective as an antidote, so I will offer you this.

The virtuoso playing these Arias was once a very young, very quiet and sensitive boy living on the edge of a very quiet and sensitive lake. With the help of a cheap upright piano and the indulgence of his mother, he taught himself how to play in the cold winters and abbreviated summers of Ontario, Canada. His name was Glenn Gould, and he had the ability and the inherent sense of early fascination to listen closely, very closely, to every sound. Throughout his later life, he exhibited behaviors consistent with what is now known as Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

The obsessive focus of his form of Asperger's was sound. The lake would freeze and unfreeze, and Glenn would listen to it as only a pure, intensely unadorned child prodigy could. Do not ask me how, but he instills the contrapuntal cycles of the north country and the abiding love for a boyhood lake into his music, giving it a quality so unique that even a layman like me can recognize it.

My first exposure to him came late. It was when Dr. Hannibal Lector savored a movement of the Goldberg Variations on-screen in the smash horror hit, 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Securing my own copy of that music became immediately necessary. When I first heard a recording played loudly enough, I thought, "He hits notes like a dragon's claws sift through treasure. But..who is that insufferable twit singing along in the first row? Will someone not make him shut up?" Gradually I realized that the twit was Glenn Gould himself, singing along with his performances, humming into the microphone, swept on and up into pieces he made his own.

Where other piano players are trained by drill and rote, Gould played internally. By that I mean it was apparent that he practiced music not at the keyboard, but in his mind, as he strove to understand what its composer meant. He loved life's sounds, looked for patterns of order in them, and presumably, classical music for him was light meditation. When I first saw footage of him play, his startling relationship with the piano keyboard, which made him look a paraplegic crabbing across a field, made me think, "I knew it! He's not a piano player at all. He's a contrarian eccentric who happens to use a piano." Gould didn't like applause. He would write hostile or satirical reviews of his own performances and send them to publications under pseudonyms like Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, purported British conductor. He played his last concert at the height of his popularity, abruptly retiring. He went on to catalogue the sounds of the North Country, and record conversations in diners. There's a very good biopic entitled Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

On the piano, in its sounds, he is dream itself. Affliction becomes gift, and he throws terse packets of dynamite, free from preconception or wasted motion, instantaneous response, conflicting and soaring emotions alive in the moment. The notes are pure and uncommonly precise expressions of joy, from a homeboy who achieved mastery early on and you know is winging it a little different every time. The demons which he could slay, he slayed while very young. So personal yet so close to perfection is his music that recordings of it were sent into space on Voyager One. If there are aliens out there, we want them to hear Glenn Gould, even if we have made only one of him.


Fleming said...

Thanks for this, Marc. Glenn Gould was one of the highlights of my youth.

MarcLord said...


I wish my youth had been filled with his music. He probably functions as a gateway drug to a love of classical music in general. How did you come across him?