1 March, 2005Issue 4.2MusicNorth AmericaThe Arts

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Rewriting the Score

Ditlev Rindom

Kevin Bazzana
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
Yale University Press, 2004
528 pages
ISBN 0300103743

At one point during a film series he made in the 1970s entitled ‘The Alchemist’, Glenn Gould turns to his interviewer, Bruno Monsaingeon, and asks: ‘You know who my favourite composer is? Guess: …one, two, three—Orlando Gibbons’. It is a typically Gouldian comment—quirky, puritan, delivered with a cheeky twinkle in the eye—but one he was quick to defend: ‘The thing about Gibbons is that he is not a completely individual composer; he sort of straddles the era of delicious anonymity that the pre-Renaissance knew about and were exploring, and the era of, really, almost total, exploitative, individuality of the Baroque […] but I love fin de siècle characters’.

Anonymity, delicious or otherwise, is not a quality one readily associates with Gould. Personally eccentric and artistically subversive, he has become the subject of a critical biographical literature that expands with all the elasticity and seriousness of bubblegum. He has been referred to on ‘The Simpsons’; his recordings have been sent into space; Hannibal Lector had him as his pianist of choice. ‘ARTIST, PHILOSOPHER, MADMAN, GENIUS’ rang out the advertisements for ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’. The tattered papers held at the National Library of Canada are a sorry testimony to the snatching hands of the Gould industry. The more we write, it seems, the less we know.

One might expect a new biography to be attuned to these dangers, and, in Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, Bazzana makes his position clear from the start: ‘…today no one comes to Gould’s work except through a haze of posthumous glorification’, he argues, shrewdly scanning the critical horizon. It is a brave as well as dangerous admission, since any work on the subject is at risk not only of swelling an already bloated market, but of contributing to the combination of eulogy and snide gossip that has proliferated so luxuriantly since Gould’s arrival on the international scene in 1956. What more is there to say? Plenty, in Bazzana’s estimation. The tone of his book is both good-humoured and refreshingly irreverent as he attempts to unpick the myth and unpack the reality of this most elusive (and reclusive) of figures.

Gould’s character oscillated between a winning charm and familiarity and a guarded isolationism. There was no contradiction here: his encounters with the outside world always took place on his own, meticulously prepared, terms. Like Gibbons, he saw himself as in part removed from the Zeitgeist—while scrupulously modern in his ideas, he was peculiarly old-fashioned in his values. His increasingly eccentric interpretations were a series of negotiations, sometimes confrontations, between his own aesthetic sensibility and those of his chosen composers. Admiration was not a prerequisite of interest. He liked to quote Cage’s ideas on the creative role of the perceiver and welcomed the destabilisation of the hierarchy of composer, performer and listener offered by the technological age: ‘Dial twiddling is in its limited way an interpretative act’, he once remarked. It is tempting to make the connection between Gould’s thought and that of nouvelle critique, with its dismissal of tradition and the monopolisation of meaning; it is an elision that Bazzana proposes throughout this hefty volume. Indeed, one of the consistent pleasures of this book, alongside its colloquial even-handedness (‘It was true; he was a queer duck’), is the way that the author counterbalances an analysis of post-modern discourses with an exploration Re-writing the score of the roots of Gould’s ideas and aesthetic in his own personality and upbringing. This was the time of Toronto the Good, ‘an excellent town to mind one’s own business in’ as Northrop Frye quipped, and while blandly provincial, it was also perfectly suited to an artist such as Gould, who coupled a heroic creative ego with a defensive need to shelter himself from that of others. He had an almost Beethovenian temper (itself tempered by a Presbyterian docility) and for all his advocacy of reason and restraint, this was always in quiet counterpoint with great reserves of feeling. In performance, this manifested itself in interpretations that were at once architecturally watertight and lushly Romantic, in ethos as well as in local felicities of rhythm and texture. In Gould, perhaps, post-modernism and Romanticism had their belated union.

Nonetheless, Gould indulged in liberties with his chosen scores that had little in common with the free play of a subjective will and intelligence conceived by Barthes and other poststructuralists as the model of interpretation; Gould’s approach was one of re-composition rather than activation (though as a composer in his own right, he had everything but talent). The barely latent pun in ‘The Alchemist’ was irresistible: he turned everything he played into pure Gould. What he shared with both Romantic creativity and post-modern jouissance was a supra-individualistic aesthetic that was ultimately theological in outlook. For Gould, a self-regulating theist, art was an instrument of salvation that always pointed beyond the printed notes on the page, and it was a belief he proselytised with all the fervour of a convert (books found in his collection after he died included An Argument for Evangelism through Your Vocation).

So much for debunking the myth. Glenn the Saint, the mystical seer, is also the Gould of legend. The ongoing struggle for commentators has been to find a way to reconcile the clandestine and ascetic public persona with a less lofty but equally vital sexual identity. This tension has been to the disadvantage of neither Gould nor his record company: when his two Goldberg recordings were repackaged in 2002 as ‘Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder’ (it was a bestseller), the front cover pictured the musician writhing, tie undone, in a state of slack-jawed ecstasy that invited wonder as much at the goings-on beneath the piano lid as at the playing. With his doe-eyed good looks, impeccable discretion and limpid musicianship, he could not avoid speculation and rumour, usually directed by the assumption that (as Alan Sinfield once put it) homosexuality, ‘like murder, will out’. A study by Kevin Kopelson published in 1996 even ventured to describe him as ‘a touchstone of queer pianism’ (something in his touch?). In line with the humanizing, contextualizing impulse of his book, Bazzana puts paid to these strikingly conservative improprieties with an admirable blend of erudition and tact. In fact, Gould did have several affairs with women (naming no names), including one that lasted for several years; but the war between artistic isolation and the desire for interpersonal contact was never more sharply felt than in his personal life. In the end, it seems, art triumphed over love, but he continued to have close friendships—he adored the telephone—and was by all accounts a gentleman with a wonderfully silly and self-deflating sense of humour that belied his occasional pomposity.

There are many more facets to Gould’s character elucidated in this splendidly researched and engagingly written biography: his love of nature, his bad driving, and not least his legendary hypochondria. The anecdotes contained here are abundant and the portrait it paints is rich, I particularly enjoyed the story of Gould driving around Times Square, wearing blinkers to avoid the neon glare of billboards, the solicitations of streetwalkers and all the other vitals of modern city life—certainly an apt image. But it is by resisting the implied imperative of his Shakespearean epigraph (‘How shall we find the concord of this discord?’) and by not trying to produce a view of its subject that is permanent and comprehensive, that Kevin Bazzana displays a spirit both adventurous and cannily Gouldian. Wondrous Strange cannot solve the mysteries of a complex and fascinating personality, but it can equip us to read the patterns of his behaviour and thought, and as such, it matches its title: wondrous strange indeed.

Ditlev Rindom is an undergraduate in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. He studies medieval literature and is a student of John Barstow, Senior Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music.