Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Craft Witch - Glenn Gould

It's difficult to talk about Glenn Gould without sounding like a rube. I have no doubt whatsoever that Gould was a genius--perhaps a genius of a certain sort, not the kind who invents something important, or creates a magnificent edifice in an aesthetic form, but who perhaps because of his early training and persuasion, becomes the master and magician of interpretation, whose versions of other peoples' works raises them far above their common potential, and brings them into empyrean heights of sublime beauty, and profound insight into the human condition--and our understanding of the universe.

I've played piano most of my life, and in the last 30 years have spent a good deal of time composing on the keyboard. The amateur's self-delusion, no doubt. Like 99.999% of all who essay the piano, I have little measurable talent in execution, and can only sit by in astonished regard when I hear truly gifted musicians play good music with accuracy and subtlety.

Glenn Gould [1932-1982] was a very gifted, but eccentric classical piano prodigy and virtuoso, Canadian born, whose great technical ability was matched by his profound interpretive gifts. His well-known idiosyncrasies--the humming during performance, the peculiar low-backed chair he used, the extreme sensitivity to cold, his peculiar diet and life-style, the early abandonment of live concertizing--all fed into a singular reputation as a mad genius. After giving up a successful career as a performer, in large part because he believed that achieving musical perfection could best be accomplished through electronic recording, he devoted most of his time to studio work, both recording and composing, as well as writing and lecturing about his theories about music, particularly the value of controlled recording as against the false spontaneity of live performance and interaction. His ideas about how we tend to appreciate music from different periods mirrors some post-modern philosophical notions about the contextualization of meaning and the illusion of historical progressions.

Gould's strongly held positions regarding the purity of the finished recording notwithstanding, his distressing noise-making would seem to be at odds with a concept of "pure sound." The proof of his genius is to be found, nevertheless, in the recordings he made, principally of Bach, upon which his reputation rests.

His interpretations of the Goldberg Variations, as well as the Partitas, the Suites, and the Well-Tempered Clavier, established a modern standard against which all others are measured. Determinedly masculine in quality, his confidently neutral attack seems perfectly suited to Bach's cerebral flights of contrapuntal complexity. The individual voices are always rendered with clarity and fervor. In the realm of pure intellectual meditation, his superb delivery of the Goldberg Variations [I, II, III, IV,V, VI] is about as good as it gets. Gould's abilities are so perfect that you never have the feeling--as with so many other keyboard players--of being at the dangerous edge of competence. Not only does he not miss notes, every single note seems separately to have been considered and made whole and emphatic. Gould is distinctly classicist in his approach--not for him the shimmering diaphanous outlines; every note, every phrase carries full responsibility for its own realization.

Ever since the 19th Century Romantic revolution in the arts, emotion and feeling as the dominant components of form have held an unquestioned sway over musical taste. A music which explores intellectual realms--as opposed to sentiment--has tended to be regarded with distaste, even suspicion. Of all the great composers, Bach is clearly the most cerebral, exploiting fugue, and the incremental development of variation(s), with profound insight. Some have even suggested mathematical bases for his methodology, but it has never been proven, though it often seems as if the sequential augmentations in his work have an exactitude and perfection which are like equations or numerical propositions. It is this quality which Gould seems most adept at bringing out in his renditions of Bach's keyboard works. The kind of joy one senses in Bach at his best seems to rise out of the joy of the structure of sound itself, and this divine playfulness is precisely the spirit of art which Bach's baroque nature embodies. If an art which is primarily intellectual in its nature is seen as a religious aspiration--to attain to a higher consciousness of the structural organization of the universe, then the feeling of that effort must, by definition, be as intense a sensation, as love or despair or any of the other profane, human-centered preoccupations which drive the Romantic view of art.

Playing Bach on the keyboard requires a discipline, which if followed diligently will build ability and an appreciation of the virtues it contains: a sense of religious devotion and care which is ultimately religious in character. But of course there is nothing at all "religious" in pure music. Music written for the church, or for religious service, may employ sacred texts or settings. Bach, of course, wrote both kinds of music--religious and profane (secular)--and in his mind they had distinct uses. But from our vantage, the elements which make his music fine are not so easily divisible. If you believe in a god-head of all-encompassing implication, anything which seems beautiful, or ugly, or inspiring, or tempting towards evil, belongs to god, is indeed simply a part of the larger plan.

One's tendency to talk about the religious quality of Bach seems to follow inevitably from a consideration of Gould's interpretation. Gould must have been drawn to Bach's music because of its intellectual penetration. What one hears in his Bach is the precision and determinacy of confident assertion, a confidence which at all points is proven by its lyrical daring and force. The ability to master the means of that through the feat of performance is almost like the attainment of a state of grace--the transport of the human consciousness through art.

The sources of Gould's mastery were somewhat mysterious. Unlike the perennial dogma of "curled finger" attack, Gould was encouraged to "pull" on the keys, sitting in a much lower position with respect to the height of the keyboard, so that his elbows were well below the level of his hands. Rather than use his arms and wrists to facilitate movement and spread over the keys, he trained his fingers to move independently to strike (or depress) the individual keys. His other eccentric habits--the use of a favorite family chair, the rug under the piano, the open-fingered gloves, the insistence upon very warm temperatures when playing--seem designed to enhance his concentration and focus upon the instrument. His obsessive, painstakingly methodical rituals seemed intended to preserve his attention and limit distractions. People who work under various kinds of pressure often develop little habitual protocols, both to set the nervous system into coordinated rhythm, as well as to maintain control over stressful anxiety. These eccentricities of Gould tended to be linked to his musical genius, as if they were an integral component of his playing. But it's just as possible that they were simply other aspects of his personality, neither crucial to his success nor a meaningful part of his musical genius. The romantic profile of the over-emotional performer--the Liszt syndrome--possessed by demonic or supernatural powers is not the personification we see in Gould.

Gould believed in technology, in our ability to manipulate means to achieve desired ends--the de-emphasis of the unique, live performance, for a preferred augmented construction of a fully corrected result. The mechnanical metaphor in music is an apt one: the piano is a machine; even the human voice is a sort of bagpipe, with the lungs and the throat acting in much the same way as a generator of tones. It's a post-Modern trope in art, to think of the artificiality of musical sound as somehow less human-centered. Gould rejected the human-centered implication of pure live performance as being less perfectible than sophisticated sound engineering. A piece of music doesn't "need" a live performance to generate a perfected version--and can even be a hindrance.

Unlike jazz, classical music isn't based on the inspired augmentation of the moment, of the synergy of live audience and the "conversation" between players and between player(s) and audience. Attempts to build in chance or extemporaneous variability--such as experiments by John Cage and other innovators--have not had much affect. Interest in music occurs at the level of intentional choice, not mechanical programming. It's a little like free will in the philosophical sense.

Each performer, even when playing the same music, will inevitably sound different. It's impossible to play a piece the way a machine would, because our nervous systems and musculature--not to speak of our mental make-ups, are not identical. Music is difference, despite how we like to think of styles and traditions and versions. A "performer" such as Gould will play Bach differently than anyone else, in spite of himself. The degree of intentionality which each such interpreter can wrest from the raw material of the written score is a measure of the control over self and materials (means). Before musical notation was invented, variability of interpretation was open-ended; with the advent of fixed scores, the issue of perfectibility was born. Written music thus appears as a step on the progression of musical thinking, leading first to "correct/incorrect" versions, and then to mechanically "perfected" versions of the kind that Gould, a man clearly of, if not ahead of, his time, saw as the ultimate, underlying purpose of musical achievement. The score contains the seeds of its ultimate expression, and each expressed interpretation is a separate instance of our response to the "raw" notes. In his writings, Stravinsky complained about conductors who played his orchestral works with too much arbitration: "Just play the notes as they are written!" he said over and over again.

One hears the same sentiment in Gould's interpretation of Bach. The playing is unfailingly accurate to the score, but he seems to be "finding" the correct spirit of the composer. This may only be a special affinity (of player to composer), or it may be our (or my) prejudice about how we think of Bach's musical mind. How does one version confirm our feeling about the rightness of a particular interpretation? It's a question of overlapping contexts: Our historical sense, our prior musical experience, our dogmas and preconceptions. With each plateau of understanding, we may become closer to the source, or drift--deliberately or accidentally--away from it. Music is, after all, the realization of its performance, and not some ideal around which we dance. The performance is not separable from the abstraction we think of the score as embodying. It doesn't live apart from sound. Music is sound, and not only an idea. What we think to say about a piece of music forever is exterior to the performance. In that sense, all music is "pure" without any programmatic narrative application, other than our/its contextual associations.

When I listen to Gould's Goldberg Variations (that's an odd way of putting it, of course), I sense that the apparent affinity between composer, text and performance seems to be a unification of effect, linking original inspiration to total appreciation of intent--which would suggest that the kernel of meaning inside the score can be apprehended to yield up its essence. The power of Gould's insight is like the assumption of one human spirit inside another, playing inside the body of the composer's soul. It may seem a spiritual description, but it's the best way I can put it. How much sacrifice of self is required to subsume oneself sufficiently inside the personality of the maker, to achieve a total grasp and realization of the work? When a performer attains to the highest level(s) of expressive synthesis, does he "disappear" into the work? Or does he over-master it, overshadowing the hidden subtleties which others might better understand? Some critics say that each player presents a different version, and none is the only correct one. But with Gould, we may be hearing the best one. Just listen to his Goldberg, and compare it to any other. The proof is in the hearing.

1 comment:

Conrad DiDiodato said...


thank you for this very interesting post on one of Canada's greatest cultural icons. Though his music can be enjoyed by many, I think only a musician is qualified to talk about it. And you certainly seem to be.

I've always felt the poet ought to be measured by the same standards as the musician: despite the great technical mastery, it has to be in the end a music anyone can enjoy. There is some classical music that can move me tears and yet I've never studied music. Pound and Zukofsky, outside of the seminar rooms, will never stand a chance next to Williams, Frost, Whitman, etc.