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Critic's Notebook

Looking for clues to a pianist's afterlife

Glenn Gould (in undated photo) stopped performing in concert at 31 and devoted the rest of his life to recording. Glenn Gould (in undated photo) stopped performing in concert at 31 and devoted the rest of his life to recording. (Don Hunstein/sony)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

Glenn Gould is everywhere. Literally. As I type this sentence, his posthumous presence is spilling over every inch of my desk.

A cinderblock-size, 80-CD box set of recordings by the often revered, still-controversial Canadian pianist sits imposingly to my right. A new book of Gould photos has colonized the center of my desk, along with one of several biographies and the indispensable "Glenn Gould Reader," containing more than 400 pages of Gould's essays and criticism, by turns provocative, insightful, and opaque. To my left is a stack of DVDs, including one reverential tribute to Gould that features a woman who has tattooed the opening bars of Gould's string quartet onto her body. The pianist's weirdly wonderful radio documentary, "The Idea of North," has been play ing on my iPod, conjuring dreams of a visit to the Canadian wilderness. And at this moment, somewhere far above, Gould's recording of Bach's C Major Prelude and Fugue is floating in outer space aboard the Voyager spacecraft. During his lifetime, the strange power and brilliance of Gould's pianism led more than one listener to compare him to an extraterrestrial being. Apparently, now he gets to play for them.

Has any pianist ever loomed so large some 25 years after his death? Gould would have turned 75 last September, and the anniversaries have led his foundation to declare 2007-08 "The Year of Glenn Gould." But the designation is almost redundant. A Gould tribute can spring up at any time and any place. He has inspired poetry, fiction, and a feature film. He has been embraced by intellectuals, famous composers, musical neophytes, and Hannibal Lecter. His recordings of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations have sold more than two million copies since his death - a tremendous number by classical-music standards. Recognizing the commercial interests and savvy marketing at work can only take us part of the way toward answering a fundamental question: What drives all of this?

I have found no magic explanations, and Gould is a figure complex and elusive enough to guarantee that the investigation will not conclude anytime soon. But to start with the most obvious, there is the sheer iconoclastic brilliance of his pianism, as demonstrated all over again by this massive and superb budget box set from Sony Classical, released last fall. Containing all the old Columbia recordings, the set provides an opportunity for reimmersion in the life and art of one of music's glorious originals.

The new set is bookended, more or less, by the two "Goldberg" Variations, the brisk and thrilling version of 1956 and the autumnal, luminous reading of 1981. In between Gould recorded a vast amount of repertoire, including works by Beethoven, Brahms, Byrd, Orlando Gibbons (his pet favorite and occasional pseudonym), Schoenberg, Scriabin, Strauss, Prokofiev, Berg, Krenek, and a lot more Bach. There are also huge gaps, especially in early Romantic repertoire. And Mozart is here but done rather perversely, as Gould had little interest in the later works. (He once produced a cheeky and, for its time, incendiary television program called "How Mozart Became a Bad Composer," recently rediscovered and screened in New York and Toronto.)

Gould was himself a frustrated composer, possessed of a sharp analytic mind, and he had no qualms about strong-arming the details of a score to better suit his idea of the work's true structure. He favored interpretations at the extremes, with tempos blazing or glacial. Some of his recordings feel less like statements than provocations, but even at their most baffling they almost always possess a kind of internal rigor that lends them their own intrigue.

He was consistently at or near his most revelatory in the keyboard music of Bach, where he had an uncanny ability to project complex layers of architecture with a sound that was dry, clear, crisp, and spacious, as if his Steinway were channeling a previous life as a harpsichord at the same time as it projected its own contemporary power and brilliance. You would never call it an authentic period approach by today's standards, and yet the style is oddly self-authenticating. "When listening to his Bach," Aaron Copland once remarked, "it's as though Bach himself is actually performing."

Copland's comment contains an important kernel of insight. Gould's own compositional career never amounted to much in terms of an original body of work, but in another sense, every Gould recording is a kind of recomposition, an attempted collaboration across the centuries. This was his downfall with many critics during his lifetime; they heard only willful iconoclasm or sheer looniness. But it was also his greatest strength, especially in the music of Bach, with whom he seemed to enjoy an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual rapport.

He grappled so deeply with Bach's scores, and his native technical gifts were so well-suited to their realization, that when one listens to Gould's Bach recordings, one can sense a fundamental connection to the mystery and joy of the creative act. The impression, real or imagined, is not one of hearing an ancient work rendered by a composer's faithful servant, but rather one of witnessing the culmination of a creative process: a music coming into life.

An artist of the future

Still, this is not quite enough to explain the cult of Gould. The 20th century has plenty of inspired and revered pianists, yet none of them haunt the 21st as Gould does. Something more is at play. One cannot underestimate the power of his image, the James Dean-esque looks of his younger years, or the loner-maverick-pioneer personality he chose to project via all those record jackets (which are reproduced in the new box set).

And then there is his legendary eccentricity - the gloves and overcoats in summer, the outsize hypochondria, the battered old chair he fetishized and whose creaks are immortalized in some recordings, his obsessive image control that necessitated pre-scripting both sides of his interviews before they took place, and his wacky, wicked, sometimes gleefully sophomoric sense of humor. Kevin Bazzana's excellent biography tells us that Gould at age 12 "sketched the libretto for an opera dealing with nothing less than the destruction of the human race in a nuclear holocaust and its replacement by a 'species of morally enlightened frogs, fish and associated reptiles.' " The title was a brutal German pun on Strauss's tone poem: "Toad und Verklärung."

And yet, separating the eccentricity from the core Gould may be impossible (one biographer has suggested that he suffered from Asperger syndrome). In 1964, when the pianist was just 31 and already at the pinnacle of his field, he famously withdrew from the concert stage and refused to give another live concert. He devoted the remaining 18-plus years of his life to recording, and to exploring radio and television in a way that positioned him, in a conservative field, as both an outsider and an artist of the future. It also laid the groundwork for his extended afterlife by habituating his fans to experiencing him only in some mediated electronic format. As Bazzana points out, he had vanished as a physical presence long before he died of a stroke in 1982, at age 50.

One of the more interesting discs in the new CD set is a reissue of "Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout," a full-length interview with a Columbia executive about Gould's decision to withdraw from the stage. In it, he explains that repeated live performances on tour had a way of stymieing his creativity, disfiguring his interpretations, and limiting his repertoire. Having a live audience, Gould says, was a "great liability."

He also speaks glowingly about the purity and freedom of his new life in the protective, womblike environment of the recording studio, where he could arrive with multiple interpretations in his mind, explore them all, and then make the ultimate decisions in the editing booth. The final product thus became a permanent document, and Gould was liberated from the servitude of the virtuoso, a figure required to enact brilliance every night onstage only to then repeat the ordeal with the same repertoire in the next city three days later.

At times in the interview, Gould sounds like a man permanently traumatized by his experiences on the circuit. He vents freely about his antipathy for crowds, speaking of "a very curious and almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concert listener," as they sit in wait for a mistake to transpire on the stage. "Which is why I don't like [the concertgoer] as a breed, and I don't trust him," he says. "I don't really have any concertgoers as friends."

Even Gould at his most preposterous is still somehow fascinating. He argued that concerts were anachronistic, predicting their demise by the 21st century, and that the avant-garde music of his time was no longer best suited to the concert hall. It was the old technique of extrapolating from one's own experiences and sympathies to pronounce a universal phenomenon. Concerts in 1964 became obsolete for Gould, but to my knowledge, no halls were shuttered on Gouldian grounds.

And yet, in his early embrace of recordings as an art form unto themselves, in his wager on an all-encompassing electronic future, he was of course highly prescient. His insistence on seeing classical music not as a centralized collective experience but as a custom-tailored art that could be appreciated alone in one's living room, anticipated the age of the earbud by decades. "It is my view that in the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly," he wrote in 1971.

Gould was thrilled by the democratizing potential of technology, and especially that it could, as he saw it, expand the hallowed creative act to encompass not just the composer's vision but also the performer's work in the studio, and ultimately, the listener's participation in his own living room. He dreamed of a new breed of music fan who might one day splice together his own ideal version of Beethoven's Fifth. (In the age of the mashup, is it so unlikely?) He loved the idea that "the listener can ultimately become his own composer" and wrote that "dial twiddling is in its limited way an interpretive act."

An urge to communicate

The deeper paradox behind his controversial withdrawal from the concert stage, behind his scathing remarks about audiences and his love of solitude, was that it coexisted with a desperate urge to communicate intimately with his listeners. "There is no greater community of spirit than that between the artist and the listener at home, communing with the music," he wrote. And he actually seemed to mean it. Beyond the brilliant pianism and the charismatic eccentricity, Gould's enduring allure may also stem from the way he withdrew - just as so many have today - embubbling himself in technology, without resigning himself to the isolation and solipsism that would become such a mixed inheritance of the digital revolution.

Gould was wrong about concerts becoming obsolete, but he was onto something. To take leave of the MP3 player, the Blackberry, and the TiVo in order to gather in the same concert hall with 2,000 other people and respond to the same live acoustic performance at the same moment has in its own way become a countercultural act. Indeed, the continued viability of concerts despite all the doomsday warnings of the death of classical music speaks to a yearning for communal experience that may ultimately intensify in inverse proportion to the shrinking size of our iPods.

So beyond Gould's image - both sincere and cultivated - as a misanthrope, a curmudgeon, and a hermit, one key to his appeal may just be this abiding desperation to be heard. Even in his most reclusive stage, he was famous for calling up his friends in the middle of the night and talking - or singing to them - for hours on end. He also famously hummed while he played - it was a childhood habit he could not control - and his voice turns up on many recordings. Producers feared the worst from this, but I know many people who love exactly this Gouldian trait, this glitch in the pristine matrix, this humanizing voice from inside the machine. At first you're not sure whether you really heard it. You go back to listen again. And again. Eventually it comes to feel like the endearing quirk of an old friend. It's as if his expressive impulse and the act of recomposition stirred up a kind of interior joy that could not be wholly corralled into those astonishing fingers.

In a modest way, his humming also represents a kind of declaration of freedom, and here I think is a clue to one final aspect of Gould's enduring popularity: his quixotic commitment to a fantasy of personal, musical, and technological liberation. Picture Thoreau at Walden with a Steinway and a laptop. Gould saw the score as a blueprint but not the last word. He saw technology as poised to vastly expand the performer's horizon of possibility, and in turn the listener's, while bringing about a new kind of communion. For all of his strangeness, for all his impairment, Gould's example has endured so tenaciously in part because it is an empowering one.

Much of this may have been utopian dreaming, but that made it no less seductive, in his time or our own. The pianist ended his most ambitious essay on "The Prospects of Recording" with a Panglossian vision of the "best of all possible worlds." What would it look like? Here, Gould, a writer often drawn to convolution, put it simply: "The audience would be the artist and their life would be art."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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