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A Search for Glenn Gould

Chapter IV from B.W. Powe's The Solitary Outlaw

  1. Messages
  2. Tracking
  3. Quirk Quotient
  4. Spirit on the Air
  5. Silence

1. Messages

When Glenn Gould died, October 14, 1982, his reviews, conversations, and polemics were scattered in magazines and journals. I myself had kept track of his writings through a clippings file. These pieces were in no particular order and were disconnected in the styles and voices Gould used to lure or offend. Even in this format, his literary work had a vital and mysterious air that made me hunger to put the gatherings into an intelligible whole.

Then there was Gould himself: the recluse of St. Clair Avenue. I had grown up listening to him on the radio, watching his CBC-TV programs while he was performing and analysing (and endlessly explaining) Bach and Strauss (Richard). His brash opinions and odd appearances – sweaters buttoned up in disorderly fashion; cap and scarf and gloves in summer heat; adopted personae like Theodore "Ted" Slotz, the New York Cab Driver (doing Brando, doing Dean), Karlheinz Klopweisser, and Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, "the Dean of British Conductors" – made him irresistible material for the myth machines.

And the myths multiplied: Gould arriving at midnight at a twenty-four-hour "coffee-and-donut" shop (I imagined a story: Gould dressed in an overcoat; July – it is steamy and close; street people sulk over coffee and doughnuts that taste like sugared paper, and one of the premier interpreters of Bach discoursing on Wagner, tape edits, and Thomas Mann's post-war novels); Gould driving his Lincoln over gravel roads in the dark, his hands sensuously feeling the steering wheel so that he could be close to the vibrations; Gould crooning Mahler Lieder to giraffes at the Metro Zoo; Gould driving his motor-boat in circles on the lake near his cottage to scare away fish from fishermen; his love for Holiday Inns, shopping malls, radio, and TV; his friendship with Marshall McLuhan (I imagined another story: Gould arriving at 4 Wychwood Park to discuss communicable things, and the two saying nothing to each other); his refusal to perform in public; his choice of "the womb-like" recording studio; his night calls that interrupted others' sleep to become arias… improvisations… marathons…

Then the irony of his recordings. He began in 1955 with a firm, fast version of The Goldberg Variations, and he finished in 1982 with a slower, meditative interpretation of the same music. The architecture seemed prearranged. But Gould, like McLuhan, believed in clarity and ratio, in the Great Bass or communicating line of music and thought. He was the rarest of things: a serious artist. His life assumes a pattern like variations, of themes stated and expanded, now resolved.

2. Tracking

Then The Glenn Gould Reader and Jonathan Cott's Conversations with Glenn Gould (1984) remind us that for the serious artist nothing can be resolved. There are tensions under the surface of his trackings, dark notes to be reheard.

Consider him from other angles of possibility.

A boy huddled in thick coats like blankets eludes his friends. He has nothing in common with their antics. He has experienced their gentle jibes and misunderstandings. "Don`t touch me," he thinks: "I'm different." Despising obscenity and humiliation, he withdraws into a mental stage: his imagination, free of power strictures and impositions. He identifies with animals: they are easily hurt, in need of protection, creatures that often resort to camouflage if they are to outwit hunters, trappers, and stockers of zoos. A photograph (1949) shows the youth at a piano with his dog: it is a comic pose, with the dog, Nicky, preparing to join in a duet. At an early age the boy cultivates a preference for heat, privacy, and insulation. At an early age he is called "genius".

However, his gift for musical and literary articulation is so sensational that audiences cannot help but want to touch him. Gloves become armour, scarves a protection, hats a mask, each article telegraphing: "Do not disturb," but notice me. His harmless eccentricity resembles Mark Twain's taste for spotless white suits, his distaste for dust and dirt. Beware: take steps to insure insularity. The air is full of enemies. Transmittable germs. Severe measures may be required to bear the insidious surroundings.

Gossip hints at the artist's susceptibilities.

A handshake ruined him for weeks…He had to practise after he shook hands with someone…

He was polite…but the world was always seen through his eyes…

He wanted to be an uncaused cause…

The prodigy's accomplishments were exhilarating. "Listening to him on stage was like listening to how music should be played," an eyewitness said. Stage fright could be combatted with a variety of drugs. "Take three of these and you will go on stage saying 'Oh, you lucky people,'" Gould advised pianist William Aide. There is controversy, attendance. He is under constant inspection. His audiences not only listen; they observe.

At the peak of his performing popularity the virtuoso retires. He is thirty-two. The reaction: bewildered. There was more to come. Later Gould would confess his dislike of air-conditioning, airplanes, most cities, except for Toronto. However: "I could live a very productive life in Leningrad," he commented. "On the other hand, I'd have a crack-up for sure if I were compelled to live in Rome or New York." The press gives pressure; touring is uprootment; the concert circuit plugs you into the racket and rush of adulation and cliques; streets seethe with dangers; – the celebrity track, the sexiness of star life – is irrelevant to the pitch of energy he desires.

Gould announces his love for private glens, for wintry and crisp weather; for spaces untouched and untouchable. Action is rejected: meditation is encouraged. Only music matters.

More musings interpret him.

He was always unsatisfied with the cosmos as it is…

He was utterly solipsistic…

…utterly generous…

…always spinning people into his own web… he made people into myths… that they could never hope to live up to…

Gould makes new appearances in music magazines. Words expound, theorize, test. His articles read like manifestos, pleas, tracts. Suggestion: he wishes to become a new messenger-conductor, be the perfect communicator. So Gould lives on the printed page and on the air through recordings and the radio. He lives in the air in an apartment. (Visitors say his place was a mess.) His favourite city grows around him, experiencing transformation. Toronto is called the City of the Future: it's the city of the global antenna (the CN tower), mirrors, money, and fads. Within a decade, the city expands to global status. A neighbour of Gould's is the media expert who from the heart of the same city announces that the world is a village resonant with tribal drums.

Soon, as if Gould is playing a vampire, he goes out mostly at night. He drives a big American car, with the security of steel, glass, and metal plating. He uses the cover of darkness. (At night everyone is disguised.) He practises at home in the company of radios, TVs, and vacuum cleaners, every instrument switched on while he perfects the accents of a piece. From the other side of his receiving centre, electric instruments are conducted into vibrations, quavers, and quivers. All communication is drawn into a common destination: him.

He'd read a score first in his head. Memorize it all before playing. It would be alive in his mind before he ever touched the keys…

He took to phoning me… Odd hours… And he'd talk and talk… How could you hang up on Glenn Gould? …Things would sort of fade out when the monologue became a dialogue…

Geoffrey Payzant's Glenn Gould: Music and Mind is published in 1978. The book reads like a synoptic view, a timid critique of peculiar behaviour ("Talking Nonsense on Anything Anywhere"), and an over-awed testament to genius. It is reviewed in a Toronto newspaper by Gould: his answer to his advocate, keeping the call and response within a controlled range.

But Gould had an iconoclastic wit that ruptured a potentially precious solemnity. He cued us into play: his masks and stances put us on; we were to be his accompanists, sharing "in the spirit of the thing."

I once asked myself…What did Bach hum to himself when composing?… Then I noticed that when Gould played Bach he seemed to be humming something else to himself. It was not the piece he was actually playing. You see it became like a sort of double spiritual comment… All playing simultaneously. Like counterpoint…

What you heard when he played Bach wasn't Bach. It was Gould. A brand new music. "The Two-Part Inventions"… brought to you by Glenn Gould! …Sure… I enjoyed it. But would anyone have paid that much attention if his name hadn't been on the record sleeves?…

Push the angles on. Risk a contrast. Gould's cloakings echo another notorious recluse, Howard Hughes. The billionaire lived in antiseptic isolation, a lover of hotel rooms. He dictated demands through telecoms, teletypes, and telephones. ("Telephone": a voice from a distance.) He moved briefly to Vancouver because he had discovered what he believed was the secret of Canada: here you could be anonymous, yet here you could have international penetration.

Hughes ran and reran one movie for himself, Ice Station Zebra directed by John Sturges (director of The Great Escape and The Satan Bug, the latter about chemical warfare). Ice Station Zebra stars Rock Hudson (first celebrity to succumb to a disease that preys on immune deficiency) and Patrick McGoohan (star of The Prisoner; also the pharmacist in David Cronenberg's Scanners). In the movie an American nuclear submarine smashes up through Arctic ice to retrieve a downed space capsule that is being hunted by Soviet paratroopers – a small army that is dropped like propaganda leaflets from transport planes. On an artificial set meant to stand for the polar north, there is a contained East/West conflict: a confrontation over a surveillance device. During Hughes's period of movie watching (is he the forerunner of home video addicts?) his financial empire experienced unprecedented growth. He gained admittance to presidents. He was linked to the CIA and the FBI. He aided those scanners who specialize in monitoring others but who elude monitoring themselves. Howard Hughes went public only in death.

Then a shrunken ragman with tangled hair and filthy fingernails was exposed to the media light, a ghoulish figure grown from a pure hotel cell.

(Note: at Graceland Elvis Presley lived out another kind of communications' addiction – TV sets were left on, suffusing his home with a permanent background of white noise; remote-control cameras fed back images of bedrooms and bathrooms; walls were inlaid with hi-fi speakers, adding a further cushion of pop sound; and when the superstar flew to Las Vegas on a jet painted to resemble Air Force 1, he landed, as if to confirm a symbolic link, at the private air terminal of Howard Hughes.)

We shouldn't push these coincidences to the point of absurdity. Hughes, however, personified the selfish technological mentality: the surveillance man. He was a voyeur in a diabolical nerve centre, holding others under his watchful eye. No longer human, he wanted to control his surroundings absolutely.

This selfishness would have been anathema to Gould. His recording of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C, No. 1, from Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier, was included on the disc pressed for Voyager II; a quest for life, a request for answers from out there. When Gould's recordings were packaged for those earthbound, his touch was in evidence. His gifts were not used to savage others. His music came through, from stereo speakers and in headphones, from-mass-produced tracks, in a selfless generosity.

Over the years, Gould's keyboard transcriptions and translations became elaborate. For some listeners, they were erratic; for others, irritating. Jonathan Cott's Conversations lists more than 150 entries, The Glenn Gould Reader more, citing Anhalt, through Taneiff (S.) to Wagner (R.). Gould engaged each piece as if for the first time, hiring musicians to try his account of old pieces, re-examining compositions already recorded by other virtuosi. What made critics hostile was his tempi. It was as if, while Gould taped, he was slowing each moment down or unexpectedly speeding up, tracking down undetected figures and intervals, hearing contrapuntal and contradictory voices, "splicing together…tape fragments", sensing stress that no one had traced, arcane ground few had tapped, "to approach the work…as it has never been heard before."

Still, his obsession: space, rehearing, and touch. Still, his concern: make the tradition new.

…there was a way of communicating something [Gould wrote] no matter what, one person to another, while not being in the same room, in the same acoustical area…

…the inner ear of the imagination is very much more a powerful stimulant than is any outward observation…

Behind Gould's investigations and commentaries came contrary desires.

I would very much like to take off for about a year to some frontier experience… spend a winter in the dark…

These contrary desires indicate a split in Gould. He seemed to speak in a secretive code that signified an inner/outer conflict. Through the cracks in his divided self, we see him both shutting himself off from the world (protecting his privacy) and struggling to stay public. For the one who is most responsive to life is often the one who is most sensitive to that life. The openness insures awareness; it also measures a risk. "The fear of being touched," Canetti says on the first page of Crowds and Power, is what allows an individual to feel separate: there is the fear of being absorbed into a crowd. To fear touch is to respect individual identity. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) had a dread of shaking hands with others. And Gould must have realized: the responsiveness that makes you unique is the same sensitivity that can kill you.

I heard him on what turned out to be his last tour…years ago….And he was amazing…But those mannerisms on stage… bothered people. They thought he was excessive… fussy… irritating. Some said they'd never go to see him again. They didn't want to be put off… I found that… so strange…

3. Quirk Quotient

In Gould's books, we encounter his taste for words. Avoidance and resistance: the more he wrote, the more he kept hidden. Yet literature is an acceptable field of creation and destruction. And words moved for him. Tim Page has repaged Gould's writings and gathered everything together that is publishable in The Glenn Gould Reader. He has arranged the essays into thematic order. They are grouped around headings like "Prologue," "Music," "Performance," an interlude where "g.g. interviews G.G. about Glenn Gould," "Media and Miscellany." All the familiar pieces from magazines and journals are here: "The Search for Petula Clark," "Stokowski in Six Scenes," "Streisand as Schwarzkopf," "The Idea of North;" the liner-notes for The Goldberg Variations and The Art of the Fugue; reviews of biographies of Mahler and Schoenberg; his polemics against Chopin and the later Mozart. Iconoclastic quotables cluster in the interviews: "If I hear another bar of the Eroica, I'll scream;" Mozart's "G-minor Symphony consists of eight remarkable measures…surrounded by a half-hour of banality." There are philosophical reflections on recording techniques and the studio; assaults on Stravinsky; apologies for Schoenberg.

I was surprised by the Reader. Once again I noted the dexterity of Gould's literary style, and the subtlety of his tone. He never saw a volume through publication. He was content to leave his writings in fragments. For an artist who spent a lifetime rethinking everything that had to do with music, that is startling. For The Glenn Gould Reader shows that, with his passing, we lost not only a fine musician and controversial presence but an essayist of wit and daring. His essays challenge the Plain Reader and, in an unexpected way, profoundly disturb.

Gould's essays open up his prose to the play of rhetoric, a flexibility of forms. This reflects his musical search for accurate, unforgettable communication. When forms are intersecting, interrupting each other, and essays read like novels and novels read like essays, it is the malleability of prose that gives it exciting promise for contemporary writing. (Milosz: "the neat division between novel, story, poetry, and essay is no longer clearly maintained.") It is my pet conceit, though, that prose in Canada is sadly undistinguished. There is no prose line established in the same vein as poetry; there are few models for the probing intellectual. Even Gould himself, with typical oversight by the Canadian literary establishment, is not treated as a literary person. There are of course many articulate musician-writers, like R. Murray Schafer and Alfred Brendel. But Gould wanted to be remembered as an intellectual; and his audience was fascinated by his waves of ideas. For those who apply their literacy in the late twentieth century are strangers in a strange land, indulging in what Gould calls "the Quirk Quotient".

Peculiar things happen when you are literate. You have an assumed analytical ability that lends a critical distance and clarity to your view. You are given a stand; and you also, abruptly, have the ability to snap your audience into some participatory stance. Essay prose can serve this tactical function of managing the reader's attention – which has, these days, the approximate concentration span of a gnat. But for prose to serve this function, whether in fiction or the essay, it must have

  • a vital language
  • a cultivated audience
  • freedom in which to work
  • an intellectual and verbal inheritance
  • publication, contact

This is not an aside, because throughout Gould's essays we are reminded of the importance of "the rich tonal vocabulary of an inheritance." Gould has little to say directly about writing. He writes through analogy. His dissections of music and the recording phenomenon have a relationship with the structure and conveyance of written communication. Gould's passion was communication itself. His rejection of the concert stage revealed a need to, as they say, get into the music – what Gould called the "unsubstantial," "the disembodied" spirit of art, "the realm of technical transcendence" – and find a style that has "unity through intuitive perception, unity of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved…"

A sample of Gould's craft

In many respects, indeed, Schoenberg was the stuff of which Ken Russell screenplays are made. Despite a relatively quiet life on the domestic front (two wives, five children, several dogs, one rabbit), he gave full rein to an ego of Wagnerian proportions. In 1921, when he formulated the twelve-tone technique, he modestly declared that "I have ensured the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." (Reviewer's note: Would you believe thirty-five?) A compulsive teacher and lawgiver, he became obsessed with the idea that his students would endeavour to usurp his authority and pre-empt his innovatory claims. "Told Webern about short pieces….Webern starts writing shorter and shorter pieces follows all my developments (exaggerates)…Webern seems to have used twelve tones in some of his compositions without telling me [italics Schoenberg's]….Webern committed many acts of infidelity with the intention of making himself the innovator."

A sample of his wit

While alive, Webern was of interest only to colleagues; his posthumous canonization was primarily an acknowledgement of the ideas engendered by his work and only secondarily attributable to the works per se. (N.B. to G.G.: File under "Controversial Pronouncements" and prepare defensive posture.) Hindemith, on the other hand, always had a public – not, perhaps, the sort of public that would turn up presold for the premiere of a Shostakovitch symphony, no matter the rebuffs Tovarich Dmitri's last effort might have suffered via Pravda and the Presidium, nor the sort that would attend at the Royal Albert while Sir Adrian had a go at RVW's new opus, secure in the knowledge that even if the Fourth did defy good breeding and voice leading as the academy decreed, the chap is one of us and, given that, Nostalgia Waives the Rules. (N.B. to G.G.: File under "Potential Puns" and prepare defensive posture.)

Not everything in the volume sparkles with sarcastic splendour. The liner-notes from The Goldberg Variations have a sober serenity, and the articles on Arnold Schoenberg are packed with acute analyses of that composer's twelve-tone theory. We should pay particular attention to what Gould says about Schoenberg, because he is an artist that Gould, in his ideas and his sense of mission, often identified himself with. (Note: Gould makes reference to the impact Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus had on Schoenberg.)

All Gould's writings are caught in a squeeze between the scholastic and the journalistic. He had no intention of speaking only to specialists, scholars, and classical purists – the Protection Groups of the post-literate society. He wanted to reach the individual reader. But how do you grab hold of a readership when there is no longer a common literary ground? Gould held on to the hope that he could speak directly to the right receiver. It was this hope that drove conventional thinkers in art-music to dismiss him as a pop star; while, in the meantime, the pop audience continued to consider him (if at all) as a highbrow.

His pieces explore the potential of using rhetoric like a musician. The model of John Cage's remarkable book Silence is behind some of these essays. To achieve oral effects, Gould employs quotations, jokes, puns, dashes, brackets, alternating short sentences with long ones, using preludes, section edits, italics, ellipses, commas, and periods (to mark the rests and stops), abrupt paragraph breaks, and – a favourite device – the detailed list.

He puts the pun into punctuation.

In Conversations, Part I, he improvises seven variations on his keynote "tactile" (touch). He states "tactilia;" expands "tactile image;" elaborates "tactile configurations;" bridges to "tactile assumptions;" pauses on "tactile problems;" ponders "extra-tactile experience;" resolves with (half chord) "tactile compromise." The word focused on obsessively here is not repeated again in the book.

Gould obeys the technique of satire and adopts other narrative personae. He dons a new mask and criticizes his own excess. "I am fascinated with the fact that most of our value judgements relate to an awareness of identity," he comments in Conversations. Flexibility is the constant in his prose: he is willing to be absurd. At his worst he overwrites: his prose can be turgid, daunting, like some grotesque parody of a German academic. (Serenus Zeitblom in Dr. Faustus?) But agreement with his often rash opinions is not the point. Turn to any page of the Reader and you'll find him jazzing up his diction and syntax, to make his style individualized, to make involved, his voice growing stronger and stranger, the titles reverberating with idiosyncrasy: "We Who Are about to Be Disqualified Salute You!" Not only "Make It New", but Make It Move.

The great thing about the music of Richard Strauss is that it presents and substantiates an argument which transcends all the dogmatisms of art – all questions of style and taste and idiom – all the frivolous, effete preoccupations of the chronologist. It presents to us an example of the man who makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none. It is the ultimate argument of individuality – an argument that man can create his own synthesis of time without being bound by the conformities that time imposes. (My emphasis)

Yet behind Gould's mask of the solitary there is that desperado need for an astonishing union between projector and receiver, "amalgam of ecstasy and reason." He was fleeing ordinary touch to find something sounder; he was charging the airwaves with his magnetic messages and verbal variations, asking: is anyone, anywhere, actually there?

Did he find that charged contact?

4. Spirit on the Air

Behind Gould's desire to impart and inform is his belief that electronic circuitry steps up spiritualism and ethics. If the city is sometimes called second nature, then electric communication, Gould suggests, creates what we could call a supernature. This is the omnipresence of voice and image we find in Magnetic Cities through radios, TV's, computers, and telephones: it is a spiritism of sexual fantasies and döppelgangers, repeats and echoes, callups and key-ins. Gould remade himself into a vanishing artist at his listening post. He wanted to be a medium and use the spirit of recording to transmit his messages. Through his writings, Gould revealed himself ("analysis and dissection") to us. The ethical act: reconstructing

an awareness of identity

In his reviews and interviews, he hinted at patterns and plans that charted a way through a maze of thinking.

Watch when we begin to follow his clues.

Gould refers to George Santayana's The Last Puritan (1936), a novel about self-education. "I," Gould said, "perhaps rather than the hero of George Santayana's famous novel, am 'the Last Puritan.'" In Santayana's Memoir in the Form of a Novel, two friends debate their eccentric acquaintance Oliver, who is the subject of the book.

"Had he a life to be written with a big L? And why should I, of all people, abandon philosophy in my old age and take to composing history, even supposing that in Oliver's history there were any actions to record?"

"No actions, but something you might take a wicked pleasure in describing: Puritanism Self-Condemned. Oliver was The Last Puritan."

"I am afraid," I answered with a melancholy which was only half feigned, "I am afraid there will always be puritans in this mad world. Puritanism is a natural reaction against nature." (My emphasis)

Here are more clues.

Gould's interest in Schoenberg and Thomas Mann has been remarked on. But Adrian Leverkühn, Mann's possessed composer in Dr. Faustus (English translation: 1949), attracted Gould with a strange intensity. Leverkühn is a composer who lives in shuttered rooms, uneasy in the light, carrying on debates between ego and superego (Self-Interviews), a musician who reinvents art out of parody and exhaustion. Dr. Faustus is narrated and reconstructed by Serenus Zeitblom, a musician-biographer who does not understand his friend's obsessions. (Like the author of Glenn Gould: Music and Mind?)

Leverkühn is reading Kierkegaard's essay on Mozart's "Don Juan" in Either/Or, when the devil appears. A contract is forged: "namely that the end belongs to us." Leverkühn's attempt to rediscover primeval inspiration is no longer a human one. It is a contract with the unseen.

At the same time that he retrieves creativity, Adrian suffers excruciating breakdowns; he withdraws from society; there is a hint that he is syphilitic, like Hugh Wolf and Nietzsche. He tries and fails to love a child named Echo (the Echo to his Narcissus); he destroys all human touch.

Mann intends a clear analogy to Nietzsche's life: the more isolated Leverkühn becomes, the more dehumanized his fantasies. Leverkühn composes new work, filling his space with tortured and technically demanding music, completing a final opus that ends in silence – like Mahler's Ninth Symphony, nicknamed "The Death Symphony" – and that will be his message of farewell, his hope that life will begin again.

Gould says

…this puritan view of the artist as a jeopardized being is not only dramatically viable but psychologically accurate. It is the stuff of Faustus, to be sure, but it is the substance of lesser bargains as well….This view of the artist as wielder of demonic power, as a being whom ordinary beings should approach with caution, implicitly conveys a respect for his role. (My emphasis)

What did he mean by this track?

Investigate spiritism further.

We know Gould conducted most transactions on the telephone. Cott's Conversations adapts an interview held over three days. The interviewer admits that "during those phone conversations…Gould and I became friends…the phone made it easier for the pianist…." Existence was concentrated into interplays of static, disembodied voices, long-distance connections, "speech without walls". There is no telephonese, like computerese, to describe this aerial phenomenon. Yet Gould made the phone a central instrument in his repertoire of performing devices. "I separate myself from conflicting and contrasting notions," he said. He could spring into his listener's ear using German, French, or Russian accents. For some users the phone can be a weapon, a license to obtrude. The telephone encourages monologue, the hotline, and masturbation. I've said that the power of Gould's writing comes from off-balancing technique: we are continually put off guard. If we review Gould's long answers in Cott's book, then we realize that his telephone use is a link to his juggling of personae. Each time he called up it was as if he were trying out new identities that were like voices in a vast fugue he was composing in his mind, or searching for a fresh voice that would be as precise and shaped as an edited tape. These overtures spell out a technological guessing game

Who am l now?

Look for more clues to this private man whose every public utterance was news.

"The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not," Shakespeare's Caliban says in The Tempest. While I write this in Toronto the Good, outside my window I can hear voices, cat cries, hydro wires, car horns and tires, a sonic battery not always registered but certainly felt. The city's sound track stamps your mind with repetition and conception. The delicate human tuning instrument vibrates to pressures we cannot see. If the body is a balanced receiving set, if we are pulling in signals meant for televisions, telephones, radios, and computers, is burnout one of the effects?

Place a satellite dish in a backyard. Switched on, stations materialize on a screen. Suppose you pick up the signals. Recall the phenomenon of hearing a favourite song running through your mind, then turning on a radio to find that same song playing. Suppose the body absorbs what the dishes catch. Suppose more: we talk of tension headaches and stress as if our own receptivity could be a trap.

Acid rain. Acid air. Chronic stress, migraines, trauma, sore corneas, bad nerves, paralysis, and blunting. "…pesticides are invisible, food additives are invisible, radioactivity is invisible," Jerome Deshusses writes in The Eighth Night of Creation, Life on the Edge of Human History (English translation: 1982).

Even the most harmful automobile exhausts, such as carbon monoxide, are…inodorous, while lead, benzopyrene, and methylcholanthrene can be detected only with difficulty….Accidents in nuclear power stations can affect public opinion…but their emissions are nothing in comparison with the kilos of plutonium that power stations release imperceptibly despite any system of purification….

Hatred of your flesh, the desire to escape your own skin, feeling "out of touch," dispossessed, "beside yourself" – all this may be part of the sensation of saturation. Reaching out to others becomes a possible source of transmittable disease. So avoid the nudge, the grasp: they are the human contagion; get rid of the body, the feel of the world. But speaking out depends on a trust in others. Implicit faith: that the words will be admitted and remembered, that things change in the humanist transfer. Yet why add to verbal congestion? Why participate in "competitive frenzy?" Who can say that the word won't be polluted? Why not avoid the urge to speak to others? Why not choose privacy? and purity?

In touch/out of touch…

In synch/out of synch…

These clichés preserve a truth about us. The human system requires a means of managing the information overload. Yet how can we preserve a private identity in the excess of input, the barrage of intrusions, the infiltration's of sound tracks, telephone buzzes, and verbal requests for access?

Now Toronto is known as the Clean City. It is a place that wants to be a magnetic centre, a financial capital, for North American waves. In this Dream City (the City of Trees), Gould and McLuhan speculated that we would register the outcome of communication overload, the outage, here before anywhere else. Both used publicity to dramatize their findings. But one sought purity, a celibate refinement of technique. Gould's filtering was done to convey ideas to those in need of imaginative links to a nature they did not perceive. He was an acoustic messenger, a carrier of a greater musical theme (harmony: "a joining together"), the Gesamtkunstwerk, the Wagnerian total form, art and instruments in a transformed aesthetic.

Gould held out a promise of revitalized play. On television, he was a tour guide for CBC cameras: he ushered viewers around "the North American suburban dream," a "truly peaceful" environ, an idealized object to be studied as if under glass – or from inside a car – a place of orderly dreams (Peter Ustinov: "New York as if run by the Swiss"), a city in search of a name in the teleglobe, where movie producers import garbage to make the streets look dirty. Gould chose Toronto because he could tune out and, when he wished, tune in to be the escort to technological awe.

We have observed how sensitive Gould was to turns in the weather and to room temperature. So to insulate himself he dressed up like an intellectual from Dostoevski's The Possessed. "Fragile…Breakable Material Inside." The cost of shut-out can be shut down. To rectify the imbalance you put out information. And Gould talked. And clowned. Out poured his reviews, interviews and disc-cussions. Gould wore what Canetti would term his acoustic mask: he was a zealous advocate of contrary views. Though Gould despised polemics, he nevertheless was a masterful polemicist. His conversation was extended by digressions; and occasional avoidance of direct answers: "Ask me that again in a year," he would say; when he paused, he let his "um" sound like a stand-in for "om". He seemed to be vanishing, disappearing, resisting….Listen to me, but leave me alone, he suggested; "I vibrate, therefore I am," he quipped.

I have remarked that electronic communications create feelings of omnipresence: the God complex. Yet even in a specially constructed silent chamber, John Cage said, the music you hear will be your own. Heartbeats, blood pulse, and breathing. There is, in short, no escape from rhythm and receptivity. You can of course try: the history of our time is a record of the attempt to amputate sensitivity from the self. The hunger for making yourself impervious, for depersonalizing, and for turning others into inhumans (vermin), machines, or superhumans (gods), may take many forms. William Butler Yeats, in later years, in the unpublished "Seven Propositions" stated that the physical world was provisional and insubstantial, and that the spirit world was true existence. Yeats couldn't count out cock and cunt, though he made various tries. The electric media's creation of a supernature found premonitions in artists who sought a definition of modern life. Gould explored the spiritual potency of recording and channelled his sexuality into machines. Norman Mailer, "a psychic outlaw", built his oeuvre out of the need to feel flesh. Ancient Evenings (1983) commences with a citation from Yeats's Ideas of Good and Evil. And in Mailer's misunderstood prose poem, he made our time parallel with the ancient Egyptians and their doctrine of floating souls yearning for the rite inhabitation, an entry into a new body. Like J.G. Ballard's visionary stories, or the film Blade Runner, the images in Ancient Evenings lead to the discarnate. Mailer's first sentences: "Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state. I do not know who I am. Nor what I was….Is one Human? Or merely alive?" His last: "We sail across dominions barely seen, washed by the swells of time. We plow through fields of magnetism. Past and future come together on thunderheads and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of Gods." Plunge into the abyss of the spirit of the thing, and the metaphors turn towards reincarnation, ghosts, and gods.

The threads between these artists?

Matters of identity: inspired or dis-spirited individuals, phantasmic and drifting, integrity shredded, turning towards either bestiality or incarnations of hope.

Washroom graffiti

Well, it's right to be skeptical about all this. The subjects are massive, and abstract. I can only touch on them. And the deeper we search for a reel Gould, the deeper we go into science fiction.

Still, we question what cryptic keys Gould sensed in the intervals between his music and writings, why he pondered private identity, using pseudonyms like Dr Herbert von Hochmeister, cruising incognito the North ("I am a motel man myself"), flipping stations on the radio band, practising on his piano with a vacuum cleaner humming, experiencing perpetual playback, teasing his readers with his preference for Petula Clark over the Beatles, and then declaring that his favourite "Pet" Clark songs were "Downtown" and "Who Am I?"

"I cannot bear assaults of any kind," he said to Jonathan Cott.

The more he became like a Robinson Crusoe inspecting studio tracks, the more inescapable he seemed. Those who had never met him accounted for his presence by dropping a needle on a record's edge and gazing at the familiar figure on the jacket sleeve.

One Sunday afternoon while writing this essay, I switched the radio on to the CBC-FM. And there was Gould's voice, quick, now, here, proselytizing on the art of the studio. That was his key. He was our Glenn Gould, a New Player recreated out of "the privacy and ecstasy", and potential "life" after death, recordings could bring.

"We have begun to think musically," Victor Zuckerkandl proclaims in Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (English translation: 1956), "when, then, music becomes the key that leads to a new understanding of the world of the psyche, or organisms, even of inorganic matter, what is taking place here if not a comprehensive musicalization of thought, a change that seems to be opening new roads to our understanding and, indeed, to our logic?"

Jimi Hendrix on the radio years ago:

Like it's electric-city….I feel it every time I plug in….And someday…it'll take me all the way there…the electric church….Pure mind…

Gould believed that society was altering its sense ratio. Voyeurism and unlimited creation. Amputation and humanism. Post-literacy and a new listener. Muzak and a library of classics. Surveillance and communion. Selfishness and selflessness. Invasion and vulnerability. We are in the unknown, reeling in outages of seduction and nausea, resistance and saturation, commitment and passivity, unable to see whether our pact with electric supernature is benign or malignant – an educating creation or a race that could kill – an ambiguous state in which all the old moral values, the black-and-white distinctions may no longer apply.

5. Silence

I return to my uneasiness when I consider The Glenn Gould Reader and the Conversations. The turbulence in Gould's prose style, the convulsions of manner, suggest a man locked into a struggle with something that is never identified. A rage for order storms on in those pages. Gould repeatedly refers to a desire for tranquility. His rejection of the concert stage was determined because, he claimed, he disliked "temptation," "exhibitionism," and "worldly hedonism," and wished to achieve "ecstatic contemplation." However, the effect of his style is anything but tranquil. The writing is on the contrary full of forward movement. There are occasions in the Reader when Gould's avowed intention fiercely collides with the literary impact.

His style is sometimes at odds with the content.

The thick layers of eighteenth-century-style prose, with its extended paragraphs and digressions, seem willful in the attempt to arrest the writer's own push. It is as if in the latter part of his life he longed for something he couldn't achieve. But what? …peace? When I recalled the last performance of The Goldberg Variations, with its personalized and exaggerated dynamics and tempi, the unreleased version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll conducted at a glacial pace by Gould, his declaration that he was giving up the piano for composing and conducting, the picture of him for the cover of The Goldberg Variations looking hunched, ghostly, balding, a burned-out substitute for the once dashing performer – I began to wonder what psychological state he was in towards the end of his life.

The wondering is fuelled by the fact that the Reader is arranged thematically and not chronologically. Dates are provided at the bottom of the page, so you can do detective work. I found those essays written in the 1970s at the height of his reclusiveness more stylistically reckless than the pieces written in the 1950s and '60s. If the Reader had been arranged chronologically, we would have been exposed to an explicit autobiographical record. The effect of this would have been intriguing and, finally, saddening. For Gould's later essays seem driven by his desire to transcend humanness, to escape time, the judgement of history, what he calls "mere chronology."

Gould spent his life mixing European and North American co-ordinates of culture. He tried to be an Aerial without restrictions of body, time, and place. Typically, when he refers to Canada, it is his ground, mere space. "The Idea of North" was for Gould an emptiness waiting for re-creation: the North was a landscape of leaves, wind, water, elements to be managed by his (limitless?) electronic imagination. And in the last version of The Goldberg Variations you hear in the Aria a concern for the space between the notes as you never have before.

Rest, arrest.

Enigmatically, the Last Puritan seemed to look for one more transforming break, "building into art a component that will enable it to preside over its own obsolescence." He was searching for something beyond art, and perhaps his instruments, trying to make "paradise/terrestre."

The pure note; the pure conductor. Gould was pursued by a "primeval curiosity which seeks to uncover in the relations of statement and answer…of challenge and response, of call and of echo, the secret of those still, desert places, which hold the clues to man's destiny. "

With his telephone arias and elaborate masks, his isolation and insistence on the sanctity of the studio, it was as if Glenn Gould personally aspired to a condition of music. But he could not stop what was obssessing or possessing him in an early grave. He said, "I should like to spend an entire winter in the dark." And at the end of his search for the right note and the purified space, he had turned full circle, back to the Bach Variations with which he had begun. Beyond that, there was no call, no response; only the clichés, the noise, and the interference of those who could not comprehend his receptivity.

Thus the last possible rest was – and had to be – silence.

Source: The solitary outlaw: Trudeau, Lewis, Gould, Canetti, McLuhan
B.W. Powe. -- Toronto : Somerville House Paperbacks, c1996. -- 206 p. ; 21 cm. -- ISBN 1895897793 - Chapter IV - Gould
© Bruce W. Powe. Reproduced with the permission of Bruce W. Powe, Somerville House Books Ltd., the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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