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Glenn Gould, Word Painter

by Joan Hebb

Prologue from Glenn Gould's "The Idea of North":1

1. SCHROEDER: I was fascinated by the country as such. I flew north from Churchill to Coral Harbour on Southampton Island at the end of September. Snow had begun to fall and the country was partially covered by it. Some of the lakes were frozen around the edges but toward the centre of the lakes you could still see the clear, clear water. And flying over this country, you could look down and see various shades of green in the water and you could see the bottom of the lakes, and it was a most fascinating experience. I remember I was up in the cockpit with the pilot, and I was forever looking out, left and right, and I could see ice floes over the Hudson's [sic] Bay and I was always looking for a polar bear or some seals that I could spot but, unfortunately, there were none.

SCHROEDER: 1. And as we flew along the East coast of Hudson's [sic] Bay, this flat, flat country

VALLEE: 2. I don't go, let me say

S: 1. frightened me a little, because it seemed endless.

V: 2. this again, I don't go for this northmanship at all.

S: 1. We seemed to be going into nowhere, and the further north we went

V: 2. I don't knock those people who do claim that they want to go farther and

S: 1. the more monotonous it became. There was nothing but snow

V: 2. farther north, but I see it as a game – this northmanship bit. People say "well,

S: 1. and, to our right, the waters of Hudson's [sic] Bay.

V: 2. were you ever up at the North Pole?"

S: 1. … Now this was my impression

V: 2. "And, hell, I did a dog-sled trip of 22 days,"

S: 1. during the winter, but I also flew over the country

V: 2. and the other fellow says "well, I did one of 30 days."

S: 1. during the spring and the summer, and this I found intriguing;

V: 2. you know, it's pretty childish. perhaps they would see themselves

PHILLIPS: 3. And, then, for another 11 years, I served the North in various capacities.

S: 1. because, then I could see the outline

V: 2. as more skeptical … (fade)

P: 3. Sure the North has changed my life; I can't conceive

S: 1. of the lakes and the rivers and, on the tundra,

P: 3. of anyone being in close touch with the North – whether they lived there all the time

S: 1. huge spots of moss or rock --

P: 3. or simply travelled it month after month and year after year --

S: 1. there is hardly any vegetation that one can spot from the air … (fade)

V: 2. … more sceptical about the offerings of the mass media – (fade)

P: 3. I can't conceive of such a person as really being untouched by the North.

V: 2. And it goes on like this,

P: 3. When I left in 1965, at least, left the job there, it wasn't because of

V: 2. as though there's some special merit, some virtue, in being in the North

P: 3. being tired of the North, the feeling that it had no more interest,

V: 2. or some special virtue in having been

P: 3. or anything of the sort; I was as keen as ever.

V: 2. with primitive people: well, you know, what

P: 3. I left because I'm a public servant, (begin fade)

S: 1. It is most difficult

V: 2. special virtue is there in that? (Begin fade) And so

P: 3. I was asked to do another job related to fighting

S: 1. to describe. It was complete isolation, this is very true,

V: 2. I think that I'd be more interested in Baker Lake right now,

P: 3. the war against poverty – (fade to loop)

S: And I knew very well that I could not go anywhere

V: if indeed it is changing significantly – (fade to loop)

SCHROEDER: 1. except for a mile or two, walking. I always think of the long summer nights, when the snow had melted and the lakes were open and the geese and ducks started to fly north. During that time, the sun would set but, when there was still the last shimmer in the sky, I would look out to one of those lakes and watch those ducks and geese just flying around peacefully or sitting on the water, and I felt that I was almost part of that country, part of that peaceful surrounding, and I wished it would never end.

Hearing those words for the first time marked the beginning of my interest in Glenn Gould, word painter. My imagination was fired by this so-called "trio-sonata" from Gould's first major radio documentary-drama, The Idea of the [sic] North. My ear was captured by the polyphony of sound – of the single voice with its unusual rhythm and intonation, followed by the introduction of a second voice weaving itself into the same sound-track, then a third; and my mind was challenged by the apparent contradictions, by the counterpoint of words and ideas. But it was my inner eye which bore the brunt of this marvellous assault and I saw myself transported to a cool and infinite landscape where shapes and colours I had thought I understood took on new meaning; where it was possible to be at once fascinated and afraid; where the sense of isolation and vulnerability could be overwhelming one moment, and the next yield to the restorative dawn of a faint wash of pink light on a distant rise with the calling of geese overhead.

The Idea of North was first broadcast by CBC in 1967 and was followed by The Latecomers in 1969 and The Quiet in the Land in 1977. The three comprise what Gould came to call his Solitude Trilogy and were "as close to an autobiographical statement as (he intended) to get in radio."2 Just as they are themselves constructs of imaginary conversations between individual voices which speak as one – Gould's – I felt compelled to answer them with a voice of my own, to create a dialogue between myself and their choreographer by the only means I had at my disposal, some form of visual expression which would reflect the images that appeared so urgently in my inner eye.

Gould said that "the inner ear of the imagination is very much more powerful a stimulus than is any amount of outward observation."3 The same could be said of the inner eye. Gould called it the oldest cliché in the radio business that "there is a very strong visual component in radio."4

"I sleep with the radio on...I pick up bulletins and use them as the subjects for my dreams."5

His primary consideration in his radio work was sound:

"Audio ideas tend to occur straight off and, inevitably, I conceive documentary projects in terms of the audio capabilities they afford."6

Gould regarded his raw material as a composer would his musical notes:

"In my view, the treatment of the human voice as an element of texture should, indeed, always be approached in a musical way."7

In fact, in the process of putting the documentaries together in the studio, Gould conducted his composition of human voices as if they were musical instruments, using a black felt pen as a baton. But he was also fully aware of the extra-musical impact of his material:

"It had to be an integrated unit of some kind in which the texture, the tapestry of the words themselves, would differentiate the characters and create drama-like conjunctions within the documentary."8

And, as a multimedia artist, he synthesized a multitude of disciplines in his work, weaving them together in a rich tapestry stretched across the architectural framework of his subject.

"Somewhere [in the Solitude Trilogy], I think, is a superb visual essay but I am not really sure that I am visual essayist enough to attempt it."9

That Gould should have contemplated, however briefly, making a video of the trilogy indicates the degree of his involvement with the visual possibilities of the script, possibilities originating almost certainly in his own imagination. "The man who lives in an aural world lives at the centre of a communications sphere, and he is bombarded with sensory data from all sides simultaneously."10

Gould's mind was, like a Bach fugue, perpetually in motion and all his creative work reflects this. He had a "compulsion to keep busy texturally"11 and this deluge of simultaneous stimuli confounded my efforts to transcribe the images crowding on to my inner eye to a sketch book. Gould considered that:

"If you want [your audience] to be caught up...the way to do it is to keep all of the elements in a state of flux, interplay, nervous agitation, using that term in a non-medical sense, of course, so that one is buoyed aloft by the structure...It seems to me terribly important to encourage a type of listener who will not think in terms of priority, and collage is one way in which to do hear one voice and yet to receive separate and simultaneous messages from the statement it offers."12

Collage, indeed!

Collage is any medium based on the use of found material, on isolating existing material from its source and recombining it to create new forms, images often unrelated to their origins. All Gould's radio documentaries are collages or montages of sounds and ideas. They correspond almost exactly to the method of film editing involving the juxtaposition or superimposition of several shots to form a single image.

"The effect [of the superimposition of two or more voices] is analogous to musical counterpoint and requires the same degree of attention that is demanded of the eye in split-screen camera."13

The challenge, as I saw it, was to recapture and recreate this single image, at once multidimensional and holistic, in a new form. Gould had done something similar when he made the documentaries, taping the interviews, then editing and remixing the separate voices to form an original whole. A bridge had to be built between the inner and outer eye so that the images could travel from inside my head to paper, undergoing a kind of metamorphosis, and yet retaining the mystery and message of the original aural impression. My sketch book was not the bridge I needed. But magazine photographs provided me with disparate images which, when cut out of their original context and reassembled with unrelated others, contrived with memory and association to effect the transformation I was seeking.

In translating from a verbal to a visual language, certain elements are forfeited in exchange for others which can then be expressed. No two languages are alike. Each has its range of expressions. I made no attempt to symbolize or imitate the musical aspects of Gould's documentary structure because I do not have a musician's understanding of them. There is, however, a cross-over between such things as rhythm and harmony in music and in the visual arts. In the collages, information is conveyed through the nature of the individual cuttings themselves, apart from their new context. And the sense of drama which is so important to Gould's aural works is retained, I hope, by the unnatural juxtaposition or placement of these unrelated images. The new combinations, when they succeed, cause tension and achieve a synthesis that is original, and that evokes an emotional and intellectual response in the viewer akin to that conjured by sound to the ear of Gould's listener. The images are mine, but I hope they share with Gould's something of the unusual and disquieting and beautiful, alerting the viewer to the presence of unexplored territory.

The collages were not intended as works of art, but as personal explorations in the spiritual sense, and as a challenge. They are not illustrations; Gould's Solitude Trilogy needs no visual augmentation. I believe its purpose is an interior one, demanding of the audience:

"reactions [which], because of the solitude in which they're bred, are shot full of unique insights. These are insights which will not necessarily duplicate or overlap those of the performer or producer or the engineers; they're insights which initiate a new link in the chain of events...a link which holds out the possibility that the work we do here doesn't necessarily come to an end when the final product is dispatched...but rather that, from that point on, it will have consequences which we can't begin to measure, ramifications which we can't possibly attempt to quantify, and that, eventually, like a benign boomerang...the ideas which, out there in the world of the creative listener, begin to take on a life of their own [and] may very well return to nourish and inspire us."14

Link to The Inner Eye, a series of collages created by Joan Hebb and inspired by Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy.


1. Prologue from The Idea of North, first broadcast by CBC Radio, December 28, 1967. (National Library of Canada)

2. From draft of script for Radio as Music, broadcast on CBC Television, August 29, 1975 (National Library of Canada)

3. From "Address to a Graduation", delivered at the Royal Conservatory of Music, University of Toronto, November 1961

4. From draft of script for Radio as Music

5. Forever Young by Jonathan Cott, Random House, NY, 1977, p. 70

6. Letter to Whitney, September 3, 1971, (National Library of Canada)

7. Letter to Johnson, April 5, 1971 (National Library of Canada)

8. "Radio as Music: Glenn Gould in Conversation with John Jessop", The Canadian Music Book, Spring-Summer 1971, p. 14

9. Letter to Whitney

10. Through the Vanishing Point by Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Harper and Row, NY, 1968 p. 6

11. From draft of script for Radio as Music

12. "Radio as Music: Glenn Gould in Conversation with John Jessop", p. 21

13. Draft of letter to Reimer, July 2, 1974, (National Library of Canada)

14. "What the Recording Process Means to Me", by Glenn Gould, High Fidelity Magazine, January 1983, p. 56-57

Source: National Library news. Nouvelles de la Bibliothèque nationale
Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada. -- v. ill., ports. 23-28 cm. -- Vol. 24, no. 7 (September 1992). -- ISSN 0027-9633. -- P. 13
© Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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