Trying to understand Glenn Gould
August 3, 2013 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Of the many available documentaries about the pianist Glenn Gould, "Genius within - The inner life of Glenn Gould" is one of the more thoughtful ones.

Not discussed in this documentary is the question of whether Gould may have had an autism spectrum disorder, a question which is discussed elsewhere.
Basics about retrospective diagnoses of autism (Gould is mentioned in the article),
A pro article,
A con article with critical comments.

Among the thousands of interesting Gouldiana on Youtube, Leonhard Bernstein's disclaimer before a joint performance with Gould of Brahms' first piano concerto is legend. Here are both the talk and the concerto.

Bonus links: Beethoven's Eroica variations from 1802, part 1 and part 2.
posted by Namlit (16 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks -- the first several minutes are fantastic, so I can't wait to see the rest.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:22 PM on August 3, 2013

may have had an autism spectrum disorder

Perhaps the world is better off because there was no effective therapy for this, or for van Gogh's bipolar disorder, or Beethoven's depression, or ...
posted by fredludd at 3:33 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I see Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is also on YouTube.
posted by gwint at 3:39 PM on August 3, 2013

Perhaps the world is better off because there was no effective therapy for this

Yeah, no. Just sayin'.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:14 PM on August 3, 2013

I saw this documentary when it played on PBS, and thought it was great. As I've mentioned in a previous thread, after seeing "32 Short Films about Glenn Gould," I was hungry for a pure documentary about him. It took years, but someone finally made it.

Gould had such a unique sound that I was stunned when his female classmate demonstrated it -- how something would be commonly played, then how Gould would play it (as they had learned from their teacher). Seeing Gould's style coming out of someone else was quite a surprise, for some reason. (She turns up at about 15:00 and 45:00 in.)
posted by pmurray63 at 4:28 PM on August 3, 2013

I've never really understood the intense devotion he inspired for some. Then I started thinking, he reminds me of Bobby Fischer, who came to prominence in the same era. In the way that the most fervent Gould fans seem to care little for, you know, Bach, compared to their favorite Gould recordings of Bach, Fischer seemed to have an appeal even to people who had no interest in chess. Was there something in the zeitgeist that attracted people to these neurotic, intense, geniuses?

(I'm aware that this is a bit of a caricature, and I'm sure that most Gould-folk have a deeper knowledge of classical music than do I).
posted by thelonius at 4:39 PM on August 3, 2013

thelonious: First, an observation that - I hope you agree - it's ironic someone choosing the username "thelonious" would consider those attracted to "neurotic, intense, geniuses" a unique and mystifying sociological category. (As a deep fan of both Gould and Monk ... I kid you.)

Second: As a long-term fan of Gould, but by no means an apologist or fanatic, I can see where you are coming from, and yes, there is a cult of personality surrounding Glenn Gould. There always has been, since the '55 Goldberg recording was released and he became an international classical music hearthrob. Much as many folks only own one jazz album (Miles Davis, Kind of Blue), many folks only own(ed) one classical album, or at least only one album of Bach keyboard works, and that was Gould's '55 recording. It is not a canonical performance.

There are many "better" performances of Bach on keyboard than Gould's (Tureck and Perahia come to mind), but I think the world would be a lesser place without Gould's interpretations ('55 and '81 recordings).
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 8:34 PM on August 3, 2013

Just to offer some perspective on the "fan" or "no fan" discussion, this may not necessarily be about better (or "better") performances at all.

I posted this because I am actually (as a professional harpsichordist) coming from a "definitely not a fan" angle. I found out that my own position and musical preference doesn't matter in the least, when contemplating the work of someone like Gould.
The links I posted here all demonstrate how an artist goes to the limits in order to constantly re-claim the ground he has been given by nature through being musically gifted. This material shows what an enormous task it can be to live up to one's own musical expectations, how it nevertheless can be rewarding for the musician, and for the public; it also shows some of the pitfalls of being a celebrated musician, and it ultimately helps to understand that Gould was no mere nerd, nor a provocative weirdo, but someone honestly driven by a vision.

(Also the performance of the Beethoven variations at the end is awesome. This piece sounds usually like crap on any piano, modern or historical)
posted by Namlit at 3:48 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm named after the Stevie Wonder song.
posted by thelonius at 5:19 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just finished re-reading 'The Gold Bug Variations', which made me again want to understand the Goldberg Variations, but I don't seem to be able to.
I totally enjoy watching him, though. It's spellbinding to watch him.
posted by MtDewd at 5:41 PM on August 4, 2013

The thing about Gould — especially his Bach recordings — is that listening to them is like hanging out with a really gifted and enthusiastic music appreciation teacher. Except that makes it sound like a dull obligation that you do because it's somehow Good For You. Even better — it's like hanging out with your big brother when you're twelve, and he's got a much cooler record collection than you but because he loves you he's gonna keep teaching you all about how awesome Sonic Youth are until you Get It.

Like, you can tell the guy just fucking loved counterpoint and voice leading. And you can tell when one of his favorite bits comes along — an entrance he thought was especially clever or a bit of imitation between the voices that he especially liked or whatever — because he can't resist emphasizing the shit out of it. (And because he had interesting taste, his favorite bits are usually worth paying attention to...)

If you're not in the mood for it, it comes across as sort of pedantic and overtechnical. ("Yeah, I get it! The main theme came back again! You don't have to like grin and wiggle your eyebrows every time it happens!") But if you are in the mood for it, there's something about his enthusiasm that's infectious. Like, "Yeah, damn, I never saw it before, but that is a totally mind-blowing passage right there. Right on, Glenn. Thanks for turning me on to this stuff."

But so I think that's part of why people who never listen to Bach will listen to him play Bach. If you know the music well, you want to hear it with your own ears, and maybe you'll end up agreeing with how he plays it and maybe you won't. But if you don't know it that well, the best way to start is to have a big brother who can elbow you at the right moment and be like "Dude, you gotta pay attention to the bass part in this next bit, it's just ridiculous..."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:56 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

In reply to JimInLoganSquare, I would enthusiastically disagree with your claim that there are many "better" performances of Bach on keyboard. Of course, yours is not a claim that can be made or refuted, strictly speaking. But in spirit, I would challenge you to justify your putting Gould anywhere but near or at the very top of interpreters of Bach's music.

In the 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations, Gould brought to life the ingenious and profound ideas of those compositions with a clarity that had never been achieved in any recorded performance, and I believe, never will. It's simply astoundingly beautiful.

Compare his performance of Variation 3 with Rosalyn Tureck's. In Gould's performance, you can hear the crystalline perfection he's achieved. You can hear ever one of Bach's layered ideas transmitted as though directly from his mind. At no time in this piece, nor in the entire performance, do you ever hear one of the two, three, and occasionally four (!) simultaneous voices dropping away and being performed by rote. In every voice, there's a complete soul, as expressed in every note and nuance of this entire performance.

I think these examples can bring us as close as we can get to an objective position about Gould's performance. In Gould's performance, listen to a complex passage, and start to disassemble the phrases and ideas, consider how cleverly they're layered, and how beautiful they are in and of themselves. Then listen to the same variation performed by Tureck. Her performance reaches no such heights. It's drippingly "pianistic" (as Gould would say), with irrelevant pauses and flourishes, along with gratuitous changes in volume. I think you'll agree that many of the ideas are either not performed with true insight, or simply don't show up. Mind you, it's not about the particular style interpretation, it's about whether or not the interpretation is synergystic with, and does justice to the musical ideas. Her performance, next to Gould's, sounds to me like the banging away of a primary-school piano teacher. But the question is whether or not the ideas come to being with their true intelligence and depth. In no performance that I've ever heard has this been achieved to the degree that Gould achieved it.

No, the hype about Gould isn't borne out of ease recognition, or fascination with his personality. He played Bach's works (who he described as the greatest musical architect the world has ever known) with a depth and beauty that's so beyond any other performance of the Goldberg Variations, that I believe will simply not to be achieved ever again.

For one last treat, listen to the variation at 7:13 enough times to really get to know the melodies. Aside from the obvious technical wizardry, notice how every idea is given its full character and expression. Notice how the ebullient humour and joy of this variation is followed by a profound, sweet pensiveness in the next. These musical themes are represented in other performances, but none achieves what Gould did: a translucency directly to the mind of Bach, and an intimate interaction with it.
posted by huron at 10:06 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

One of the best biographical documentaries I've ever seen, but I'm not sure why. Thank you for this post.
posted by AnnElk at 11:18 AM on August 5, 2013

In reply to JimInLoganSquare, I would enthusiastically disagree with your claim that there are many "better" performances of Bach on keyboard. Of course, yours is not a claim that can be made or refuted, strictly speaking. But in spirit, I would challenge you to justify your putting Gould anywhere but near or at the very top of interpreters of Bach's music.

huron, I put scare quotes around "better" for a reason. I was trying to say, "technically more canonical, less expressionistic, what have you." Not really better; but more "proper." In other words, the way my first wife, a classical flutist who actually didn't like listening to music, as far as I could tell, would consider "better" -- all the notes get played "right." If my post implies that I think Gould's performances belong anywhere but in the top tier, then I failed to express myself "properly." (And, thanks for the thoughtful analysis in the rest of your post.)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:13 PM on August 6, 2013

Roger that, JimInLoganSquare. I could have been less oppositional in tone in my first few sentences! Your comment was an interesting impetus for me to voice my enthusiasm for Glenn Gould's later performance of the Goldberg Variations... Cheers!
posted by huron at 12:46 AM on August 9, 2013

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