Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Goulden Anniversary

"I believe that the justification of art is the internal
combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its
shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The
purpose of art is not the release of a momentary
ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual,
lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

--Glenn Gould
from his essay, "Let's Ban Applause!"

Recently, in a wonderful used bookstore, I came across Peter Ostwald's _Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius_. Who could resist this? This week, I've been pouring over this book, and I've accomplished little else.

In the midst of reading this testimony on the life of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic musical geniuses, I did some Google searching on Gould and found out that, beginning September 1, the Glenn Gould Year commences. It marks the 75th anniversary of his birth and the 25th anniversary of his untimely death.

I first heard about Gould (originally rendered "Gold," hence the title), when, as a teenager, I was shown Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould [1], a set of vignettes which corresponds with the number of movements in J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, a piece which Gould brought to the forefront of the musical world. I was immediately intrigued, and over the years have only become more and more fascinated with this character, who was famous as a pianist but also played the organ magnificently.

Gould is one of those artists who seems either to be loved or hated. Some complain about his unorthodox musical interpretations. Others allege that his virtuosity is a fraud, that the light action of his piano gave him an easy way to achieve his trademark clarity, even as he employed extraordinarily fast tempi. Those who have played fugues on light action instruments know that this argument is a line of nonsense.

In any case, whatever one thinks of Gould's work, surely the fair-minded will admit that not only his musicianship but also his artistic ideas call us constantly to think critically about how we go about making music. This is important. It is not good enough to sit at the keyboard and pound out notes from the page, nor is it always healthy to play a piece the way we've always played it, or the way our teachers told us to play it. I find that even a short time spent with a Gould recording goes a long way toward dusting off the musical cobwebs that gather thanks to mundane routine--one of the most dangerous occupational hazards of the church musician.

A word about the quote which opens this post. This excerpt has a lot to do with Gould's desire to move beyond public concert settings. At age 32 (that seems to be a popular number with him), Gould played his last concert and spent the remaining years of his life playing for radio, television, and recording studios. He felt that the separation of the performer from the audience allowed him to serve the music better, more completely to ignore the demands of the taste of the public. This might come across as narcissistic, but really there is a lot of truth to what Gould is saying. He reports an episode in a concert in which he caught himself schmaltzing up the music just to try to reach every member of the audience. This is a most astute point.

Well, I've rambled on enough, and at a very Gouldian late night hour, so most likely the less I say the better off I'll be. Visit this site to learn more about Glenn Gould. Also, watch this video. Genius at work.


[1] I was going to link to Amazon here, so that interested parties could buy this movie for themselves. To my shock, these dvd's are selling for approximately 150USD. Apparently it's out of print now. I'll take note and guard my copy with my life. VHS copies seem to be available for a more reasonable price.

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