Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Thoughts for a Gouldian Morning

There is something magical, on a cold winter morning, to sit and pass Queen's Park listening to Glenn Gould play from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. When it warms up, at least above freezing, I think I'll take a tour of Gould's old haunts and spots for this blog.

Gould loomed large in my turning away from popular music in my teens towards becoming a hard core classical musician and classical music lover. Feeling a touch nostalgic, I don my sword and helmet, and defend for our dear departed Glenn from, who else, but rapacious capitalists. (ooooohhhhh....)


A while back, Glenn Glould performed at his namesake studio here in Toronto.

He's dead you say? Not anymore, thanks to technology. And to those of you offended by the sight of Audrey Hepburn selling pants at the Gap, this should really get your goat.

For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with him, Glenn Gould was arguably one of the best pianists of the second half of the 20th Century, and certainly one of the most eccentric. He was also someone who thought about music - claiming him for mylsef, I'd happily call him a philosopher of music - and the ways in which performers and audience interact with each other, and how technology would transform the conditions under which music was performed and listened to.

He practiced what he preached, and, dissatisfied with what he could produce live, retired from the concert hall in 1964. That is, until a month ago.

The Star's music critic struggled to make this strange story into something interesting (I can no longer find the story on their site). I think he fails, but not for lack of trying. Rather, perhaps out of a fear of incurring the wrath of the Gould estate, he is unwilling to take on cult that has formed around Gould's music and writings since his death in 1982.


Full disclosure - I attended both Glenn Gould conferences, in 1992 and 1999. As I mentioned earlier, I was a big fan as a teenager, listening to the 1955 Goldberg Variations most mornings on the way to school, in a passive homage to Ralph Kirkpatrick's playing the Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety every day - my pianistic skills at that point weren't up to the task!

Through providence, I was able to attend the first conference for the cost of my plane ticket, finding myself staying for free in the Annex with a wealthy lawyer and a patron of the arts. It was my first time in Toronto as an adult, and my impression of the city that week laid the foundation for my eventual relocation.

During my time here, I realised that, in the hierarchy of fandom, I was a pale shadow to some of the fascinating and sometimes creepy Gouldians out there.

These people were hardcore.

What I had half-consciously thought of as a pilgrimage became a revaluation of my own thoughts about Gould, a splash of water to my own marginally obsessive nature. This was a fan base whose devotion and intensity can only compared to that of Elvis Presley fans.

On the other side of the fans, you have Glenn Gould's estate, which aggressively goes after anything and anyone who dares whisper his name. Indeed, their FAQs inform you that if you draw a picture of him and attempt to make it public, you will need their permission, by which I take it that if you don't get their permission, they will sue you. These are the same people who felt it appropriate to his reclusive personality to plop a sculpture of him in front of the CBC building in Toronto. One wonders what will happen if I go and do some photoblogging...

The 1999 conference was even stranger. The 1992 one had the pretence of being about Gould's thinking on music and technology. The 1999 conference was hero worship.

The fans at this conference were vastly more disturbing than the first one. In one session, John Roberts, Gould's closest friend, spoke of Gould's torment and increasing paranoia as he aged. For this, he was assaulted verbally by "fans" who would brook no criticism of their Glenn. People who never knew him challenged the man who knew him better than anyone.


This brings me to this bizarre concert. That they used Gould as a model is unsurprising to me. Rather, what I found strange was that everyone compared it was a live performance.

Programming a piano to play a recording is much closer to pressing "play" on a CD player than it is to watching someone play the piece. Moreover, it appears to have escaped most people writing on the concert that the original recording was never live in any sense. Gould certainly recorded the variations in their entirety, but sections would have been spliced and variations re-recorded until things sounded right.

But given Gould's reputation as an extreme perfectionist, who's to say that the 1955 version played on that piano would have met his requirements? Who's to say he would have liked the sound? What are we saying here about the death of the performer? In other words, how can we say this was Glenn Gould performing live in a concert hall?

Indeed, it only makes sense to someone like Sony Classical and Zenph Studios, which John Terauds says is "a North Carolina firm devoted to improving on old piano recordings with the latest computer wizardry". This isn't an improvement though, it's an entirely new recording, but the really important thing is that it gives Sony Classical a way to sell another permutation of what is probably one of the most profitable classical recordings of all time.

Since the 1992 conference, Sony has re-released the Goldberg Variations umpteen times, each with some new bit to ensure that the real fans feel compelled to buy the latest version. This enterprise is about making money, and not about Gould, beyond the fact that the Gould brand is a very profitable one. (Just to note, I have a single copy of the 1955 recording, which I bought in 1990.)

I guess as someone who would claim Gould as a formative influence in my own musical thinking, his crass commercialization by the various entities who own his legacy bothers me, especially because it seems so very opposite to anything I've ever heard about the man.

But what do I know, really? I am just a fan.


From the get go, Gawain's dislike of Beethoven unnerved me.

I know he has a nice, tidy, some would even say scientific, explanation for this dislike, but it still bothers me, mainly because I can't stop listening to Beethoven. And now that I have the piano, I can't stop playing him.

And I feel I owe Gawain for having brought me towards a greater appreciation of Shostakovich, via his string quartets. So I'd like to return the favour.

Is there an essence of Beethoven that precludes one's enjoyment? Beethoven's compositional range was vast - his manipulation of motive and structure was so masterful that my jaw still drops at his inventiveness, especially within the restricted (by our standards) tonal language and forms he used. His music really still sounds modern, in a way that Mozart's or Chopin's does not.

The guy wrote so much music in so many different ways, indeed, it's part of his greatness - how does one not like any of it?

I wonder if Gawain takes Beethoven too seriously. Or, like the cult of Glenn Gould out there, the much older and insidious cult of Beethoven has coloured his thoughts. We know the story - Beethoven was serious, deaf and deeply unhappy. Yes he was, but more importantly, he was a man, a man full of spirit and humour. He is someone worth going out of one's way to get to know.

How do we cure poor Gawain of his Beethovenitis? What work of his could mark the entry point to Elysium for our tired knight?

My suggestion, after careful deliberation, is Beethoven's 18th piano sonata, Op. 31 No. 3. Gawain, get yourself a good recording of this work - try the Richter, although the light heartedness of the work should come through on any decent recording.

Or better yet, try to get a hold of Viennese-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti's magnificent recording. His Beethoven Sonata cycle is the best modern one out there. Beethoven is a slippery creature to Kuerti, and we are richer for it. No pigeon holes here!

I think this might do the trick - and I'd stick to this period of piano sonatas until you're ready for the next step!



Absurdity Miner said...

I didn't realize Gould had the same type of crazy fans you'd find at a comic book convention! I take it Gould was very interested in technology, which puts him on the geek radar, and thus maybe gets him obsessive Trekkie fans...

He sounds like he had the same dissatisfaction with live performances that Frank Zappa did, and Zappa retreated into the realm of the Synclavier because of it.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gould has the fans who would say comic book fans lack intensity. I say this as a former comic fan!

His aversion to concert performances has been examined to death - I think it came down to wanting to be able to control completely the environement in which the music was made.

I don't know if he saw, as many do, the audience as a potentially supportive feature of the concert performance - they were there to judge, not to enjoy.

Gawain said...

Hello, alt, how nice to discover a post dedicated to me (even if there is no dedication at the top).

So many things to say in response to your post. Can I manage them all? Or even the most important ones?

First, a lot of Mozart is actually very surprisingly "modern" (in the sense in which Beethoven is). You hear it most in his operas where he turns on that sort of massive emotional crescendo which earlier opera did not have (it being a much more intimate art form). Try the going-to-hell scene in Don Giovanni, for instance.

Second, late Mozart sonatas sound like early Beethoven sonatas -- Sei Shonagon had me fooled a couple times!

Third, I know Beethoven is a great composer. The music has technical excellence which the likes of Brahms sorely miss. Even the music I don't like (like opus 59).

Fourth, I do like some Beethoven -- so my announcement of my dislike for him is less than forthright. I like his piano trios for example; especially no 1 (the Chungs); i like his early piano sonatas. the third piano concerto, the way Glenn plays it, is a balm for my soul; as is the fourth (the way Leinsdorf and Rubinstein play it). My liking of him is not limited to his early music. For instance, I like a great deal his string quartet no. 11, and that's opus 95!

Fifth, Beethoven was an unhappy deaf man in his ate life, but there is no indication that he was like that all his life.

Sixth, I suppose what turns me off is a quality of beethoven which I perceive as bad manners. I am often reminded of the incident in Vienna when he insisted on taking his hat off to some minor royalty. I admire the republican spirit (i doubt he was trying to say something about the superiority of artists over kings) but I deplore the violation of good manners. The pieces which turn me off are the ones which strike me as just such a violation. it is a very personal reaction, and I understand that others may not share it; and i do not insist on imposing it on others.

And while I do like listening to Beethoven from time to time (and in fact, I think I will put a trio on right now, so you can rest assured your post has had a good effect on me), I generally feel better in other music.

I like the good manners of his predecessors -- I listen to Bach every day in the way in which Kirkpatrick played him every day: to wash my ears of the world. And listen to more Corelli than Bach.

Now Shostakovich, who can be very dishevelled in the Beethoven manner, I find more agreeable (though I would never suggest that he was a better composer, for I feel emphatically that the opposite is true) probably because he cultivates a completely different emotional pose. It is thoroughly modern, I suppose, you might say, riddled with sarcasm and shot through with bitter irony. I can take a man like that easily -- "here", he says, "is my stupid aching heart, i am a blithering fool".

That covers the main points, I guess.

Thank you for running this blog for me. I am going to have so much fun here, dear friend. I'll give you a window on my wordpress site right now!

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gawain, how is it that you manage to post a reply longer than my post?

Thanks also for clarifying your thoughts on Beethoven. I admit had created a bit of a straw man Beethoven hater and put him in your place - I hope you didn't think I felt your views on Beethoven were tha simplistic.

I do think you should listen to Op 31 No 3 - it's an amazing, underappreciated sonata.

I should clarify my remarks about modernity as well. I agree with your comments on Mozart at a dramatic level. My comment about Beethoven's modernity had more to do with the actual manipulation of musical materials.

In Mozart, you do have some wonderful experimentation, but the tearing apart of form and harmony that Beethoven manages to achieve has a closer analogue to modern techniques than Mozart. And then I threw Chopin in there, who used Beethovenian techniques, but in the service of music that sounds dated to my ears, although that's not to say I don't enjoy it.

Beethoven still surprises me, whereas Mozart surprises, but the surprise is predictable.

However, I really need to start spelling out what I'm talking about instead of spouting the same vague generalizations I hated to hear as a music student. I need to get myself back up to speed.

Gawain said...

Dear Von K:

I can't remember the minute-long Chopin prelude (out of he set of 24) which sounds like Bartok or Prokoffiev (on their bad hair days). (It's just one long rumble). That's pretty modern, isn't it (talk about tearing the fabric).

There are (few) places like this in Mozart.

But, of course, there are places like this in Bach -- in the 5th brandemburg there is a keyboard solo which is pure anarchy; and what about the "barabas" open throated yell in Matthaeus Passion?

Modernity -- it seems to me -- is prefigured numerous times in old music; it isn't modernity, really, only a certain eternal aesthetic attitude which we have come to turn to more often than our predecessors.

(Are we turning to it because harmonious prettiness has been exhausted? Is there no more to say?)

And about language: we all suffer from inadequate language when talking about our aesthetic experiences, me perhaps even more than most. Good conversations with friends, like this one, are the only way to try to improve our langauge for the sake of both better communication, and better insight into our own pleasures. No?

I DID get to listen to (and record) the Callisto. The quality is terrible, but I'll be happy to send it to you if you want it. I was surprised to hear how much of it sounded like -- and was perhaps lifted directly from -- Montie's Poppea.

Speaking of which, this is the 400th anniversary of L'Orfeo, so perhaps we will get many new chances to hear the old workhorse.

I hope you don't mind the length of my comments. I hope I do not talk entirely without sense or purpose (as I do on my blog with great frequency).

Well, what's next, old man? I am waiting for more from the transcont.

Gawain said...

PS What were Gould's "scientific" reasons for disliking old B? (There is a set of Beethoven sonatas he recorded under duress. I own it. It's a monument to his dislike. I have never heard Beethoven played more badly).

Conrad H. Roth said...

You know who else has crazy fans? Marsilio Ficino. True! He has a whole society of worshippers.

Gawain said...

So does Yanni. And Liberace.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, but Ficino? You wouldn't have predicted that one. Well, I wouldn't.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Well, translating Plato into Latin and being an alchemist is a pretty though combo to beat!

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gawain, I just realised that it's you who I'm claiming has a scientific view of aesthetics - my tone gently sarcastic, owing to my minor, if receeding, disagreement with you on the aesthetic sense.

And Gawain, of course I don't mind nice long comments. I only wish I could respond in kind, with a full set of words for you rather than these brief points before bed or playtime.

Gawain said...

Well, dear friend, conversations do not happen, they are made, and we get out of them no more than we put in (though sometimes less if the other side does not play ball). so get up and start conversing with me. :)

Do I have a scientific view of aesthetics? Hm... I am not sure whether I would characterize it so.

You see, when people say that something is scientific, they usally mean systematic; but I don't have a system.

To the extent that science can account for aesthetics, it would have to account for both pleasure and displeasure of Beethoven, no?

What I do on my blog is try to understand why I like some things; and why some people like things I don't like; the internal logic of (different) aesthetics. But I am never prescriptive. (Though I have rather strong opinions).

And I am interested when people can explain why they like what they like, and the explanation is more involved than "because my grandmother used to play it". Hence my interest in finding out Glenn's reasons for disliking Beethoven. I have never heard them. And *I am sure* that he gave them. Feely and liberally, that old nut.

I like your new post but dont want to leave a meaningless comment. I want to think about it before I write something there. It's important. This is my 2nd most favorite blog already.