Friday, October 31, 2008

The Tangential Approach to Glenn Gould

Since confirming, last post, that Glenn Could is the most written-about pianist ever, I want to avoid, as far as I can, writing about any aspects of Gould's life that have already been extensively written-up. But, since the details of everything from GG's Arrowroot-cookie & milk habit, to his peculiar musical philosophies, to his Steve McQueen-like driving, have been covered to death and are easily accessible, you might think that I would have little left to write about.

But I agree with what Gould said in this 1974 interview with himself:
G.G.: . . . my personal philosophy of interviewing . . . is that the most illuminating disclosures derive from areas only indirectly related to the interviewee's line of work.
g.g.: For example?
G.G.: Well, for example, in the course of preparing radio documentaries, I've interviewed a theologian about technology, a surveyor about William James, an economist about pacifism, and a housewife about acquisitiveness in the art market.
If you approach the subject with this disposition, then a whole new range of topics emerges. And that's what I intend to do.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Our first encounter

Like many others before me, my first introduction to Mr. Gould was through his 1981 Goldberg Variations. Although I would never claim to be a musician, I do feel that I know the basics and have definitely developed an appreciation over the years. As a child, my mother tried to force- feed piano lessons to me. First, we tried Suzuki lessons. I mastered the Twinkles but in the end, it always came down to my lack of will to practice. I already had such a busy schedule to maintain consisting of playing with the barn cats, swimming in the pool or climbing apple trees! My mother was persistent (or perhaps a little blinded by love). She thought to herself, "It could not possibly be Liz. It must be the lessons." So we switched to the Conservatory way. While I still did not enjoy spending my afternoons practicing, I was a good daughter and withstood for about a year.

My piano career ended with the local music festival. I have vivid childhood memories of practicing my little heart out, preparing for the big day. My debut piece was called "Mixed Up Zoo." I am still traumatized 13 years later. "My cow goes meeeeow but I don't think that's right..." Long story short, I lost the competition and retired from piano forever. Looking back, I like to soothe my burnt ego by thinking of myself as practicing the ideals of Mr. Gould at the tender age of eleven. 

Music was not completely lost on me. Every summer, I looked forward to attending the Kincardine Summer Music Festival. I began to play the trumpet in grade six (even got back on the old music festival horse!). In high school, I switched to French Horn for logistical reasons. There were too many trumpet players and too few chairs, stands and instruments. Plus I didn't think I had the trumpet player personality. I was better suited to the horn.  After I graduated, I stopped playing. Never fear, returning to my beloved French horn (or perhaps learning to play the cello) is on my forever growing to-do list. 

Like I said, I am not a musician by any means, but I do have a general background. After accepting the job at the Foundation, I immediately took a trip to my local iTunes store and purchased the Goldberg Variations. I listened to the album carefully from start to finish.

Mr. Gould shared something very special with me. The album was almost reminiscent to my life. I am me. I play the same baseline but the outcome is somehow always varied and full of surprise. A series of highs and lows. Sometimes jovial, sometimes sad. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Sometimes playful, sometimes stern. Sometimes full, sometimes lonely. But in the end, in life and the Goldberg Variations, it all comes full circle. 

I was unaware of Mr. Gould's tendency to sing along while playing. It took me a few listens to even notice. Mr. Gould was different. It was all so very intriguing. It was all so delightfully human. I can understand why Mr. Gould loved the Goldberg Variations. 

I am left with a smile. How beautiful! Mr. Gould lived his music. 

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Shall we talk?

I have listened to Glenn Gould's later recording of the Goldberg Variations so many times that I am quite sure I could identify his interpretation in a blind taste test.
But wait, I flatter myself. Perhaps I recognize it as his not because of the infamously lingering pace of the Aria but could it be the tell-tale murmur alongside the notes?
It was said that recording technicians despaired of Gould's tendency to sing along as he played. They were actually described as "groans and croons." Sound technicians were sometimes only partially successful in excising his trilling.
I confess I rather like it. I have even turned up my ipod to full volume in an effort to catch every nuance of Glenn's vocalise. It seems to me, wholly unself-conscious, evidence that he was captivated by Bach but still reverential of the exquisite spaces. The intoning doesn't ruin the performance the least bit. In fact, it's comforting. This is a human being rendering those beautiful sounds and that fact makes its beauty all the more astonishing.
Some years ago in my earlier incarnation as a piano student, I was forced to take part in a recital. I was the only adult playing, a fact that was burnished on my very soul as I sat looking nervously at the other draftees. Two of them were my own. They sat there in the church pew, alternately chewing fingernails and glaring at their mother, the one who was making them play. Little did they realize that I was also glaring resentfully -- at the piano teacher who suggested that I participate to send the message to the kids that there was nothing to fear at a recital. Nothing indeed!
My number came up.
I strode up with music in hand (no memory work for me -- I wasn' t that crazy). The piece I had chosen was a dumbed down version of "St. James' Infirmary."
From the first uncertain notes I set down to the last querulous chord, this jazz classic was treated with an unconventional accompaniment -- mutterings inserted by no editorial musicologist. Just a litany of anguished noises, mumbled apologies and scarcely articulated curses.
I met the gaze of a supportive friend as I escaped from the piano bench.
"As long as you're playing, " he sighed, "Glenn Gould will never be dead."
Somehow I knew that he wasn't talking about the grace or sensitivity with which I delivered my piece.
But I like to think that surely Glenn, in his time, must have uttered a choice word or two.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Time tells time is passing away, but it does not tell us what is coming back in its stead. I can’t believe Google Gmail is allowing people to change "time.", at least that’s what Ms. Mommy Bach told me. I don’t need a time machine. I can send an email to Mr. Glenn Gould in his time right now.

Date: Oct 24, 1964
Subject: a gift

Dear Mr. Gould,

I have been studying Bach’s last great instrumental composition “The Art of Fugue”, for quite sometime now. There’s a canon from an earlier version of Bach’s score that will be published some twenty years later. I know you probably would record it by then. I am going to do it now for my time. This is my gift to you. I hope you like it.

Ms. Bach

The Glenn Gould Foundation has declared year 2007-2008 as "The Year of Glenn Gould." There are events scheduled across the calendar and around the globe to commemorate the life and work of the great pianist, Mr. Glenn Gould. One 11-year old girl has embarked on a personal journey to commemorate this anniversary celebration in her own unique way. It is her mission to create a children’s version of the "32 Short Films about Glenn Gould." She has already completed the first 10 chapters and is ready to share her vision with the world of classical children.

Since her first recording of a Bach CD, her first encounter with Glenn Gould’s music, and her first obsession with Glenn Gould through the "32 Short Films about Glenn Gould," the young girl is enjoying a decade-long sojourn of learning and appreciating the music of Bach, as well as cultivating her love of Glenn Gould’s music. She carries a vivid vision of sharing her passion with all classical children of her generation through an adventurous and joyous journey. She would like you to join her.

Ms. Bach Aug, 31, 2007 ☺
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gould.

As a young Canadian who loves music and the arts, as the newly hired fundraising administrator at The Glenn Gould Foundation, I think it is time for me to come clean about something. As a history grad, as a Toronto resident, I, Liz Murray, have been faking it.

Here goes, with great regret, I admit that...
I have merely been pretending to know Mr. Gould.

How, you ask? I shamefully admit to using my old standby "the smile and nod" whenever his name has come up in the past. This was fine until I accepted the position at the Foundation. That is when my conscience started to rebel. Each time I announced the new job to my friends and acquaintances, I had to deal with the inner turmoil caused by pretending to know Mr. Gould. I would find myself yammering on about how he was a famous Canadian pianist. That statue outside of the CBC? Yeah, that is him. I hoped that people would be satisfied with my answers, that they would not think to ask any questions. Yet I found myself slightly comforted by the fact that I was not alone- the majority of my counterparts did not know Mr. Gould either. Comfort turned to regret; it is such a shame that after only 25 years, his legacy is fading away to another generation.

In my new position at The Glenn Gould Foundation, I find myself suddenly working very closely to this fascinating man. Our paths have finally crossed. Better late than never. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gould.

This is the story of Mr. Gould and me.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

“Of all the music that really interests me – not just some of it, all of it – is
Contrapuntal music”
- Ms. Bach :) Oct 21, 2008

Contrapunctus #9 from “Art of Fugue”, BWV 1080

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Glenn Gould helps me move the furniture

"...every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture."
(from "Piano Lessons" by Billy Collins)

So(h). I am 53 years old and taking piano lessons, not for the first time, but for the third time in my adult life. And it occurs to me, as I sit (too close to the piano), peering near-sightedly at the black notes dancing before my eyes (is that a D or a B?), did Glenn Gould ever say to his piano teacher, "Oh, but I played this fine at home"?

Why should Glenn Gould come to mind as I turn to page 8 of the Royal Conservatory of Music Celebration Series The Piano Odyssey? Ought he to figure in this at all? What has Glenn Gould got to do with Grade 7 piano?

Because more than once he has lifted one from dull ground and offered the sparkling spaces between notes and the temptation is too great: I want to be part of this too.

This is what I cling to as I sit on that bench, hoping against hope that Glenn will sit on my shoulder and help me avoid hitting the furniture.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Most Written-About Pianist. Ever.

Since I'm about to add to the already copious amount of writing on the subject of Glenn Gould, I think it's appropriate to take a look at what's out there, or—more to the point—exactly how much is out there; because my suspicion is that GG is probably the most written-about pianist. Ever.

So, for starters, let's test this hypothesis—the modern way: by searching Google. My completely unscientific method will be to take a totally arbitrary group of pianists, including Gould, run parallel Google searches on them and then see how they compare. At the end we'll see if there is a clear "winner." Or maybe not.

In addition to Glenn Gould, I'll be running searches on Old-World Romantic Vladimir Horowitz, Cold War-Horseman Van Cliburn, Contemporary Action Superstar Lang Lang, Ultra-Serious Maestro Maurizio Pollini, and–why not?–Liberace. It should be interesting.

The first contest is the basic Google "Web" search. This simply gives you results for every page on the web that contains a given search term. My prediction: a win for GG with Lang Lang coming in second. But I'm not going to venture a point-spread unless anyone wants to start a pool. And now the results:

1. Lang Lang: 3,840,000
2. Gould: 1,370,000
3. Liberace: 1,230,000
4. Pollini: 852,000
5. Horowitz: 378,000
6. Cliburn: 219,000

Okay, so I'm obviously not a bookie. On consideration it makes perfect sense though: Lang Lang is currently active with an ultra high-profile performing schedule, including the Beijing Olympics, and, even as I write this, has the full marketing force of the Universal Music Group putting his name everywhere, including on Adidas running shoes.

Still, GG's ranking is pretty strong for someone whose death predated the emergence of the Web by more than a decade. I suspect that if you filter out promotional sites, concert announcements, and duplicate current-events reports that Gould would come out on top here.

How about that Liberace, though! A surprisingly strong showing from Mr. Showmanship. Seriously.

The next test is YouTube clips. This metric doesn't really measure the amount of "writing about" anything, but I already said that this wasn't going to be a scientific inquiry. Here I'm calling for a landslide win for Lang Lang based on the fact that he is a YouTube-era superstar. I am predicting GG to come in second. I'll even venture a spread: LL over GG by a ratio of 7:1. Let's see:

1. Gould: 1,010
2: Liberace: 783
3. Lang Lang: 701
4: Horowitz: 664
5: Cliburn: 228
6: Pollini: 149

Maybe I should just stop with the predictions. Clearly Jimmy the Greek would have had nothing to worry about from me. GG was just all over that media! Once again though, check out that Liberace. Hotcha!

Now on to the Google News portion of the experiment. Of the three living pianists on our list, two are active and one is deep into retirement. The other three can't really do much to make news at this point. So I'm predicting another massive win for Lang Lang. But, hey, what do I know?

1. Lang Lang: 199
2. Liberace: 161
3. Gould: 128
4. Cliburn: 68
5: Horowitz: 28
6: Pollini: 26

Well, obviously I don't know much. What is going on here? How can the news spread be so narrow between one guy who currently ranks at the top of the international concert circuit versus two others who have not walked the earth for decades? I don't get it. By the way, the Van Cliburn news results are somewhat misleading, as many of the hits actually refer to the Van Cliburn Foundation, while several others are simply reprinted accounts of the triumphant 1966 recital that he gave from within a Gemini spacecraft flying over the Soviet Union.

Finally we move on to Google Books. Here's where we will get the best idea of the amount of actual writing about our six subjects. I'm predicting Gould to top the list here with Liberace coming in a close second.

1. Liberace: 1084
2. Gould: 1023
3. Horowitz: 847
4. Cliburn: 814
5. Pollini: 651
6. Lang Lang: 255*

Well I was kind of right. It was close but tilted in favor of The Glitter Man. Gould does lead, however, in the number of books about which he is the sole subject. I counted at least 25. The other pianists are only partly the subjects of, or merely mentioned in most of the books in which they appear.

So, in conclusion, uhh . . . I guess I haven't really demonstrated anything conclusively other than my blatant predictive ineptitude. But it's pretty clear that the subject of Glenn Gould has been extensively covered both in writing and in other media as well, which is really the point I wanted to establish. Of course, I knew that before doing all this Googling, and so did you probably, but it was fun doing this bit of unscientific research. The next time I do something like this I'll try to involve some lab
coats and fuming beakers. Then it will be scientific.

* The Google book results for Lang Lang are greatly overstated since "Lang" is a common name and, even after being qualified with the additional term "piano," the search still turns up results for Judith Lang, BJ Lang, Fritz Lang, the Reverend Innocenz Lang, etc.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Blog Policy

Welcome to the Contrapuntal Blog, the official blog of The Glenn Gould Foundation. This blog is a place for respectful dialogue with Glenn Gould Foundation team members and Glenn Gould fans.

We hope to create exciting, interesting and relevant discussion. The views and ideas conveyed in the posts are not necessarily similar to the views and ideas The Glenn Gould Foundation. We ask that you respect the following discussion guidelines. All comments will be moderated and any comments falling outside of the discussion guidelines below will be deleted.

Discussion Guidelines for The Contrapuntal Blog Readers
Offensive material to any member of the community is subject to deletion at the editor’s discretion. Anything containing profanity, sexually graphic, or offensive language, etc. will be deleted. We do not allow harassing, threatening, racist, abusive, hateful, violent, or obscene language or behavior. If you have complaints or questions regarding any of the content posted on this blog, please contact us.

Also note that:
1. Participation in, suggesting, or encouraging any illegal activity is cause for immediate deletion, and may be reported to the appropriate authorities.
2. Any articles, news reports, or other copyrighted material included in the posts must be with the permission of the relevant copyright owners.
3. Do not flood or spam, post chain letters, pyramid schemes, junk mail, or URLs for outside sites that violate any of these guidelines.
4. No commercial solicitation or advertising will be allowed
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