Kamila Dameron is a 20 year old student in Seattle majoring in English and Journalism. She is a closet pianist, and has studied on and off for nearly 15 years. Contact Kamila: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thomas Mann once wrote something to the effect of “The piano is not an instrument on which to learn a skill, but rather music.” In our highly competitive, commercialized society, music, like most things, is being used as a means to an end. Conservatories and private teachers pump out Wunderkinder by the thousands, competitions establish who is surely going to end up with a record deal with Sony Classical, and eighteen-year-old violinists tour the world with their Kreislers and Mendelssohns and Dvořáks. Is this how we want to treat music? As a self-affirming tool, a spotlight for our egos? Granted, numerous gifted artists are discovered this way, too. However, the atmosphere is eerie; it is one of competition, one wherein the Self is more highly regarded than the art which one is propelling. Glenn Gould, in theory, would agree.
“The purpose of art is not the momentary ejection of adrenaline, but rather the lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity” (Gould). With wonder there comes a sense of smallness, a sense of being a part of something bigger; the Self is no longer the Universe, but a humble servant of its symmetries. I often find myself turning off the radio in a fit of frustration, for it seems all I hear these days are bloated performances of Chopin etudes and ballades, Take-No-Prisoners-Beethoven string quartets and German symphonies for whose interpretations the conductor had a few too many “Original Ideas.” As an antidote, I’d put on a recording of Glenn Gould, who, irrespective of his humming, had the rare gift of making himself invisible. Leonard Bernstein once said, “I'm not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer.” Are we so desperate to be remembered, in a country whose arts have been ravaged by war and commercialism, that we are willing to shove Beethoven aside and say, “Look at me, look at me”? Has it gotten to the point where any sixteen-year-old pianist who can play Prokofiev without missing a note is a virtuoso artist—even though, in most cases but not all, the student hasn’t the emotional capital to understand what he is playing?
I propose we all skip a few piano lessons and listen to Glenn Gould. He said once that you could learn technique in five minutes. It’s the giving one’s self up to the music, as a servant and not a star, that makes it genuine. Music should teach us that the universe is impossibly infinite, not that we are the masters of it. As a young pianist, I used to get violently nervous about performing and piano lessons, because the music was directly attached to my ego and self-esteem. But with time and isolation from the mainstream world of music education, I was lucky enough to put myself away and pay attention to what the music wanted to say, as opposed to what I wanted to say. One might argue that Glenn Gould, in his seemingly eccentric interpretations (tempi, etc) was being selfish; but I see him as a man exploring all the possible angles of a work, simply because it is an injustice not to explore them. A fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier is a capital example. In his “official” recording of the WTC, the fugue no. 9 in E Major from book two (BWV 878) is a triumphant exclamation, whereas in a stray recording of the same fugue (year unknown to me), it is “reserved,” placid, filled with reflection and wisdom. This polarity is Bachian, for it seems in his music there lie the equations for divinity, no matter the tempo. Gould took full advantage of this, providing us with a multidimensional Bach. Though it may have been Gouldian to explore extremes, I would argue that it was his desire to portray as many true versions of music as possible, for music’s sake and not his own.
I don’t expect that many will share my form of pessimism about the modern music scene, and maybe they shouldn’t, for maybe it is not productive—but I long for the days when music was about music, and where people like Glenn Gould dedicated their lives to doing right by it.