Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One Cole

Glenn Gould called himself “the last Puritan”—a claim consistent with his seemingly Gnostic attitude toward the physical world. He took no pleasure in eating, could not tolerate alcohol, avoided physical contact with other people, had minimal regard for his personal appearance, lived in a Spartan apartment outfitted with dull, functional furniture, and had an almost allergic aversion to color. When Gould was a child, his mother took him to see Disney’s Fantasia. The film’s celebrated abundance of bright color made him feel ill, and he had to go home and lie down. In fact Gould’s favorite color was one that most of us consider depressing: battleship grey.

In Toronto the color grey is, shall we say . . . prevalent. Of course this is one of the many reasons that Gould liked Toronto. Personally, I enjoy grey as much as the next guy but, by the time it gets to be February, I’m starting to get just a little tired of it. And so I was surprised this afternoon to be impressed by a new building so perfectly grey that, right on the spot, I was moved to imagine an award for which it could be nominate
d: The Glenn Gould Memorial Award for Outstanding Civic Achievement in Greyness (GGMAFOCAG).

One Cole
, currently under construction, is the first building in Phase One of the renewal project for Regent Park, Toronto’s oldest social housing community. Back in the 1940’s civic planners thought that the best way to design social housing was to create a kind of isolated park in the midst of the city. Reality, however, did not play out according to their theories; while the “isolation” part of the concept came through pretty strongly, the “park” aspect did not. Better integration with the city was needed. Furthermore, the individual buildings of Regent Park had deteriorated to the point where replacing them was more practical than trying to renovate them.

And so Regent Park will soon have new buildings that will be much better designed, much better built and, if One Cole is a reliable leading indicator, much more grey.

Now, given the bad reputation that grey has acquired over time, I hasten to make it clear that I consider the greyness of One Cole to be a positive thing. The building’s worthiness of the GGMAFOCAG is not on account its exc
essive quantity of greyness, but rather on the outstanding quality of its greyness.

Many of Toronto’s buildings date from the 1970’s and are grey merely because the budget was tight, and pre-cast concrete is relatively inexpensive.

One Cole is not like that, however. Since it’s clad in brick it could be any color in which brick is available (which, admittedly is not the most exciting range of colors, but anyway.) The grey brick of One Cole was chosen specifically for its aesthetic properties and it shows. One Cole takes the idea of grey and runs with it. Feel the excitement.

I took the pictures here with my phone, so they’re not the best quality and they don’t really do justice to the building. But I hope you get the idea. This is just the first building of many in a large project. When the new Regent Park is finished, the whole area from Dundas to Gerrard and from Parliament to River will be covered in battleship-grey buildings like One Cole. If Glenn Gould were around today he might even be eager to move in.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

So You Want to Play Bach's Prelude No. 3

My latest trial by fumbling is Bach's Prelude No. 3. It is beautiful and tricky and this edition includes an awkward page turn after 12 bars. Like many adults attempting to master piano, I have a sense of how I wish to render the piece (though it often sounds like RENDING), if only the synapses would fire properly. I want the poco dims and the poco crescs to come out subtly, sensitively, exquisitely too, please.
And because Bach is nearly synonymous with Glenn Gould, I have been trying to decide whether I ought to listen to his recording of this Prelude. Though I have no doubt that my Prelude and his would hardly be recognizable as the same work, there is a strange sort of alliance going on. I would like to know what he has done with these clever unexpected accidentals, the balance of the left hand reaching for that low D, the resolve of the poco rit. What does one learn from another's interpretation of a piece? Why do some musicians avoid listening to someone else's version while others study it intently? What does Glenn, not even remotely in the same musical sphere as I, have to offer me? And will it be useful to me as my fingers are wont to play Broken Telephone with my head, producing what I did not have in mind at all?
Listening to Gould has its dangers. One begins to believe his is the definitive version. But does not everyone have his Idea of What It is Supposed to Be? When I consider the two versions of the Goldberg Variations recorded 26 years apart, I am reassured. Glenn believed in exploring. And changing his mind.
The possibilities are endless. Even my ham-fisted version.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Man of the Future?

Throughout his professional life Glenn Gould was in touch with the latest developments in technology. It wasn't simply a matter of keeping "up to date" with it but more of being inspired by it. New innovations in recording and broadcast technologies stimulated Gould's creative mind to imagine new artistic possibilities in much the same way as they did for contemporary rock musicians such as The Beatles.

The hackneyed phrase "ahead of his time" never really makes any sense. But it could be said to apply to Gould at least insofar as he had certain ideas which became technically possible only decades after his death. For example, Gould was enthusiastic about the possibility of enabling listeners to become creative partners in the recorded music experience. He recognized the potential for this simply from the fact that listeners at the time could control some very basic sonic parameters, such as frequency equalization, on their stereo systems. But this amount of control is relatively trivial. Gould wanted to go further and he imagined giving listeners kits composed of the individual parts of a piece of music which they could then re-assemble to their preference. At that time it was practically unfeasible to do this. Today however, it's easy. Simply post individual audio tracks for download on the web and then let people reassemble them in GarageBand, ProTools, or the audio application of their choice. And in fact this is now common practice.

Consider the technology available to GG. Look, for example, at the chart at the top of this page. It's a score from Gould's radio documentary The Latecomers. It is drawn on a piece of paper. With a felt-tip marker. Forget ProTools. We're going to go cut up some tape now. Let's refer to the graph.

What's more interesting, however, is that Gould's idea was ahead of its time not just technically but also socially. Even if it were possible in the 1960s and 70s to distribute the kind of musical self-assembly kits Gould envisioned, it is hard to imagine that anyone would have wanted them. This too has something to do with technology. Not the technology of recording but rather that of social networking.

As Lawrence Lessig points out in this lecture, for most of the 20th century we lived in a "read-only" society. That is to say, a culture wherein a small group of people is professionaly responsible for producing cultural goods (i.e. they do the "writing"), which are then broadcast out to a wide audience of "consumers" (who do the "reading.") In such a culture, one's role as a producer or a consumer is clearly defined. This cultural condition was largely a result of the kind of mass media that—ironically—made Gould's carreer possible. Broadcast radio & television, mass-market publishing, and record manufacturing/distribution all have a "one-to-many" profile, like someone with a megaphone addressing a large crowd of people. Again, one person does the talking. Everyone else does the listening.

Sometime around the turn of the milennium, however, that paradigm collapsed as the internet allowed everyone to become a producer and consumer in equal measure—to the point where those terms may soon become culturally meaningless. The internet is the world's first "many-to-many" communication platform. In the space of only a few years our culture has transformed from a monologue into a conversation.

And this is just the social transformation that had to take place for Gould's idea to work. What Gould was really proposing way back in the 70's was open source music. I think Gould probably assumed that most people have a natural creative impulse strong enough to create a demand for open source products. The degree to which people now post, remix, and share their own creative work online suggests that this assumption was correct. But the prevailing 20th century "read-only" culture made this hard to see at the time. In fact, not only did few people have the imagination to conceive of such a culture in the 1970s but, even today, those who have a professional stake in traditional media are seemingly blind to its emergence, even as it springs up all around them.

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