Monday, August 24, 2009

Guest Blogger - DJ Young

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

DJ Young hails from the Pacific Northwest. She grew up on the island of Wrangell, Alaska, surrounded by Tlingets, drunken lumbermen and lots of water. When she wasn't climbing trees and stealing cigarettes she enjoyed listening to tales of mystical land otters, ravens and cholera epidemics. As young musician in college she came across Gould's '81 recordings of the Goldberg Variations and has lived in fascination ever since. She is currently at work revising her first (well third really) novel, To the End of Love.
This post can also be found at DJ's blog.

The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould, A Review
“As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn’t dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect; it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed, and pronounces the verdict and sentences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself.”
-Michel Foucault

Why does Glenn Gould matter, still? This is the question I asked myself as I approached a re-reading of Peter F. Ostwald’s 1996 biography The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould. When I first came across this book, back in 1998, I was initially impressed with the detail that Ostwald employed to flesh out Gould’s life and the circumstances for his famously eccentric behavior; I enjoyed it as a sort of companion piece to the film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould.

Released in 1995, 32 Short Films encapsulated Gould’s life into a series of snapshots, featuring interviews with friends, working acquaintances, colleagues and Gould’s surviving cousin, Jessie. Interestingly, Ostwald was not among those interviewed for the film, nor was he ever featured in the involving 1985 CBC documentary, Glenn Gould: A Portrait. In fact, Ostwald’s biography is the only reference I could find to his relationship with Gould (though there maybe others) and while it may mean little or nothing (one can hardly expect every Gould relationship to turn up in every documentary or biography written on the man), I do find it perhaps a little telling, especially in light of these opening lines in the introduction to Ostwald’s biography (provided by Ostwald’s wife, Lise):

“Forty years have passed since the first meeting between Peter and Glenn took place. Why was this an unforgettable event, permanently engraved in both their minds? Was it the intuitive knowledge that this was the beginning of a twenty-five year friendship – and occasional collaboration – leading to the tragic tale of Glenn Gould’s premature death at age fifty; which would be written by Peter Ostwald, a sixty-eight year old professor of medicine, a violinist, and a distinguished author, who fought an unrelenting battle with cancer for twelve years?”

There is an arrogance to this admission that is, to this reader shocking. Is Lise (through her husband) insinuating that his ‘friendship’ with Gould was such a distinctive and serious relationship and that Ostwald’s biography of Gould is somehow definitive? After all, there have been dozens of books written about Gould – before and after his death – why should this one stand out so completely?

The answer we are given here is that Ostwald’s friendship with Gould makes the piece that much more important and deserving of our special attention; yet, throughout the book, Ostwald gives us more reasons to question whether such a ‘friendship’ was as ‘unforgettable’ as Mrs. Ostwald would have us think and whether Ostwald’s insights into Gould are truly penetrating, but, perhaps more of a glimpse into the psyche of a doctor who built much of his own career writing about the mental illnesses of famous artists?

The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Glenn Gould opens with the first meeting of Gould at Ostwald, in 1957, thus setting up the potential for a memoir of sorts. Ostwald describes sneaking backstage, something he admits to being well versed in, to meet Gould after the concert. An amateur musician himself, did Ostwald carry any dreams of progressing, of some fame for himself? He mentions his friendships with other musicians at the time, including Martin Canin, a name he drops to get in Gould’s dressing room door. From there he describes a night that results in an impromptu chamber session at the apartment of a friend, and Gould’s first reaction to Ostwald the psychiatrist – a fact that, no doubt, would have been attractive to the pill-popping hypochondriac.

Does this mean their friendship began on something of a false note and progressed from there? We are not really allowed to know; Ostwald does not evolve his writing in memoir-fashion. Instead, he begins a gradual and highly detailed breakdown of Gould’s childhood and early adulthood, including the almost-Freudian take on his relationship with his mother, a woman who, after giving birth for the first (and only) time at 42, developed a controlling and protective attitude toward Glenn’s upbringing and musical training. It is to Florence Gould, an amateur pianist herself that the possibility of many of her son’s more florid manias, including his hypochondria and controlling, isolated tendencies evolved from. Yet Gould’s unquestionable musicality, exhibited before he was even three years of age, and, later, the obsessive-repetitive and increasingly narcissistic attitudes he developed may have led to a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, a question Ostwald does not shy away from, but never explores fully.

It is through Gould’s often unconventional ideas about performance, sometimes ignoring a composer’s dynamics or tempo markings, that caused confusion and consternation from critics and even from Ostwald, who, without qualification for his objection, states plainly on several occasions that he felt Gould was ‘wrong’ in his own judgments. To some degree he openly denigrates Gould’s choices:

“…he said he ‘hated’ late works by Mozart such as the Symphony in G Minor, K. 550. (Had Glenn ever listened to the late viola quintets? How could anyone ‘hate’ such sublime music?)” pg. 249.

It is at these moments (and there are several in the book) that Ostwald the Polemicist comes to the fore: in spite of Gould’s legendary intellect and immersion into music, his deep and well-developed sense of composition, form and structure (and the artistry involved), Ostwald, perhaps out of some unsatisfied argument with Gould himself, attempts to undermine and negate Gould’s well-considered opinions.

“As a concert pianist, he came to detest what he perceived (wrongly, I believe) as a struggle to the death between the performer and the audience. And as a media artist, he expected (wrongly again) that advances in technology would reduce human competitiveness.” Pg. 265

What are we without our opinions? Gould’s were an extension of his highly evolved inner life and his own experiences as a performer. Who are we (or Ostwald) to say that he is ‘wrong’ in his thinking? For Gould, stage performance was a nightmare both personally and morally and, for him, this was nothing more than truth. A personal truth, perhaps, but to question those truths about a person derides a closer insight. Though Ostwald makes every case for the reasons why Gould gave up the concert stage, he still doesn’t seem to appreciate the real optimism that was behind it. Like so many critics before him, the emphasis on Gould retiring from the concert stage as some sort of personal failing is grossly misrepresented and exaggerated. Gould most likely did not give as much thought to leaving the stage as those who have questioned his decision to do so have. For Gould, ending his concert career was a flight of freedom. How do you question that?

Glenn Gould was an artist full of contradictions, but do those contradictions invalidate his ideas?

“What Glenn never seemed able consciously to perceive or acknowledge was his own extreme competitiveness in having to play faster and more brilliantly than any other pianist…in his highly successful gambling on the stock market, and in his sheer joy at coming out the winner in conversation and games of wit. In fact, one might consider his having won, posthumously, the biggest competition of them all, that of survival in public memory.” Pg. 266

What is Ostwald saying here? There is almost a tenor of resentment – as if being a success, for Gould, was something that shouldn’t have happened, that such an arrogant, narcissistic figure who (to Ostwald’s description) played a ‘part’ to the public – that all his moral posturing was really Gould hiding behind his own insecurities and that, perhaps Gould wasn’t the artist he wanted everyone to think he was?

Ostwald describes himself as Gould’s ‘friend,’ a perhaps overly generous title; other than their first and last meetings, he describes almost no real interplay between them, yet, obviously, conversations occurred that, one senses, Ostwald did not always care for or ‘win’ himself. He must have had very few actual meetings with Glenn for, by the time of their last visit, in 1977, he had not seen Glenn in ten years. This final event is marked by a not-so-subtle bitterness:

“I must have said something uncomplimentary about the recording [Glenn’s latest on Bach], for Joe Stephens remembers Glenn “bristling” at my remarks. Glenn in turn said something that annoyed me very much.”

Ostwald never tells us what Glenn said that ‘annoyed’ him. At the end of their meeting Glenn challenges Ostwald to write a book about a ‘really important musician’ (instead of the Schumann biography he was working on).

“Was he thinking of himself?”

Did the germ of this biography begin that night, at their last meeting? Did Ostwald decide to embark on this biography toward the end of his own life in order to ‘have the last word’ as it were? In his writing Ostwald gives much detail: doctors Gould consulted, pills he took, concerts he gave, his own thoughts and opinions on composers and performers and, most movingly, the very last days of Gould’s life. Yet Ostwald’s commentary on Gould grows like a composition that starts out with a strong, clear theme only to result in clangs and clamor of dissonance and disillusion. He does not explain all the years that he and Gould did not communicate; he does not even explain how he comes to his own conclusions to deride Gould’s many complex musical and philosophical ideas, yet the sense that he himself bristled at Gould’s self-involvement, his ‘arrogance’ is a variation he never quite lets go of.

In the end, Ostwald’ biography is still a fascinating collection of ideas; its weaknesses I think stem from Ostwald (in a Gouldian fashion) relying more on his own opinions about Gould than real conversations with those who were closer to him and worked with him for many years. I also find it strange that Ostwald invokes a word that is often used to describe Gould: ecstasy. Perhaps due to the complexities of trying to sort through the many layers of Gould’s thought processes and his wide-ranging imagination, Ostwald never really touches on this aspect of Gould’s character: the great joy he experienced as a musician, as a man who devoted himself so completely to exploring every nuance of that which he loved, that which compelled him and held him in thrall his entire life. Ostwald the psychiatrist misses this point completely.

I hearken back to my first viewing of 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and a section of the film entitled ‘Crossed Paths:’ brief vignettes with those who knew Glenn, perhaps only briefly, giving commentary about their experiences with him. The memories range from the humorous to the dour, with one woman expressing what seems like resentment that Gould did not understand the needs of others, that sometimes it wasn’t just all about him.

Though he gives us no reason to imagine his own relationship with Gould was anything more than a ‘crossed path,’ Ostwald, in a way, attempts to interject himself into Gould’s life as something more significant and telling than it was and I cannot help but think of this as a sort of personal letter to Gould himself: part of it inscribed with the honor and wonder of that initial meeting, that initial acquaintanceship, to voicing his own complaints, ones he never dared voice to Gould personally, and, finally closing on an old heartbreak. Did he ever wish he had intervened further, for Glenn’s health? There is surprisingly little judgment toward those other physicians who may have also done more to help prevent what was, in fact, inevitable.

Ostwald himself passed away from cancer before this biography was ever published; I wonder, following Gould’s death and all the subsequent biographies and documentaries about him that aired if Ostwald felt the challenge of telling another side of the story, if that was his purpose in pursuing this work. If so, he did little to steer us away from the ‘conventional’ understanding of Gould as an eccentric, self-involved genius, but, instead, chose to focus on the effect his behavior had on those he worked with and how, often, that behavior was simply too difficult to endure for long.

There is no question that Gould’s character required sacrifices (usually on the part of others) in order to maintain any sort of connection; in his reach for perfection, he may have struck a few sour notes with others, but one cannot fault him for trying, for doing the very best of what he could do as only he knew how to do it. He was a man who lived by his own rules, his own order and while many of his idiosyncrasies fall in line with an Asperger’s patient, he was always concerned with communication and devoted himself to explore the limits of communication, ironically, to the exclusion of those who were closest to him. For any reason, this alone explains why Gould matters, still. He set a standard that no one who has come after has ever reached.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Guest Blogger - Allison Schwartz

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

Allison Schwartz is an architect.

Gustavo Dudamel plays in LA VEGA

Edit (Aug. 28, 2009): Three amazing videos of the event

On Sunday August 2nd, I visited the barrio La Vega to see a free musical performance of Caracas´s Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela or El Sistma led by the superstar Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.

Dudamel comes out of the El Sistema program here in Caracas, but he has now reached international attention due to his talent and energetic style. Ordinarily obtaining Dudamel tickets requires arriving at the theater at 5 AM and waiting in line all day, but for this performance, the concert was on the streets- free for anyone who showed up, without seat assignments, and without any semblance of exclusivity.

La Vega is an enormous barrio (slum) in Caracas and is known to be very dangerous- one of the many neighborhoods that gives Caracas its bad reputation. While I have seen many from the outside, it was also my first time inside a barrio, creating a heightened awareness throughout the visit that I was slightly in danger just by being within La Vega.

It was impossible to know what to expect from the performance because an orchestra playing in the middle of a slum is as rare as it sounds.
The concert was in a small piazza almost entirely filled with the stand for the musicians. Several hundred people were watching the concert from the joining street and crammed into overlooking houses. Surrounding the stage from 360 degrees, people of all ages were watching the performance from every balcony, staircase, and ledge. This type of outdoor concert would have been impressive anywhere, but the unlikely setting in the center of a barrio made it magical.

There was energy in the air from the start of the performance. The audience chanted “Gustavo” in anticipation of the conductor’s entrance, and this excitement transformed into dancing, singing, and cheering that was present throughout the entire event. Following the lead of Dudamel’s enthusiastic attitude, the musicians were also in high spirits- even occasionally standing up and dancing with their instruments. The Orquestas Juveniles e Infantile played a mixture of classical music, the Mambo, the Himno Nacional and other Venezuelan classics, that maintained an engaging and high-energy performance.

For the afternoon, everyone was there to enjoy the music and the unique experience- the music reached beyond social classes, engaging the audience and demonstrating the power of music to bring people together. It was difficult to imagine that this street corner could have been ever been used for any other purpose than a venue for El Sistema.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest Blogger - Bren Finan

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

Brendan Finan is an Irish composer, piano teacher and technology obsessive. He keeps a blog at, a Twitter page (@TheMadderHat) and runs a (usually) weekly podcast called Classical Introductions, which uses free and public domain recordings on the internet as a springboard for introductions to the world of classical music. He sometimes wonders what Glenn Gould would have thought of this new world of technology that has emerged since his death, and thinks Gould would probably have been a great Twitter user.

This post can also be found at his blog.

I’ve never understood puritanism.
I have often seen Glenn Gould described as a puritan, and justifiably so. Certainly in his approach to life, and in his taste in music, Gould was extremely conservative, but when it came to the way that he played, I think it’s fair to say that he was the greatest rebel in the twentieth century performing tradition. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was playing music he loved or music he hated; his approach was invariably to tackle it in a way that would remain completely unique. To become almost a second composer.

When Gould played, you always heard something completely new. It didn’t matter if you’d heard the piece a thousand times before, his approach was always unique and interesting. In his hands, listening to the Prelude in c minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is like receiving two hundred tiny electric shocks. The Goldberg Variations either skate by at an impossible pace or allow you time to contemplate every note. The Brahms rhapsodies feel like they have been deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground.

But, of course, this is all well-known. And you would think that three or four records in, critics would be ready for the fact that Gould played music his way. So reading criticisms of him making music sound like it was his has always made me raise my eyebrows. The staunch complaints about, for example, his organ recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue (which is on my list of favourite Gould CDs) condemned his use of the organ as ‘creaking’ and ‘groaning’, and generally seemed to moan that he wasn’t using it properly. Well, what exactly did they expect? He had been using the piano in a completely unique way for years - why on earth should he submit a conventional organ recording?

When we listen to Gould, we are not really listening to the composer: we are listening to Gould playing that composer’s music, and I really don’t see what’s wrong with that. He did point out on several occasions that there were more than enough faithful recordings of all the established works and nearly everything else that’s been written, and that that frees up (indeed, if memory serves, he felt it obligates) performers to take what liberties they need to make the music new. If this was true in his time, it is doubly so now.

Though his approach was very different from anyone else’s, there were some general consistencies: if he didn’t like a piece, he would often rush through it at an exceptionally high speed as if he couldn’t wait to get to the end, and vice versa in his later years; his touch was always light and very carefully articulated; he used the pedals exceptionally sparingly, and didn’t seem to spare a thought for the long legato phrases lauded by most musicians. But even with these approaches in mind a new Gould purchase is always surprising. Even having an idea of his tastes and styles did not make him predictable, because he always saw things differently.

And really that’s what made him so valuable, isn’t it? He had a different definition of beauty from the rest of us - he loved cloudy skies and gloomy weather, but disliked bright colours; he preferred solitude over company; he was roundly dismissive of many of the established masterpieces of music. But when he saw a piece as beautiful, he could make us see the beauty in it too. Listening to Gould play a piece you’re familiar with is like discovering entirely new music.

Though there is of course something to be said for the ability to listen to many performers’ interpretations of pieces and the nuanced differences between them, there are very few performers alive now willing to give us that break with tradition and that assertion of personality which Gould provided. His insistence on doing things his way has ensured that we have an artist and performer of the twentieth century in possession of unparallelled individualism. It is unfortunate that few others in the classical world have taken up his mantle as ‘extreme’ interpreters, but this is a side-effect of the way we are taught music: that the composer always has to come first.

Rubinstein played Chopin. Kempf played Beethoven. But Gould always played Gould, and for that we are thankful.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Guest Blogger - Adam Lazzarato

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

Adam Lazzarato (@adamlazzarato) is a 19-year-old Intern at The Glenn Gould Foundation. He is responsible for overseeing the Contrapuntal Blog and tweeting for the Glenn Gould Foundation at @GlennGouldFndn. His musical tastes consist of mainly North American indie rock, but over his time at the Glenn Gould Foundation, he has learned to love and respect Glenn Gould’s piano. He will be entering into his second year at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario in September to study Computer Science.

Why Am I Excited for the Celebration of Music Week?
For the uninitiated, the Celebration of Music Week to celebrate the Glenn Gould Prize’s Eighth Laureate, José Antonio Abreu’s lifetime contributions to humanity through music and communications.

Dr. Abreu created El Sistema, a visionary system in Venezuela that gives children (over 1 million in the system’s 34 year history) 6 days of music education a week to inspire hope and unlock creativity in children that may otherwise be involved with drugs, violence, gangs, among other unspeakables.

From this system has spawned some of the best orchestras in the world, most notably the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. This orchestra has been classified as one of the top 5 orchestras in the world and compared to the marvelous Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor of the orchestra is the hottest thing to hit classical music in a considerable amount of time: Gustavo Dudamel.

Gustavo Dudamel performs with the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra during a free concert at the low-income neighborhood of La Vega in Caracas August 2, 2009.

So, why am I excited?

The Celebration of Music Week promises to be the musical event of the year. (Full schedule of events) On October 26, 2009, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel will play a Gala concert at the Four Seasons Centre. I have not been interested in classical music for too long, but I know that this event will be as exciting and incredible as a rock concert. Anyone that has seen Gustavo conduct will tell you the same thing.

Gustavo Dudamel is a rock star.

Knowing that the members of the 250-seat orchestra came from extreme poverty in Venezuela will speak volumes as to the power of music and the influence on human lives that music carries.

But that isn’t all. There will be high school tours, a day of symposium, and a massive concert for over 13,000 children at the Air Canada Centre and much more.

When all is said and done, I hope we can look back on the Celebration of Music Week and be awe-struck. There is something in this story we can take note of in Canada. There is something to be done about music and arts education.
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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Guest Blogger - Jean-Marie MELE

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

Jean-Marie MELE ( is a thirty-something consultant in Information Technology Security living a quiet life in France. He was introduced very early to music and although he did not took the path of becoming a musician; it still accompanies him in his everyday life. Also he is not very good at writing biographies.

Badineries on music, Bach and Glenn Gould,
Amongst all the compositors, Bach is my favorite. As a child and as far as I can remember I always had classical music records for my birthdays. One I remember especially had a hard purple and green sleeve, almost a box. It was a record of Bach’s Toccata and Fugues. At that time I did not understand how someone could compose such thing and it fascinated me.

As I first discovered Bach through his theurgical music, it is only later in life I discovered his "piano" works and of course, the Goldberg Variations; with them Glenn Gould entered into my world — and he has been a permanent guess since then.

I remember the first time I heard his 1955 recording: The music was clear and each particular note could be heard although the partition was played at an impressive pace that was out of this world. Glenn Gould’s style — which Tatiana Zelikman in the "Russian journey" documentary qualified as “an inhuman evenness" — is without discussion unique by its “symmetric” precision and beauty.

The 1955 version is by far my favorite although I do prefer his later interpretation (1981) when I do need to concentrate on a particular task or be at peace. I like to consider the 1955 record as being the closest to how the old master intended them to be played. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer said that the Count Keyserlingk asked Bach to write “pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soothing and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights” and I humbly think that's exactly how Glenn Gould interpreted them.

His style didn’t get him only admirers though. John Beckwith, a critic once said that Gould’s style remembered him of “a trained seal who beeps out God Save the Queen on a set of car horns”. His interpretations of Mozart’s Sonatas are very interesting as it is almost a rewrite of the partitions. The best example can be found, in my humble opinion, in his interpretation of Mozart’s Sonata for piano K331. Of course there is his famous interpretation of Brahms that feels "very baroque" although Leonard Bernstein would disagree with me if I were to find it "enjoyable".

And there is the humming. I was told that Glenn Gould tried to fight his urge of humming while playing but couldn’t help it. Although the engineers did their best to suppress it, I’m grateful they didn’t succeed. It does remarkably accompany some of his “cantabile” interpretations. More important than anything else, it does make me feel sometime, as I close my eyes and let the music flow, as if Glenn Gould is playing in front of me; and then the time stops.
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