Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Glenn Gould and the importance of ecstatic experience

Glenn Gould - the musician - has been a significant person in my life since I discovered his piano playing in the autumn of 1978; indeed, he became an important role model at various points - despite the vast dissimilarity in our temperaments and talents.


I bought my first Glenn Gould - the double LP set of Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, primarily because I wanted to explore Bach on piano, and secondarily because I was intrigued by the poor reviews he invariably got from the Penguin Stereo Record Guide (the nature of the criticisms made me feel that I would like what he did).

Extremely rapidly, I began to develop an interest in Gould the Man as well as the musician; or rather, something about the way he played, when supplemented by a few scraps of knowledge of his biography and opinions, was enough to convince me that here was a fellow spirit.

I first managed to glean an impression from the liner notes on the (relatively few) LPs I could buy in England, a couple of journalistic pieces; and then, on a family visit to Toronto, I bought a precious (and expensive copy) of the first biography: Geoffrey Payzant's Glenn Gould: Music and Mind.

This crystallised what it was that magnetically-attracted me to Gould: the importance of Ecstatic Experience.


In the best of Gould's performances (a lot of them) there is an intensity of absorption which is ecstatic, and which induces a similar ecstatic absorption in me. While a student I can recall listening to a short piece - a prelude for example - at lunchtime, and feeling a swirling ecstasy, at the 'top' of my mind as I walked and worked, which lasted for some hours afterwards - and which seemed to enhance my experience of life.

This fitted with an already existing idea about the aim for my life to be lived 'at concert pitch' - a phrase which doesn't literally mean what I meant by it, and which I got from a passing comment of Hendrick Willem van Loon. In 1978 I was spending more time in solitude than ever before, and I began to realise that - as Gould said  - Solitude is the pre-requisite of ecstatic experience; and which I made the central theme of my radio programme Solitude, Exile and Ecstasy -



My central problem was that Gould's basis for ecstasy was a genius level of creative musical performance - whereas I had no basis for any such creativity. Now, it provoked in me a (rather feeble but sustained) search for some such ability - a search variously looking at music and acting, but mostly exploring writing: poetry, prose, drama and essays and also simply writing journals.

But as an immature young man I was too easily convinced of other similarities between Gould and myself; and in particular the notion that Gould's life - as I very partially understood it at that time, which was a very idealised and abstracted version of the real thing. Gould, it is now known, spent a vast proportion of time interacting with other people - more than I do, in fact; including various romantic and sexual relationships with women.

Nonetheless ecstatic solitude, in the state of total absorption during playing and creative composition, was perhaps Gould's essential reality.


In particular, I tried to believe that a solitary life of technological interaction with 'the world' would be an ideal for me, if only I had the strength of will to embrace it - yet whenever I got anywhere near this state, I found myself extremely discouraged, lapsing into an idle and disaffected and despairing condition.

Gould never gave live performances, was an expert on recording methods, lived alone, seldom went out, and was almost constantly in the presence of mass media - TV or radio were switched-on most of the time (even during sleep), newspapers were devoured, telephone bills amounted to several average person's salaries per year.

Yet/and Gould was very productive of recordings, broadcasts, writings - he was an international figure, much discussed; and a considerable influence on ideas.

The modern world now has many people who live in what is broadly the kind of way pioneered and advocated by Glenn Gould - a world in which technology is primary and human communication is primarily mediated by technology.

But now it is here, it doesn't seem much like Gould's world - in particular ecstasy, in the sense Gould meant it, seems extremely rare.


The obvious reason is that the mass of modern people are not Glenn Gould! - and the fact is that a self-created environment in which Gould thrived, and which he found conducive to creative ecstasy; is when scaled-up and applied at a population level leads the mass of Men merely into passivity, into inattentive dissipation.

What Gould thought were general principles about the world and Men, turned-out to be at most distinctive to a like-minded minority; and were perhaps even unique to him.

Thus are geniuses often poor guides to life and living! What a genius wants - and indeed needs - may be poison to people in general.


Glenn Gould's 'Solitude Trilogy' of radio programmes are well worth detailed consideration. The Idea of North is the most famous - but the Latecomers and Quiet in the Land are both considerably better.

I intend to review them in more detail shortly; but it is worth noting that despite the name these programmes are not actually about solitude- they are about life in isolated communities (Canadian far north, Newfoundland, Mennonites) that are - to some extent- cut-off from the modern Zeitgeist.