Tuesday 24 May 2011

Glenn Gould - art and life, and life as art


I recently watched the documentary movie The Inner Life of Glenn Gould; which is perhaps the best thing of its kind I have seen.

There is no doubt that Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-82) has has a much larger influence on me than any other musician.

I first began to listen to his work in 1978 (the 48 preludes and fugues); because I wanted to get some Bach played on piano, and because I was intrigued by the uniformly hostile reviews of Gould in the Penguin Stereo Record Guide (two out of five possible stars, as I recall) and the Gramophone magazine.

I sensed that the dislike of the British music establishment critics (whose judgment I generally disagreed-with) might be an indication of his special qualities. I was, of course, correct.


In those days it was difficult for me to get hold of Gould's recordings. In the UK I needed to order some as imports, I bought some on a visit to Boston USA, and some more in Paris. I bought the first biography of Gould (by Geoffrey Payzant) in Toronto itself - his home town.


Listening to Gould's Bach (over and over again) became an almost essential part of my psychological harmony - I recall an especially bleak night 'on call' as a hospital doctor, being sustained by it. Then shortly afterwards he died.

Gradually, over the years, his fame grew.

My 1987-written venture into radio drama had Gould as a character and providing the music -



What I particularly valued about Gould was not only the playing but the whole package - the intensity and concentration with which he seemed to tackle everything.

And part of this was that he seemed to have his life the way he wanted it: a life that had fame - but at a distance; and a high degree of control and autonomy. He portrayed his life as one of solitude in the city.

This was, indeed, an ideal for me: something about which I daydreamed.

To find a comfortable but stimulating niche.


Gould described his life as Thoreauvian - and so it was; but not in the way that I understood the term at that time.


It now turns out, from recent biographical work, that although Gould was indeed highly eccentric and unusual as a person - the life of solitude and autonomy which he described and which I believed and regarded as an ideal - was pretty much a work of art. Not a description of the reality of his life.


Gould had a one-sided but compulsive need for society - or at least for listeners (whether by telephone or in person) - he needed this for many hours per day. Indeed it must have interefred with his work.

He had a marriage like relationship (with step children) for several year in his forties.

And he did not really seem to be happy with things - seems to have been pretty deeply lonely and frustrated with himself.


In this respect he was similar to Thoreau - whose life was not one of solitary autonomy (living in a hut by a pond, away from people) as portrayed in Walden; but instead one of sociality albeit semi-detached - mostly living at home or with Emerson's family.


I have found this disillusionment again and again as I read biographies of people whose lives I admire and at times wished to emulate.

The idea of life as an art form - Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said he put his genius into his life but only his talent into his art - seems to me essentially false.

Deceptive. A con.


Those who claim (usually implicitly) that their life is a work of art - something aesthetic, controlled, autonomous - are invariably being untruthful.

(There may indeed be some people who do achieve this ideal - but if so, we hear nothing about it. They are not famous. These people - if indeed they exist - are not in the public eye: are not major artists, poets, writers, musicians).


But the desire to make one's life something akin to a work of creative art - although alluring - is an error in itself: an error born of despair, it now seems to me.

An error deriving from the unsatisfactoriness of 'the world'; and attempting to combat meaninglessness, purposelessness and alienation by self-created meaning.


Yet if meaning depends on the self - that is, if the project succeeds - then it fails: because self-created meaning is not meaning but merely a delusion: a dominating autonomous personal belief immune to influence.

Even if others are drawn into the delusion and support it (as sometimes happens with artist-guru types, - Like Jung, or Robert Graves) then there is the background awareness that all this is contingent upon a perpetual act of will.

The extreme act of will required is itself probably evil - probably an extreme form of pride, an expression of power desiring to shape the world to one's own desires.


Anyway, Gould remains a beacon to me; nowadays for rather different reasons than he used to be a beacon - yet still I value above all else his combination of supreme technique, analytic musicality, ability, inspiration and intensity.

Gouldian levels of intensity are almost an escape from self-consciousness, indeed from consciousness itself; a complete absorption in the 'flow' of working and shaping.

So they are not really an answer, more of an escape; the ability to attain this absorption probably declines with age; and the 're-entry problem' must be exceptionally difficult - to come-down from the heights to the mundane; to fee concentration opening-out into diffuse dissipation.


But a continually fascinating personality.

And, maybe surprisingly, one who was very much and very widely loved - despite his autonomy, demandingness, self-obsessive qualities.

Much loved, and - even now - much missed.



dearieme said...

This mob were my introduction to Bach. Even after 50 years (God!) I think it stands up reasonably well.

Bruce Charlton said...

Ah yes! - The Swingles. I have this on vinyl.

Gould was also a fan, did you know?; and even more so of Walter/ Wendy Carlos's Bach.

Wurmbrand said...

Just offhand, I would say that Gould in some way experienced a meaninggul life through his vocation. The doctrine of vocation is a key Christian teaching. Really we have numerous vocations. For example, I am father, husband, son, neighbor, citizen, teacher, parishioner, friend, writer, property-owner and gardener, etc. Each of these has duties and blessings associated with it.

Alex said...

Glenn Gould admired the musicianship of Sviatoslav Richter - who also had an eccentric and sometimes unapproachable personality.

Many of Richter's recordings are from live performances in ill-equipped concert halls, and so the audio quality is poor. He hated the clinical ambience of a studio.

I don't have any of Gould's music on CD. I have a few recordings of Richter. The one I listen to most frequently is the music for cello and piano by Beethoven, which was made in 1963 and is very beautiful.

There seems to be something in the popular theory that the creative talent and dedication required to become a great musician are associated with a curious or even bizarre type of personality. A number of examples could be offered. The capricious behaviour of the diva is legendary.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - most geniuses are pretty difficult characters.

But I would say that divas are different for another reason - which is that they are divas mainly because of the natural voal talents - and these can be possessed by people of widely different personalities and intelligence - so that sometimes divas are highly neurotic, selfish etc - and sometimes they have very limited formal musical ability. Sometimes they are the kind of people easily corrupted by fame, admiration and wealth. Many types.

Of course this applies to male singers too, but they are not usually so much admired. But Pavarotti - although possessed of both a sublime voice and superb musicality - had virtually no formal musical ability, or at least only at a low level. As I recall he needed to be taught the operatic roles by ear, one-on-one. And it was worth it.

Tony Durke said...

Love Glenn Gould. I love your article. I can tell it was written by a true fan of the man and the music. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

For how to live, after the rigours of child-raising, I find myself drawn to the middlebrow splendour of Wodehouse's existence. Write in the morning; golf in the afternoon; eat and drink in the evening. Repeat.

It helps never to be short of boodle and to have a personable wife who is decent company.

Gilbert Pinfold.

Brett Stevens said...

One reason to like religion is that it gets us away from focus on the individual.

The "life as art" hypothesis seems to me another form of ego-drama, or focus on the individual and not the task.

What made Gould great was his work, not the person himself, forgotten -- as far as his real essence as a person -- within a few decades of his death.

Our cities are full of hipsters who are living life as "art." Austin, particularly, is loaded with people who think their conversations in coffee shops are art.

It's the opposite of contemplation, reverence and inner joy -- outer drama and sensual pleasure.