Sunday 29 March 2015

Review of Glenn Gould's 'Solitude Trilogy' of radio documentaries

I have recently re-listened to the three programmes of Glenn Gould's 'Solitude' trilogy. The are The Idea of North; The Late Comers and The Quiet in the Land.

All comprise adapted interviews in what purports to be a documentary style, but which in fact uses the interviews as raw material to create monologues, dialogues and simultaneous speaking passages which are modeled on various musical forms - for example, some multi-voice sections have fugue-like aspects.

My impression this time is that none of the programmes are really successful, although all are interesting and worthwhile; also none of them are about solitude - but almost the opposite: they are about living in small, closely-knit and (in some sense) isolated communities - in the Canadian far north, Newfoundland and as a Mennonite (a group of Anabaptists who began as akin to the Amish).

The Idea of North is technically the crudest - and has long documentary like passages which are quite mundane; but it has the best overall dramatic structure, with a somewhat climactic ending featuring a background of Sibelius.

The Late Comers is probably the most interesting, with the best set of 'characters' having some accessible and relevant debates and discussions. The 'basso continuo' of ocean surf sounds throughout, binds it all together. But the programme lacks dramatic shape and just fizzles-out at the end.

The Quiet in the Land has some of the best, most moving passages - featuring a background of church bells, choirs, a sermon and an effective refrain discussing  'in the world, but not of the world' - but has too much argumentativeness, and discussion about disagreements and the dissenters among Mennonites; and not enough about the classic conditions of isolated, self-sufficient, self-confident Mennonite life. And again the whole thing fizzles-out inconclusively.


What strikes me about the actual theme of these programmes is that:

1. Gould stated clearly that these three radio programmes were the nearest he ever attained (or aspired) to a personal statement of his innermost beliefs - that they were a symbolic spiritual autobiography of some kind. Yet...

2. The actual structure and content of the three programmes (including the choice of people interviewed and their sampled words) seems to indicate that Gould yearned for a technologically simple communal life, with common sense, down-to-earth people.

3. This starkly contradicts Gould's many other explicit pronouncements that he loved most solitude, the cocooning (distancing, safe) effects of technology,  and the in general highly individual and eccentric life of a recognized genius musician.

 4. In conclusion, the so-called 'Solitude' trilogy indicate that either Gould was a more conflicted and contradictory man than is usually acknowledged - that his world view does not 'hang together' at even the most basic level; or, less radically, that his deepest yearnings contradicted his public persona - and that what he most deeply wanted in his soul, he was prevented from having by the very different nature of his more superficial personality and intellect.


This last interpretation is plausible to me, since it is the human condition that we as mortals wake-up to 'find-ourselves' (that is, we become-aware-of our deepest, our primary selves) as-it-were dwelling inside not just a body but also a 'personality' - and the soul and 'personality' are not integrated.

(At least, they are not integrated during this mortal incarnate life on earth.)

Our souls peep-out through a personality and set of abilities and habits which are, to some extent, arbitrary and alien - and what this superficial self wants and what it does can be (and can become) very different indeed from what the innermost soul aspires to.

Perhaps that is the coded message that Gould left behind in these 'Solitude' programmes - that his genius required the eccentric life of high-tech isolation for which is is a famous advocate'; but that genius is not the deepest level of a man - inside the genius is a soul who usually sees things very differently and wants very different things.


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