Thursday, 7 March 2019

Ecstatic experience of music: Re-reading Wondrous Strange: the life and art of Glenn Gould, by Kevan Bazzana

I'm about 100 pages into this re-read, and it so far confirms my original impression that this is the best of the biographies of, and books about, Glenn Gould that I've seen (although several of them are very good).

For me, there is no doubt that Gould is something more than one of the great pianists: Bazzana states that after Gould's first professional recital aged fifteen, his father got a letter from a stranger reporting that her young adult son had been present; and said that although the son had never previously believed in 'a hereafter and a life eternal' - having heard Gould play, the son reported: "Now I know".

Bazzana puts it well:  

For all the uncritical idolatry in Gould's reception, those who profess to hear 'something' in his playing are not crazy; often, in fact, they are hearing precisely what Gould intended to communicate. He considered his performances to be not just readings of pieces of music but documents of his world view... He thought that artists had a 'moral mission' and that art had enormous potential for the betterment of human life; as a performer he aimed not only to play well but to do good. The unity of theory and practice does come across in his recordings...

I picked all this up for myself from listening to Gould playing Bach, on a tinny record player, in the solitude of a freezing cold and sordid flat in 1978; at a time when I had not heard a single good word about Gould (the British Establishment critics loathed him); but instead a mass of falsehoods and misrepresentations that implied he couldn't really play (he cheated by having his piano adapted to lighten the action, the recordings of fugues were faked-together from separately played voices etc.).

It is easy to be distracted by the supreme pianistic technique, and the powerful musical intelligence; but what sets Gould apart from any other musician of the recorded era is the spiritual quality; and this is a consequence of Gould's deeply contemplative and Romantic personality, and the ecstatic concentration of his playing which lift it from performance to co-creation.

In fact, I would nowadays characterise what is going-on in terms of Final Participation and Primary Thinking. What we have - in material terms - is at the level of (mere) communication: a recording of a performance, and that recording created in a studio by piecing together of several or many performances - I then listen on imperfect devices, with all my incapacities and preconceptions... and at the end of the day it seems impossible to be sure that what I experience has anything to do with Bach or with Gould.

Thus considered, it seems a trivial or delusional activity; and something which 'we shouldn't take too seriously'; and yet, that has not been my experience over a span of more than forty years.

The way I would prefer to characterise it is in terms Not of communication by of direct knowing. When I am really experiencing the music (in that state termed ecstasy); at that time Bach, Gould, other people, and myself are all - as actual living Beings, here-and-now, experiencing the same 'thinking' - in real time. If it is real knowing, then it is an experience to which we all contribute, actively.

It is an act of creating; going on within the primary ongoing context of divine creation. And presumably all such experiences shape the thinking.

I do Not regard the real music as an unchanging Platonic ideal outside of space and time - that we might take from a library and replay; instead I think that this music exists in the consciousnesses of actual Beings, in their living thinking; and the shared experiences of this thinking.

What makes specifically Gould's Bach (sometimes) real, and my experience of it as real, is that the music was written, performed and listened-to in this state of ecstasy. Only if and when 'we' are all experiencing this ecstatic state (which is Primary Thinking) does direct knowing 'happen'.

The 'communications', the musical score, the piano, recording media, the sound reproduction... all these are acting something like pointers to the real thing - or perhaps something more. As methods for inducing states of intuitive sympathetic resonance between the minds involved (Bach's, Gould's mine etc.).

I suppose this applies to all communications and media; including conversations and social interactions as well as arts. They are ideally (although seldom in practice) means to that end of direct co-creative thinking.


stephen cooper said...

This comment is in two parts, and the first part is just this --- that was an absolutely wonderful post, and explained something I have been wondering about for years in a way I have not heard it explained before.

Second part is to say this: for everyone there ***must*** be some experience they have, or want to have, or should want to have, that reminds them of what is important the way Glenn Gould thought (correctly) that the music of Bach was important.

For me, if we talk about art, the best I can dream of is the impression one gets after an afternoon and evening in the vicinity of Notre Dame de Paris - the old gray Gothic building, the trees along the Seine, the windows under the seasonal sun, and so on - and almost all of that art is anonymous, and I have not seen any of it, except in pictures, in the last 40 years or so.
But when I have one of those frequent dreams where, for example, I have spent a week or two in Paris, doing the sort of thing one does in dreams - reliving old French classroom hours, or reliving by some unusual turn of events hours in jobs that one did in one's 20s and would never be hired for again, due to the passage of time, and so on: and towards the end of the dream (I wish it was towards the middle but in dreams it never is) I realize I have not yet visited the dreamland cathedral of Notre Dame and the timing of my airline tickets preclude a visit --- although I don't take international airlines seriously in dreams because I have not had a passport for 20 years, I know that even in dreams --- and I try to think about what young woman (my age, more or less, or a little younger, anyway) it is in dreamland Paris with whom I am falling in love , or spending time with, perhaps not knowing that we had children together many years ago, as if such a thing could be a surprise every time we met -----when I think about those things in those dreams, so as to forget about the great pilgrimage, just a short walk from my dreamland Parisian hotel or an uncomplicated clear taxi ride - to what is for me what Bruce has described as Bach for Gould being, an ecstatic experience of God in this world, in and around a simple building that can be easily found on any relevant map --- and in the dreams I wonder why in all my recent days in Paris I have not walked the few blocks or hailed the classic taxi to visit a spot on this earth to which a visit would be for me something more than a trip to Lothlorien itself would be, for reasons of personal memory ---
and right before and right after I wake up, I know almost everyone has similar dreams, I can see it in their faces when they talk about the day they got engaged or about how they do not fear death any more after a hard life or about how much they love some creature who nobody else loves;

(or when almost everyone argues with me in dreams because they do not believe in God and they do not believe me when I say I believe in God -those are tiring conversations, even in dreams - and when I think they are right to criticize me in dreams because I am not explaining myself, and not justifying myself, as I should)

Well I guess my point is, if I had not read this post "Ecstatic experience of music ...." I would know a lot less about how other people have similar hopes and dreams.

(for the record I have much better, or at least much more detailed, dreams about New York or California than I do about Paris)

God is good, and we all either know that now or knew it in the past.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen - Delighted that this one 'hit a six' for you!

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from BP: "Now that you point this out I see it everywhere!

For many years I've said that one of my favorite things about performing in a large choir or orchestra is the connection with the other performers as well as the audience, the feeling of being a part of something much larger and more powerful. Public speaking and teaching provide similar experiences of connection, but only if engagement is very good.

Watching a movie at the cinema with an involved audience shortly after release offers a similar experience, but all that shows me is that this effect can be hijacked to some degree."