I wrote this paper about the great classical pianist Glenn Gould in 2011. It was recently published in Vol. 22 of GMR, George Mason University’s undergraduate journal.
“Four of the very best years of my life.” That was the way Glenn Gould described the four years since his retirement from the lifestyle of a concert pianist. In 1964, the young man who had stunned critics, musicians and general audiences the world over with the virtuosity, intensity, and brilliant interpretive heterodoxy of his performances bid an unceremonious farewell to the concert hall and never looked back. If Gould did look back, he never would have admitted it. “Isolation is the one sure way to human happiness,” he proclaimed. “My idea of happiness is two hundred and fifty days a year in a recording studio.” Indeed, a great deal of his time between his retirement in 1964 – just thirty-one years old – and his death in 1982 was spent in the studio, whether as a recording artist (he made over eighty recordings) or as a producer of numerous documentaries for radio and television. But as unconventional as his recordings could be, few things he did stirred up as much controversy as did his retirement from the concert life – or, more accurately, the reasons he gave for that retirement. For Glenn Gould believed that within a century, “the public concert as we know it” would be obsolete, and that the new electronic media would reign supreme in its place.
He had never particularly enjoyed giving concerts in the first place – they made him “feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian,” they were exhausting, repetitive, detrimental to his health and creativity. Conditions were never ideal and the right piano was never available. What was more, much of the repertoire most suited to the acoustics and tradition of the concert hall was precisely the repertoire he most detested. (Gould often said that he had a “century-long blind spot approximately demarcated by The Art of the Fugue on one side and Tristan on the other.”)
On the other hand, much of his favorite music was unsuited for large venues, and when he attempted to perform, for example, J. S. Bach’s Fifth Partita in such an arena, he found that the interpretation became distorted by the necessity to project to a vast hall. He was also growing increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable about the way critics were drawing attention to his well-known and eccentric habits and mannerisms, both in and out of the concert hall.
Above all, Gould objected to the psychological and competitive aspects of public concerts, which he considered immoral. Audiences, he declared, were a “force of evil,”  and the concert hall “a comfortably upholstered extension of the Roman Colosseum.” He found the athletic, virtuosity-focused elements of music-making totally extraneous to its essential purpose. “A performance is not a contest but a love affair,” he insisted:
The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.
The opposite of this, to Gould, was the spirit of public performance, in which the performer seeks to be master of his audience, and vice versa; when asked by another great concert pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, if he had ever felt that he “had the souls” of the audience, he responded, “I didn’t really want their souls, you know.”
Some have speculated that Gould’s decision to retire from public performances may have been partially motivated by a need to control every aspect of his life. Frequently cited is an early experience in which he was frightened by his own rage at his mother in the course of an argument they were having, after which he resolved always to be in control of his emotions.
Gould gave occasional indications that emotional self-control (arguably repression in his case) was of great importance to him, notably his disturbing assertion that a war fought via computers is morally superior to one fought with spears, regardless of increased body count – simply because “the adrenal response of the participants… is less engaged by it.” Tellingly, Gould continued on to point out that recordings were a metaphor for this “disengagement from biological limitation.” His longtime recording engineer, producer and friend, Andrew Kazdin, theorized that this same need for control manifested itself in his need to control the course of his interviews (Gould rarely consented to an interview for which he had not written a complete script, and even interviewed himself on occasion). Kazdin believed that this tendency dovetailed with Gould’s preference for the studio environment over that of the concert hall, because it eliminated “spontaneity, the risk of a mishap.”
On the other hand, Gould was convinced that the recording process had its own kind of spontaneity, though perhaps a less risky one. In conversation with Rubinstein, he mused:
The ideal way to go about making a performance or a work of art…is to assume that when you begin, you don’t quite know what it is about. …As you get two thirds of the way through a session, you are two thirds of the way along toward a conception. …It makes the performer very like the composer, really, because it gives him editorial afterthought.
Rather than simply seeking complete control over the creative process, Gould wanted to allow the recording process itself to guide him creatively, as opposed to a concert situation, in which he would have to pretend to a complete or accurate conception of the piece before performing it, without the possibility of being corrected by hindsight. That is, as he wrote to one of his fans, “The real virtue of the recording process is not in its inherent perfectionism but in the after-thought control by which one can operate upon the raw material of performance.” Writing to another fan:
I have, to be sure, gone on record many times as stating my preference for those sessions to which one can bring an almost dangerous degree of improvisatory open-mindedness – that is to say, sessions in relation to which one has no absolute, a priori, interpretive commitment and in which the process of recording will make itself felt in regard to the concept which evolves.
From this perspective, the studio is actually more conducive to spontaneity than the concert hall, though it is a different kind than that which Gould called the “‘Take-one-or-bust’ philosophy.” Instead of using the studio in a doomed attempt to mimic an earlier musical context (the public concert), Gould dreamed that the process of recording could “come into its own and make an original contribution to musical tradition.” This was the idea on which he based much of his life’s work, and explored at length in interviews and essays such as “The Prospects of Recording.”
In all this he was further influenced by the thought of Marshall McLuhan as well as that of Jean Le Moyne and Teilhard Pierre de Chardin, both of whom meditated on the theological implications of technology. Naturally, at the root of his conviction that recording was the ideal form of musical communication was his relief at having freed himself from the demands of a live audience, as he described in another letter:
The lack of an audience…provides the greatest incentive to satisfy my own demands upon myself without consideration for, or qualification by, the intellectual appetite, or lack of it, on the part of the audience. My own view, is, paradoxically, that by pursuing the most narcissistic relation to artistic satisfaction one can best fulfil the fundamental obligation of the artist of giving pleasure to others.
And in the event that he failed to give pleasure, Gould was determined to fail fascinatingly: “I think that if there’s any excuse at all for making a recording it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view, that one is going to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before.”
If Gould provoked controversy by predicting that the public concert would die out and be replaced by electronic media, he provoked at least as much of it by his endorsement of all manner of “dishonest” studio techniques, particularly that of splicing multiple takes together, thereby creating a final product that was not the result of a single, unbroken performance. Many in the classical world, particularly those of an older generation, considered this technique to be generally musically detrimental if occasionally a necessary evil, claiming that it was dishonest, that it disrupted the “long line” or the emotional cohesion of a performance, and similar complaints. Others, such as André Watts, considered recordings to be valuable only insofar as they simulated the concert experience, an ideal with which splicing would clearly be incompatible. Gould often replied to the latter objection with a metaphor between recorded music and the art of film – just as we do not expect films to conform to the technical requirements of the theatre, neither are recordings beholden to the traditions of the concert hall. Few would contend that in film, dramatic cohesion is undermined by the use of multiple shots, perspectives, overdubs, or similar techniques – so if those techniques are used successfully in recorded music, why complain? Gould was adamant that studio technicians can and should make recording a unique medium rather than trying merely to duplicate the concert experience, and objected to the notion that technology should be confined to disseminating objective facts; rather, in his view it should be used for “dissection, for analysis – above all, perhaps, for the idealization of an impression.” In other words, in a phrase reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, “if ‘the camera does not lie’…[it] must be taught to forthwith.” At the objection that splices disrupt lines, Gould scoffed: “Splicing doesn’t damage lines. Good splices build good lines, and it shouldn’t much matter if one uses a splice every two seconds or none for an hour so long as the result appears to be a coherent whole.” And again: “One cannot ever splice style – one can only splice segments which relate to a conviction about style. And whether one arrives at such a conviction pretaping or posttaping…its existence is what matters, not the means by which it is effected.”
To demonstrate his claims, Gould undertook an experiment involving a broad selection of laymen, recording technicians and professional musicians to ascertain whether good splicing was easily detectable. As it turned out, the laymen were best at guessing where the splices had been in the recordings played for them, but overall, the participants guessed numerous splices where there were very few or none, and very few where there were many.
Gould scholar Kevin Bazzana relates that to assuage those who were under the impression that Gould pieced his recordings together practically one note at a time, Gould’s producers pointed out that he in fact “needed splicing less than most performers” – no surprise, given his legendary technique and musical memory. Interestingly, Andrew Kazdin recalled that “small tempo changes that were unacceptable if caused by a splice were completely acceptable if they were part of his actual performance.” While Gould had no scruples about splicing to fix occasional mistakes, more often he did it for interpretive purposes. In “The Prospects of Recording,” he explained how splicing was used in his recording of the fugue in A minor from the first book of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Two out of eight complete takes were considered acceptable at first, but upon reviewing them weeks later, Gould and his recording team realized that both takes were “monotonous.” One treated the fugue subject in a “solemn legato, rather pompous fashion” while the other was more staccato and “skittish”; both were legitimate approaches, but neither would suffice for the entire piece. Realizing that by happy coincidence, both takes were almost identical in tempo, they decided to combine the two. In the final product, the severe-sounding take is used for the exposition, followed by the lighter take for the development, after which the fugue terminates in the take used for the exposition. Gould noted that these interpretive choices could have been made beforehand, but that the sort of realization they had weeks after the recording was unlikely during a studio session, just as it would be in concert. While this process requires that the performer cede some of his control to producers and editors, Gould admitted, the editorial role as a natural extension of the performer’s interpretive capacity is well worth the exchange.
In situations in which the score called for a repeat, rather than performing the same section twice, Gould used a technique called “regeneration” – that is, he simply made a duplicate of the first performance and moved it to where the second should be. Much less frequently, Gould made use of overdubbing, notably in the nearly unplayable fourth movement of Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. While Gould was capable of hitting all the notes, he decided a more musical result could be achieved by turning it into a four-hands performance via overdubbing. According to Andrew Kazdin, this was one out of only two instances of overdubbing in Gould’s entire recording career.
The recording techniques described above are most common in Gould’s recordings, but he experimented with others as well. In a letter to a fan, he described an experiment for quadraphonic sound system in which he recorded some Bach fugues one voice at a time, a procedure which he found artistically fulfilling and which he felt had allowed him an unprecedented level of insight into the works. At another time, he tried placing microphones in different parts of a room and combining those different perspectives in the final recorded product, for an effect analogous to the combination of different camera perspectives and effects in film.
Gould made many observations about the implications of recording for professionals and audiences alike. He had already witnessed a revival of interest in preclassical music, and noted that it was especially appropriate for recordings which were made to be listened to in people’s homes to be focused on music that had been composed in the context of a strong amateur tradition – not only that, but such music was “made for stereo” because of its “contrapuntal extravaganzas” and “antiphonal balances.” Increased scholarly interest was given a concrete basis because of the recorded library of preclassical works, musicologists benefiting especially from the record archives of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance music: “The musicologist rather than the performer has become the key figure in the realization of this untapped repertoire.”
Gould knew from experience that the recording artist’s approach to repertoire is dramatically different from that of the concert artist. The artist prepares for recording through “intense analysis” and prepares an interpretation of a work which he approaches more like a composer, dealing with it once and for all and then moving on to the next challenge. There is no need to keep it in his repertoire: “His analysis of the composition will not become distorted by overexposure, and his performance top-heavy with interpretive ‘niceties’ intended to woo the upper balcony, as is almost inevitably the case with the overplayed piece of concert repertoire.” Because of this, the artist is able to become familiar with a much greater variety and quantity of works. He can undertake projects of greater scope, such as recording the complete works of a composer, and is more likely to perform works which would be unsuitable for the concert hall.
Recording also allows composers to make their intentions permanently known by making their own recordings of a work (Gould cites the examples of Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky). Gould hoped that this would help to break down the distinction between performer and composer: “There is no reason why the performer must be exclusively involved with revisitations of the past, and the re-emergence of the performer-composer could be the beginning of the end for that post-Renaissance specialization with which tonal music has been conspicuously involved.”
The implications of recordings for non-musicians were also manifold. Gould observed that recordings had already made music more commonplace, less of an occasion for reverence, but at the same time, something people depend on even more. It was not lost on him that most people were now introduced to music through recordings, and that the experience of music for most people had become considerably more intimate and casual – and more individual because that experience was more likely to be had in private. Gould expressed this as “that paradox wherein the ability to obtain in theory an audience of unprecedented numbers obtains in fact a limitless number of private auditions.” The implication to Gould was that the listener would soon have the ability to do his own splicing, combining performances by different performers to create his own ideal interpretation. The current practice of remixing songs in hip-hop and other genres of popular music, undermining the hierarchy Gould so despised which set the artist above the “public,” shows exactly how prescient he was.
One of Gould’s critical pet peeves was the way works of art were often judged on biographical or historical interest rather than on their intrinsic value. He wrote about this in multiple essays, always bringing up the Dutch painter, Hans Van Meergeren, who convinced both the art establishment and, later, the Nazis, that his paintings in the style of Vermeer were real Vermeer works, newly discovered. After the Second World War, to defend himself against collaborationist charges for having sold these works to the Nazis, Van Meergeren revealed that the paintings were his own. The critical establishment was so enraged at having been fooled that they sent Van Meergeren to prison anyway, and he died there. Gould’s other favorite example was that if he improvised a sonata in Haydn’s style and passed it off as a newly discovered work by that composer, it would be praised by the critical establishment. But if the work were passed off as one by a later composer such as Brahms, it would seem less original and be valued less. On the other hand, if it were believed that the sonata was by Vivaldi, it would be given “a value greatly in excess of any held by a legitimate work of that composer” because of its “prophetic qualities” – because it would have been ahead of its time. Gould believed that Richard Strauss, a composer whom he greatly admired, had been mistreated by critics simply because he continued to compose in a romantic idiom well into the twentieth century, and in an essay entitled “Strauss and the Electronic Future,” he criticized the view which “has encouraged us to conceive of historical action in terms of a series of climaxes and to determine the virtues of artists according to the manner in which they participated in, or, better still, anticipated, the nearest climax.” Gould hoped that this way of evaluating music would be abandoned because of recordings. Since it is possible to listen to a recording without knowing when it was recorded and precisely who performed, edited and produced it, there is a greater anonymity and abstraction from historical context involved in recordings, which, according to Gould, would force critics to judge pieces on intrinsic merit rather than in relation to historical circumstances. Unfortunately, this theory is completely implausible because it depends on the willingness of musicians, composers and record companies not to publish exhaustive information about their recordings. Gould’s criticisms of aesthetic progressivism are totally compelling, but it is nevertheless normal and good to desire historical and personal context for a work of art – and quite possible to enjoy the knowledge of that context without subscribing to a chronological theory of music criticism.
Clearly Gould’s pronouncements could be naïve at times. His discussion of the positive aspects of Muzak and other background music is thought-provoking, and it is interesting to consider his point that such idioms accustom listeners to a variety of sounds they would be far less likely to accept in other contexts (twelve-tone technique in horror films, impressionism in restaurant music). But even at the time of his writing, his starry-eyed optimism about the educational value of Muzak must have been hard to take seriously:
The cliché residue of all the idioms employed in background becomes an intuitive part of our musical vocabulary. Consequently, in order to gain our attention any musical experience must be of a quite exceptional nature. And meanwhile, through this ingenious glossary, the listener achieves a direct associative experience of the post-Renaissance vocabulary, something that not even the most inventive music appreciation course would be able to afford him.
The idea that being inundated with clichés might provide a solid foundation for musical judgment is rather counterintuitive – one might more reasonably assume that being inundated with clichés simply gives people a taste for clichés, or even more likely, that the presence of those clichés in background music might train people to hear the great music from which those clichés were drawn as background music itself, which is the attitude of many listeners towards classical music and jazz, and often towards all music. But Gould persisted: “We do not value great works of literature less because we, as men in the street, speak the language in which they happen to be written… To the contrary…[this familiarity] gives us background against which the foreground that is the habitat of the imaginative artist may stand in greater relief.” But as popular as it has been over the centuries to equivocate music with language, human language existed before the first novel or poem was ever written, while a musical “language” is generally codified and abstracted only after the works said to use that language already exist. And even taking the analogy at face value, it is hardly necessary to belabor the point that the ability to speak and read in English does not guarantee one’s appreciation of Shakespeare any more than the ability to tell blue from red guarantees one’s appreciation of El Greco.
Even Gould’s claim that “in the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly,” is dubious. Does music become more meaningful in our lives simply by becoming more commonplace? Or does it become even less vital and more ornamental when music as background noise is ubiquitous and musical performances are, as Gould was pleased to acknowledge, no longer occasions of reverence?
But while some of his theories about the effects of recording technology on music’s place in society are hard to swallow, Gould was still extraordinarily perceptive as to the implications of recordings in the lives of musicians, and he used the studio most fruitfully in his own career, musical and otherwise. In addition to having been a brilliant pianist with a substantial legacy of recordings, Gould made his mark as a delightfully controversial figure who never failed to point out the flaws in the prevailing critical and aesthetic theories of his day, especially when they stood in the way of his single, simple goal: to make his music sound good – by any means necessary.
Angilette, Elizabeth. Philosopher at the Keyboard: Glenn Gould. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992.
Bazzana, Kevin. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Friedrich, Otto. Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. New York: Random House, 1989.
Gould, Glenn. “Forgery and Imitation in the Creative Process.” Grand Street, No. 50, Models (Autumn, 1994), http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007782 (accessed November 17, 2011).
Gould, Glenn. “Glenn Gould in Conversation with Tim Page.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 451-461. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Piano Quarterly (Fall 1981).
Gould, Glenn. “Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 315-328. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in High Fidelity (February 1974).
Gould, Glenn. Glenn Gould: Selected Letters, edited and compiled by John P. L. Roberts. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gould, Glenn. “Let’s Ban Applause!.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 245-250. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Musical America (February 1962).
Gould, Glenn. “Music and Technology.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 353-357. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Piano Quarterly (Winter 1974-75).
Gould, Glenn. “Of Mozart and Related Matters.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 32-43. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Piano Quarterly (Fall 1976).
Gould, Glenn. “Rubinstein.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 283-290. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Look (March 9, 1971).
Gould, Glenn. “Strauss and the Electronic Future.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 92-99. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in Saturday Review (Winter 1964).
Gould, Glenn. The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Gould, Glenn. “The Grass Is Always Greener in the Outtakes: An Experiment in Listening.”
In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 357-368. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in High Fidelity (August 1975).
Gould, Glenn. “The Prospects of Recording.” In The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, 331-353. New York: Knopf, 1984. Originally published in High Fidelity (April 1966).
Hein, Ethan. “Glenn Gould predicts remix culture.” Ethan Hein’s Blog. http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2010/glenn-gould-predicts-remix-culture/ (accessed November 18, 2011).
Kazdin, Andrew. Glenn Gould at Work: Creative Lying. New York: Dutton, 1989.
Ostwald, Peter F. Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. New York: Norton, 1997.
Kevin Bazzana, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 234.
Tim Page, “Introduction,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), xii-xv.
Glenn Gould, “The Prospects of Recording,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 331.
Gould, “Of Mozart and Related Matters,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 37.
Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (New York: Random House, 1989), 73.
Gould, “Let’s Ban Applause!” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 246.
“Let’s Ban Applause!” 246.
Glenn Gould, “Rubinstein,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 285.
Andrew Kazdin, Glenn Gould at Work (New York: Dutton, 1989), 84-85.
Glenn Gould, “Music and Technology,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 355.
Kazdin, 85-87. Kazdin’s book on Gould, Glenn Gould at Work: Creative Lying, contains a lengthy and fascinating chapter about this and related aspects of Gould’s personality.
Glenn Gould, Glenn Gould: Selected Letters, ed. John P. L. Roberts (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992), 101.
Glenn Gould, “The Grass Is Always Greener in the Outtakes: An Experiment in Listening,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 357-359.
“An Experiment in Listening,” 358.
“Music and Technology, 354-355.
“The Prospects of Recording,” 338.
“An Experiment in Listening,” 357-368.
“The Prospects of Recording,” 338-339.
Selected Letters, 123.
“The Prospects of Recording,” 335.
Ibid, 343-344. One of Gould’s most accurate predictions in “The Prospects of Recording” was that because of recording, more people would have to come to terms with the reality that the Western musical tradition is but one of many.
Ethan Hein, “Glenn Gould predicts remix culture,” Ethan Hein’s Blog, http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2010/glenn-gould-predicts-remix-culture/ (accessed November 18, 2011).
Glenn Gould, “Forgery and Imitation in the Creative Process,” Grand Street, No. 50, Models (Autumn, 1994), http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007782 (accessed November 17, 2011).
Glenn Gould, “Strauss and the Electronic Future,” in The Glenn Gould Reader (New York: Knopf, 1984), 95.
“Strauss and the Electronic Future,” 93.
“The Prospects of Recording,” 341-343.