Printer Friendly

Symphonies of solitude from the north.

TO ANYONE NOT CANADIAN, the answer to "Where is North?" might seem laughingly self-evident. The North is ... well, up north somewhere. Somewhere indeed, because Canadians know better. They know, for instance, a compass sometimes points "North" in any direction at all. Heading down into Canada from the top of the globe, one travels due south for some 1,725 miles, the distance from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Iquitos, Peru, just to reach Great Bear Lake--still pretty far north on most maps.

Few Canadians seem to care about the North's exact location. For some, it lies anywhere above the Arctic Circle--that imaginary polar circumscription at 66 degrees, 17 minutes north. The Circle is more relevant to astronomy than geography, however, for at its latitude on one day each year the sun never sets and on another it never rises. Moving "up" from there, the number of nightless and sunless days increase until, standing at the pole, the entire year consists of just one long day followed by one long night.

If indeed the North and the Arctic are one and the same place, where then is the sub-Arctic? Certainly not down south. Following the nomenclature of High Arctic and Low Arctic, should there also be a northern North and a southern North? As simple a mark as a circle on a map clearly cannot locate so complicated a notion as North.

From a builder's point of view, the permafrost line--where the ground never thaws--might best define the problem of North. Just ask anyone who has dug a foundation into the rock-hard frozen earth. But this line loops and curves, doubles back and zooms north or south depending on the underlying geology. A straighter edge is drawn at the North by the western provinces' upper boundary, but such a purely administrative delineation through otherwise unmarked terrain seems somehow odd. Odder still is the definition of Arctic oceanographers, who would have you believe the North begins wherever water happens to freeze at a particular temperature and salinity reading.

Hunters say the treeline is what sets apart the North. Emerging from the sheltering forest into the windswept tundra, there they stop to reload ammunition for a wholly different kind of game. But treeline--roughly determined by a July isotherm of 50 degrees fahrenheit--is of little comfort in the depths of January. And like permafrost, the forest margin meanders erratically up and down across the top of the world.

Most Canadians in fact only care to think about the North when they remember winter. For them, it is simply cold, dark and icy. For others, North is the land of summery opportunity--gold mines, oil wells, and fishing banks. Obviously, the North--defined by latitude, temperature, sunshine, or money--is many things to many people.

But for Canada's artists and intellectuals, the North is a less tangible and more imaginary place. It matters less where it is than where a person is in relation to it. The writer Farley Mowatt, author of Never Cry Wolf and himself no stranger to higher latitudes, called it "an unreal world conceived in the mind's eye, born out of fantasy and cauled in myth." For Mowatt and his like, the North is not a compass needle pointing their way but rather a mirror in which they see their own reflection.

The late Glenn Gould was one of these artists who wrestled mightily with the spirit of Canada's North. Although he was by no means as obsessed with it as Mowatt, his methods were no doubt the most original. With the tenth anniversary of his death just last October, and the debate over Canada's future still very much alive, perhaps now is the time to re-examine Gould's idea of north, and ask what, if anything, it says about his country today.

Classical pianist, playful intellect, and pioneer of audio recording technology, Gould enthralled concert audiences worldwide with a repertoire ranging from Bach's sprite fugues to Arnold Schoenberg's brittle atonalities. Gould made his debut while in his teens and played in New York for the first time in 1955. After promptly becoming one of the day's most acclaimed keyboard artists, he abruptly and mysteriously left the stage forever at the age of 31.

Gould was a singularly complex individual. A strict perfectionist with a slovenly alter ego, as a child he developed an intense dislike for that other keyboard prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Poor circulation left him always feeling cold, yet he delighted in hearing weather reports from the most frigid parts of Canada. His musical preferences were also strongly influenced by the North. As one biographer wrote, "He is ill at ease with the passionate, sunny Mediterranean temperament. He equates northerliness with moral rectitude."

He was also something of a seer. He once dreamt of traveling to another solar system and being given, as he wrote, "the opportunity to impart my value systems to whatever forms of life there might be." Years later, the space probes Voyager I and II were launched to explore the galaxy, carrying on board sound recordings representative of life on earth--whales breathing, dogs barking, humans laughing, a Peruvian wedding song, and Glenn Gould playing a prelude and fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

Gould withdrew from concertizing for many reasons, the most compelling of which was his belief that the age of live performance had ended. The consumate perfectionist, he decried, in the language of sound engineers, the "non-take-twoness" of the public recital. He insisted on ideal conditions for playing because he insisted even more firmly on ideal conditions for listening. In his opinion, a musical experience should be personal and inner-directed rather than some circus-like event fouled by other people's coughing, bad acoustics, and mood altering applause.

Creative artists almost by force choose isolation over keeping company with others. If pianists are the most isolated of musicians, then Gould even before his public retirement was the most isolated of pianists. But this new isolation also allowed him finally to vent impulses and interests less tied to the public's notion of what a concert pianist should and should not do.

Being now more alone, Gould returned to his childhood fascination with the North. "In my school days I used to pour over whichever maps of the region I could get my hands on, though I found it difficult to remember whether Great Bear or Great Slave was further north," he wrote, "but a bit later I finally came to realize that the North was possessed of qualities more elusive than even a magician could define."

But it was the effect the North had on the inner self, rather than the environment itself, that captured Gould's imagination. Cut off from other individuals and, more importantly, from what they thought and said about each other, residents of the North, Gould felt, "underwent an extreme metamorphosis," ending up "in whatever disorganized fashion, being philosophers."

Months after leaving the stage, Gould wrote to a friend, "What I have in mind, believe it or not, is a trip to the Arctic. I have an enormous compulsion to look upon the Polar seas." Does this ring false coming from a man deathly afraid of drafts, who wore mittens and overcoats in July and insisted on giving his arms hot baths between playing the movements of a piano sonata? Those who knew him best say no. "Gould was looking for some kind of specific abstraction up North, just as he played Bach as if to reveal something abstract about the Baroque," says Toronto journalist Robert Fulford, who was Gould's childhood neighbor. "He wanted to distill the goodness and the purity out of what most Canadians see only as an endless and shapeless part of our country."

Gould in fact made his first and only trip north--to Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay by the Muskeg Express train--the year after he abandoned public life. Many might question if Churchill, lying well below the 60th parallel, even qualifies as the North, but for Gould the matter was more one of intention than actual location. "I've been intrigued for quite a long time by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga country," he wrote. "But like all but a few Canadians, I've had no direct confrontation with the northern third of our country. I've remained of necessity an outsider and the north has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about sometimes, and, in the end, avoid."

Avoid. Get away from. Be alone with. These were the operative words in the lexicon of Gould's new life. He lived by himself in a Toronto hotel room, rarely seeing anyone except recording engineers and producers. He stayed in touch with others only from a distance--talking on the telephone, listening to the radio, and recording music for broadcast and phonograph.

Gould's work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), some television but primarily radio, was the fruit of a match made in heaven. He had the energy and imagination, and the CBC, whose task in knitting together a country spanning five time zones and 90 degrees of longitude cannot be exaggerated, had the resources and the mandate.

To help celebrate the country's centennial year in 1967, the CBC asked Gould to produce a radio program that somehow captured Canada's spirit. Gould was never much of a nationalist, but he did speak that year about what made Canada special. "I think the latitudinal factor is important to me," he told the Toronto Telegram newspaper, "the fact that we're a northern people cross-pollinated by influences from the south. But for the moment we're in danger of losing something we Canadians could capitalize on: a synoptic view of the world we live in."

In a concerted effort to remind Canada of its own broad latitudes, Gould looked up a grizzled old man of the North named Wally Maclean--raconteur extraordinaire and jack of all cold weather trades--with whom he had spoken at length on the train ride to Churchill. It was this rambling conversation from the past that gave birth two years later to an experimental documentary which propelled Gould into the world of creative radio composition.

Entitled "The Idea of North," this program combined subject matter close to Gould's heart with an innovative editing technique he called "contrapuntal radio." Gould interviewed Maclean and four others who had spent time in the North, either knocking about or settling in one place, but returned south with far different attitudes and memories. He then painstakingly edited these separate testimonials into a continuous weave of artificial conversation--"a symposium of spatially isolated individuals" as one critic described it--set over the steady basso-continuo of a train's clattering wheels, whose sound melds slowly into the last movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony.

The conversation was about going north, about at first being lonely and cold and miserable, and then finally seeing that what the North in fact had done was challenge them to be better. "Something really does happen to most people who go into the North," Gould later wrote. "They become aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents, and come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility."

Gould edited the spoken word with as much exactitude as he did his piano recordings, making elaborate use of fades, filters, dissolves, and overlapping voices. When listeners complained that meaning was often lost amid the cacophony, Gould pointed out that the words of Verdi's finest trios and quartets were also often inaudible. What counted was only the music.

Magically, Gould also found music in everyday conversational speech. By electronically emphasizing the way each speaker pronounced the word "north," he turned it into a percussive leitmotif. He erased certain words or pauses in order to achieve a desired effect. For counterpoint, he often introduced a second speaker's confirming or contradictory statement before the first speaker's words were finished.

"The Idea of North" was instantly received as a radio landmark. Gould followed up this much discussed and critiqued documentary with two companion programs, "The Latecomers" and "The Quiet in the Land," about a Newfoundland fishing port and a Mennonite community in Manitoba--two other parts of Canada isolated as much inwardly as outwardly. All three programs, jointly titled "Solitude Trilogy," are now available on compact disc from CBC Records.

Gould was obsessed with the high fidelity of recorded sound, and recorded sound is received most clearly over radio in the upper latitudes. This is perhaps why he loved to drive alone by night along Lake Superior's north shore spinning the AM dial. On one such trip he tuned into a British pop singer's big summer hit "Who am I?". Gould pondered this question deeply and later wrote a quirky essay entitled "In Search of Petula Clark." Here his autobiographical musings are edited together with italicized fragments of radio announcements pulled randomly from the cold northern air. As the kind of bravado performance Gould always sought, this essay stands as an intimate commentary upon himself and his uppermost concerns--sound, solitude, and the voyage of self-discovery to the North.

"Route 17, patrolled at night, affords a remarkable auditory experience," the essay reads. "After sundown one discovers an astounding clarity of reception. All the accents of the continent are spread across the band, and, as one twiddles the dial to reap the diversity of that encounter, the day's auditory impressions with their hypnotic insularity recede, then re-emerge as part of a balanced and resilient perspective... This is London calling in the North American service of the BBC... And it's forty-six degrees in Grand Bend... Say there Dad, if it's time for that second car you've been promising the little woman... Et maintenant, la symphonie numero quarantedeux... Okay chickadees, here's the one you've been waiting for, Petula Clark with that question we've all been asking... "I walk alone and wonder, Who Am I?"

Louis Werner is a freelance writer and independent producer/director of documentary films.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Glenn Gould's photographs of Canada's north
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Photos with a perk.
Next Article:Humble art of life.

Related Articles
Onstage: Catherine Robbin.
Tenor Michael Colvin has been dividing his time between the opera and concert stages.
The final take: music that william littler can't live without.
"The Idea of North": Isabella Bortolozzi.
2007 CFMTA-MTNA-RCM: Collaborative Conference highlights.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters