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The Mysterious Genius of Glenn Gould.


The voice is fast, precise, self-satisfied, a little pompous. It is filled with awkward attempts at the wry aside.... The voice is also ironic, amused, intelligent, resonant, mischievous.... There is crisp structure in the sentences, delivered in well-formed paragraphs, cogent and architectural. It is the music of Glenn Gould's spoken English, a cultivated Canadian accent from a half-century ago, a tone fled almost entirely from this nation now.... The consonants, especially t's and d's, are clipped--as indeed are the musical consonants of his characteristic lucid and precise playing.


Glenn Gould's speaking voice may rightly be a tone and accent of Canada's past. He has, after all, been dead for over a quarter of a century. And yet his distinctive piano playing, his thinking, and what I would call his spiritual presence are still very much with us. This fall has seen two new Canadian additions to the huge body of work already in existence on Gould, and if you are a fan of Glenn Gould, as I am, you will benefit from both.

Mark Kingwell's biography is part of the excellent Penguin series "Extraordinary Canadians," championed and edited by John Ralston Saul. There are 18 volumes already in the series, and each of them has been written by a well-known Canadian writer, cannily chosen for each subject by Saul. The canniest and the most unpredictable choice may just be Mark Kingwell on Gould, for it has given us a most unusual perspective on a much-examined life.


Mark Kingwell is well known to readers of this magazine, having contributed regularly to it for years. He is first and foremost a philosopher, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, but he is also one of our most prominent public intellectuals, whose work appears often in the Globe and Mail, in Harper's Magazine (where he is a contributing editor), and in many other publications, and who has dazzled us on myriad subjects in the fifteen books he has written. Kingwell is, in short, a philosopher of culture, and having written extensively on art, architecture, the nature of cities, and citizenship, he has now taken on music and most specifically the most famous of all our great artists, Glenn Gould.

Like all the volumes in the Penguin series, this is a compact book, just under 200 pages, but it's the furthest thing from a short summary of Gould's life, accomplishments, and eccentric habits. Instead, it's a philosophical engagement of Glenn Gould, who was almost as well known for his writing and broadcasting as he was for his piano playing.

You will glimpse the familiar Gould portrait here: the hunched figure on his squeaky, low collapsible chair, humming as he plays; the pianist who abandoned the concert stage at age 32 and who showed himself to the world for the rest of his life only through his recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and carefully crafted eccentric persona; the beautiful, young, much-photographed man who aged astonishingly quickly; and the man who wore hat, coat, scarf, and gloves even in the heat of summer. But mostly what you get from Kingwell is a rigorous philosophical inquiry into the formidably complex artist that Gould was, an artist who spoke to us in those carefully crafted sentences as prodigally as he crafted his studio recordings.

WHEN Gould made his first recording for Columbia Records in 1955 of Bach's Goldberg Variations, he famously recorded the opening aria 21 times before he was satisfied with the one "take" that would go on vinyl. So Mark Kingwell has divided his treatment of Gould the philosopher into 21 short takes or chapters, "a kaleidoscopic frame," each of them offering a different interpretation of the man. "A linear narrative," Kingwell insists, "misses the point of Gould."

One of the first points Kingwell makes is to assert Gould's philosophy of music: "that the single most important aspect of music is architecture, or line: the overall structure of a piece, revealed in its beauty by the act of playing. Not modulation, not timbre, not colour nor tone. That is why articulation and phrasing are so central to his playing 'like an X-ray revealing a skeleton,' [Gould] said." Which is why the masters of fugue and counterpoint, Bach in particular, so appealed to him, as did the composer he often cited as his favourite, the Renaissance master Orlando Gibbons. And it was on that recording of the Goldbergs in 1955 that Gould wrote one of his first significant sets of liner notes, "brilliant if somewhat earnest" in Kingwell's view. This is just a taste: "We have observed, by means of a technical dissection, that the aria is incompatible with its offspring, that the crucial bass by its very perfection of outline and harmonic implications stunts its own growth and prohibits the accustomed passacaglia evolution towards a cumulative point." And so on. Kingwell goes on to describe writings such as these as manifestos, "indeed the manifesto is high among his favorite literary forms.... Gould never entirely outgrew the particular temptation for the young man, especially of intellectual inclination, to state his personal beliefs as a way of setting the world straight."


In his chapter on "Genius" Kingwell makes the telling point that although Gould "was more articulate than most people ... nevertheless there is a constant danger that his theorizing will undermine the joy given by his performances." Rudolf Serkin--speaking for many of us, I suspect--once remarked after hearing Gould talk on the radio: "He said ridiculous things which made me mad, but then at the end he played, and everything was all right." When I was younger, I was less forgiving of Gould. It took me half a lifetime of listening to Gould to get over his pronouncements and just appreciate his playing.

Each of Kingwell's 21 takes is a philosophical meditation, and I don't have space to consider all of them. But I will focus on a few. The chapter titled "Quodlibet" is very good. "Quodlibet" is the thirtieth variation in the Goldbergs, and it translates from the Latin, as Kingwell writes, "more or less as 'anything goes' or in more colloquial parlance, 'whatever.'" In music it means a serious work which is drawn from folk songs or popular tunes. The thirtieth variation "appears as a cheerful, serio-comic culmination of the entire sequence of play, drawing the varied threads together as we move into the final section.... It is a deliberately unstable penultimatum, at once forthright and ironic." From this Kingwell digresses into a philosophical inquiry about potentiality (with references to Aristotle and Giorgio Agamben) in order to consider at length Gould's short history of performing in public and his decision to stop playing. In a typical Kingwellian summary, he concludes:
 Gould's decision was not really a decision at all; it was
instead an
 exercise of power, over himself and his music.... He enacted
 for the remainder of his days, a continually reaffirmed mastery of
 whatever being. He was quodlibet man, pure potentiality. Playing
 hid the silence that made music possible, the nothingness before,
 and between. Gould played the silence instead. In this view, his
 not-playing, his playing of silence, may be understood as the
 work of art he ever created, a life's work. 

In another important chapter, "Competition," Kingwell argues that Gould's real reasons for being a concert dropout "are not philosophical, they are psychological ...
 It suited him because he found performing unpleasant, not because he
 it objectionable. The latter is a construct that at once justifies
 conceals the former. And this concealment, apprehended at another
level of
 his psyche, pleased this master of disguise and personae rather too
 Gould did not so much perform his silence
 as he performed his
, a juicy and endlessly repeated exit from the stage. 

In a long chapter called "Illness," Kingwell reflects on the conclusion that Gould may have had Asperger's Syndrome (irrelevant he argues), on his increasingly lethal taking of "a varied cocktail of pills for blood pressure, anxiety, sleep disorder and general unease," on his rampant hypochondria, and his imagined and real physical problems, which intensified toward the end of his life. "Gould's hypochondria and general anxiety created a spiral of addiction in which symptom became indistinguishable from cure ... the medication made into the disease." At the end of the chapter Kingwell concludes:
 One can speculate endlessly about the causes of Gould's
 breakdown; everything from the recent death of his perfectionist
mother to
 the routine pressures of middle age has been cited. And it is surely
 case that his hypochondria, combined with cycles of self-medication,
 anxiety, and (importantly) the means to indulge these, created its
 toxic energy. But I think the simplest explanation is both the best
 and most frightening. Gould was caught in a control freak's
 [italics mine]. Even as he struggled to fix something that was
broken, he
 was attacked by new waves of misgiving about whether the steps he was
 taking to solution were actually making the problem worse. 

THERE is much more: a perceptive chapter on Gould's puritanism, especially his hostility to art because it separates word from deed; the importance of the documentaries; Gould's competitiveness ("he was a ninja master of literary one-upmanship and sly evasion"); Gould's sense of truth in interpretation (a rejection of "the romantic notion of beauty-truth fusion"); his sophomoric sense of humour, the most dated aspect of his legacy; and a dark but, I think, brilliantly insightful summary of Gould embodying the qualities of other personalities of his time: the talent and paranoia of Bobby Fischer, the dark beauty of James Dean, the creepy withdrawal of Howard Hughes, and the tortured self-medication of Elvis Presley. "It is clear he joins them as one of the first clear casualties of postmodern life, shattered remains of the cult of celebrity hastened by the very technology that made his success possible."

But all of this is written from the point of Kingwell's high regard for Gould's art. Gould, were he alive to read this book, would squirm at his unmasking by Kingwell, and the analytical rigour of Kingwell's analysis of Gould the philosopher. It would be fascinating to have Gould critique Kingwell, just as Gould critiqued an earlier philosophical treatise, Geoffrey Payzant's 1978 book, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind. But Gould would be reassured in the end by Kingwell's meditation on his playing, where only one voice shows up, and where Gould's own sense of wonder is so evident.

Kingwell's writing can be dense and philosophical (he's a philosopher and up against Gould after all), but hang in there. His insights are rewarding, and he often shows a welcome sense of humour and some lovely pop culture and even sports references, which leaven the Kant-like prose.


There is one egregious error, which I must point out, even though by now Kingwell has already apologized in public for it. In the book he mentions several times that Gould soaked his hands in ice water before he played, while in fact he always did the opposite: bathed his hands in hot water before recording or concertizing. This error has been much pounced upon by the keepers of the Gouldian flame, as I know from comments on the Internet and from conversations I've had at Toronto concerts and cocktail parties. I emailed Mark and asked him about this, and he immediately acknowledged it as an outright mistake, as he has in a piece for the Globe and Mail. Don't let that spoil your enjoyment of this book. It in no way discredits what is a profound and illuminating meditation on this most elusive genius, whose recordings move us still. This book is a fine addition to the literature on Gould. I don't agree that a linear biography misses the point; certainly Kevin Bazzana's Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould remains the most complete and compelling full biography of Gould. But Kingwell has added significantly by taking on Gould the Philosopher.

ALSO just out this fall is a new feature-length documentary called Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. This comes from the Canadian filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont with a running time of 108 minutes, and was an official selection of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Again, as with the books, a lot of video has been made on Glenn Gould, although much of it is no longer available. This is both a synthesis of past films and an introduction of some significant new material.

I like the structure of Genius Within: the narrator is Glenn Gould himself, his distinctive voice taken from his many radio and television performances, and a lot of the archival and still footage is interspersed Ken Burns style, with new commentary from musicians, biographers, and those who were close to Gould.

The opening is beautiful: over aerial footage of Lake Simcoe in fall with the leaves in full colour, where Gould loved to isolate himself at the family cottage, you can hear Gould's recording of Liszt's solo piano arrangement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. On top of that is the beautifully modulated voice of Gould, talking about the need to make music differently and about his love for being surrounded by music, which shelters us from the world; he also speaks about the artist's need to keep a distance from the world. I love this opening because we are immediately immersed in Gould's reflective inner world, and because it doesn't start predictably with Bach.

From there, very quickly, we're taken to New York in 1957, via some wonderful black-and-white NFB footage, to the old Columbia Records studio on 30th Street, where Gould is seen recording Bach's Italian Concerto. Particularly memorable testimonials come from violinist Jaime Laredo, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, biographer Kevin Bazzana, cellist Fred Sherry, and conductor Victor Feldbrill. Ruth Watson Henderson, who was also a student of Glenn's teacher, Alberto Guerrero, shows us where Gould got his particular detached finger technique. There is a lovely montage of video and still photos (never was a Canadian musician so lovingly photographed) all interwoven with Glenn's playing. In a particularly touching remembrance, Fran Barrault, an early girlfriend, tells us about her love affair with Glenn.


There follow the, for many of us, familiar chapters of the Gould story: the famous disagreement between Leonard Bernstein and Gould over the interpretation of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto; his affection for Petula Clark and Barbra Streisand; and the very sad last days. But Genius Within scored a major coup in getting interviews with Cornelia Foss and her two children, Christopher and Eliza Foss. It was just two years ago that we learned of Glenn Gould's romance with the wife of composer Lukas Foss. Some Gould biographers had alluded to a relationship of this kind, but no names were ever mentioned. For a long time Gould was thought to be either asexual or homosexual. So well had Gould protected his private life that the details remained secret for 25 years after his death. We now know not only that he was heterosexual, but that he had at least one significant relationship, and we know with whom.

Cornelia Foss tells the story in the film with candour and generosity. She fell in love with Gould. She left her husband, Lukas, and moved to Toronto with her two children in 1968, fully intending to marry Gould. The first years were almost blissful; we see pictures from the Foss photo album of a holiday trip to Muskoka, Glenn and Cornelia looking very chic. The children, who were distressed at leaving their father, came to love Gould and describe him as a sensitive and caring adult. Cornelia says he would have made a wonderful father. But gradually Gould's eccentricities increased; he became more paranoid and controlling; his personality changed radically with all the self-medication, and the relationship became intolerable for Cornelia. After four years with Gould, she took the children and returned to New York where she ultimately reunited with her estranged husband. The story is told by Cornelia and her children with an amazing sensitivity and warm affection, and with a huge sadness at the memory of the disintegration of the relationship. Glenn also tried to win Cornelia back, and her story of their last meeting--walking on the beach on Long Island a year after she moved back to New York--is heartbreaking.

There is other new material in this film. Lorne Tulk, Glenn's longtime audio engineer at the CBC and a former colleague of mine, tells for the first time of Glenn's request that he and Lorne become legal brothers. It wasn't to be, but Lorne was enormously touched by the request. Glenn's long-time friend, John Peter Lee Roberts, shows photographs of his wedding with Glenn in attendance, and for the first time tells about Glenn not wanting John to invite Glenn's father and stepmother to the wedding.

As much a Gould fan as I am, I have never enjoyed his attempts at humour. But there is one rather bizarre bit of film footage, seen here for the first time, that I commend as part of the Gould legacy. It's a short colour film from 1956 shot in the Bahamas. Glenn arrives at the seashore in full winter coat, hat, scarves and gloves, sits down in his director's chair at water's edge cradling a cigar in his left hand, where he begins to direct a bikini-clad dancer, dancing to a reggae beat, and gradually Glenn, beer in hand, sheds his outer garments and directs in an increasingly frenzied way. Frat boy's stuff for sure, but it does show early on his love of humour, often self-mocking and playing off his eccentric public image.

The last year, filled with the elegiac re-recording of the Goldberg Variations and then the stroke, which killed him, is well told, especially by Lorne Tulk and Glenn's long-time aide Ray Roberts. Finally, there's the memorial service at St Paul's Anglican Church in Toronto, jammed with Gould's friends and fans. The CBC news footage from that service is narrated by John Roberts, and I will never forget the moment where the camera catches the writer and critic Ken Winters shedding tears on behalf of us all.

GLENN GOULD'S story deserves retelling by a new generation of those who have come under his spell. Through his recordings he remains alive to us, moving us still with his music-making. Near godlike in his art, he was also utterly human, his story filled with joy and tragedy, humour and beauty. And finally, despite all that has been written and speculated, there is still at the heart of Glenn Gould a mystery, a mystery which enchants us and will not let us go.


Glenn Gould, by Mark Kingwell, Penguin Canada, 2009

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, a documentary film by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, produced by White Pine Pictures

ERIC FRIESEN is a broadcaster and writer specializing in the arts. He writes regularly on music for Queen's Quarterly.
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Author:Friesen, Eric
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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