Song of the Week: Glenn Gould and the Neurotic Sublime

Alriiiight, we’re in week two of my New Year’s Resolution to share every mundane thought I have about my favorite recordings with my faceless public that may or may not exist! As a commemorative gesture, I’m going to keep talking.

As outlined in this series’ previous entry, my Song of the Week won’t necessarily coincide with what’s happening contemporaneously in any scene, but are more a reflection of what I’ve been listening to in an attempt to put into words what draws me to them so magnetically, and hopefully mining a capacity in others to draw as they will from those insights.

This week, I’ll keep it brief, as its subject is a recording and an artist that, both together and respectively, have been deliberated ceaselessly in an ongoing thread of repercussions in their cultural sphere, the reactions to which (“It’s genius!” “It’s insane!” “It’s pretentious!”) have them to be known as a kind of Rorschach test for those really involved and invested in the classical world. The artist is the pianist Glenn Gould, and the work is Variation 24, the Canon at the Octave, of the celebrated 1955 Goldberg Variations.

Glenn Gould 1955 Goldberg Variations Song of the Week

As a means of brief introduction, Gould is the cipher of the classical piano world, a Canadian-born prodigy and the prize pupil of Alberto Guerrero, a colleague of the great Chilean pianist, Claudio Arrau. From his meteoric rise to stardom from his early teens into his twenties–being touted as “Bach’s prophet,” a reputation that preceded him even in Soviet Moscow, where Vladimir Ashkenazy recalls him playing to theater housing swarms of spectators–to his retirement from live performance in favor the sterile control of the recording studio, no one could ever seem to “figure him out.” Even himself:

One of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

The amount of sheer verbiage dedicated his capabilities at the piano, especially in handling the intellectual, throbbing polyphony of Bach, has left the market for rhetoric pretty saturated; not much more that’s new can be said about it, or for that matter, the destructiveness of his eccentricities. Both of those features of his personality were nothing short of superhuman.

As in the case of the Goldberg Variations, finding Gould right in the sweet spot of his performing career, no one could play those fingerbusting musical nuggets at those tempos with that degree of accuracy. Composer Lukas Foss (the husband of painter Cornelia Foss, who from 1967 to 1972 would become Gould’s lover and intimate companion), recalls first hearing the recording in his car radio, and having to pull over for the need to register what he was hearing. It was impossible, it was a machine. But unlike, say, Milton Babbitt running a Bach piano roll through a synthesizer at breakneck speed:

Gould did the impossible by somehow letting the subtle roughness and imperfection of a human touch resonate even as he sprinted to the piece’s end. It became a piece you could experience as an expert, adrenaline-laced account of Baroque imitative counterpoint, or alternatively, as one great mass, a pulsing energetic web of melody. As a listener, being on the receiving end of this incandescent shimmer of notes, seeming so perfectly placed in a tactile sense, but moving too fast for us to completely digest it, lending it the awe of mystery, the experience approached transcendence.

Those familiar with Gould should no doubt be aware of mini-culture war between factionalists who favor his 1955 or 1981 recording of the Variations. I approach them as snapshots of two very distinct Glenn Goulds, from an artistic point of view: the former, an energetic young man–practically still a boy–with a strength of conviction to match his neurosis, and letting all hang out in the spur-of-the-moment ember of his performance; the latter, an older, more withdrawn Gould, the grooves of his personality having settled in fully and his obsessive need for control only exacerbated by technology’s enablement of that compulsion, but not for lack of great art.

If it wasn’t obvious enough, I do, at the end of the day, prefer Ol ’55, primarily for his interpretation of this specific variation, which I first heard while walking alone in the rain on Seventh Ave. and I stopped dead in my tracks. Very little music, no matter how much I’m paying attention, forces me to completely stop and contemplate, just as Lukas Foss stopped his car. But in the variation, I felt it; an odd choice, since contemporary authorities on the piece such as Jeremy Denk all love to talk about the infamous “Black Pearl” variation proceeding it, which anticipated atonality by–oh, I dunno–about 200 years.

But Gould in his way makes this 57-second performance so full of force and power. Firstly, there’s the tempo choice. Many contest with overall rapidity of the tempos in the 1955 Variations, in my experience the central motivation for why people side with 1981. And they’re not wrong; Gould’s recording of Variation 24 still is the fastest I’ve ever heard. Given that it was the first interpretation of the piece I heard, I may be biased, thinking all of the others aren’t fast enough because I associate that first listening experience with how it “should” be played.

Regardless of whether Freud could speak to that, the tempo argues its case persuasively in how it evokes the gigue, one of the many dance forms that consumed Bach elsewhere. The piece is a dance, but at its clip it’s too fast to realistically dance to; and so, it becomes a ballet of the imagination. Its main melodic ornament, the spritely, cascading downwards scale, seems to dance on its own accord, marking the impossible pirouettes and jetés of a dancer in the listener’s mind. Though perhaps the interpretation requires multiple listenings to grasp all the details–the Baroque swing, the uncanny distribution of voices, the continuity of the subject’s development–as a result, the tempo implies the mindset that Gould wants to pull out of his audience, the state of calm wonder so evident when he’s sitting at the instrument.

Secondly, and just as important, is the sheer energy driving Gould through the performance, which is of course where his neuroses come into play. The popular idea of Gould often gets reduced to a thin caricature of a paranoid over-literate savant due to the fact that these behavioral eccentricities often assumed center stage: he always wore gloves and an overcoat, even in tropical climates; he was a hypochondriac who went through bouts of compulsive pulse-checking and self-medicating; his obsessed over controlling every aspect of his image in the media, to the extent of scripting his interviews himself; Cornelia Foss also relates instances of a paranoid Gould fearing that he was being watched and that he was trying to be poisoned.

As a result, many of Gould’s apologist, i.e., the ones more concerned about the music, try to avoid discussion of his personal life in addressing his musical output, leading to this conception that the man literally just became somebody else when at the piano, a calm, sage-like presence, reverting to the same troubled, lonely man at the piece’s end. Again, Dr. Freud would probably have something to say about my taking sides, but I hold a more integrated idea of the luminosity of Gould’s performance. It wasn’t that Gould was great in spite of his troubled mind, but rather, that very anxiety that progressively consumed also provided the impetus for the relentless nervous energy the listener can viscerally feel in the performance.

To ignore this would be to miss out on an insight into Bach that only Gould has made clear: that in addition to the deep spirituality and the wisdom of years of life experience buried deep in the Variations, coexists a kind of fanaticism for structure, linearity, and development that governs the progression of so many of his pieces while mirroring Gould’s own psyche. For Gould, playing Bach wasn’t so much of a panacea so much as a communal with a consciousness he could personally understand, granting him the ability to channel his complimentary obsessiveness into the composer’s vehicle, in the hopes of reaching some higher ground. To be frank, judging from the shivers I get from the piece’s final resolution–such bravado, force, triumph, and yet, peace in how he plays that chord!–even after years of listening to it, not much higher ground has been reached.

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