Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Glenn Gould - art and life, and life as art


I recently watched the documentary movie The Inner Life of Glenn Gould; which is perhaps the best thing of its kind I have seen.

There is no doubt that Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-82) has has a much larger influence on me than any other musician.

I first began to listen to his work in 1978 (the 48 preludes and fugues); because I wanted to get some Bach played on piano, and because I was intrigued by the uniformly hostile reviews of Gould in the Penguin Stereo Record Guide (two out of five possible stars, as I recall) and the Gramophone magazine.

I sensed that the dislike of the British music establishment critics (whose judgment I generally disagreed-with) might be an indication of his special qualities. I was, of course, correct.


In those days it was difficult for me to get hold of Gould's recordings. In the UK I needed to order some as imports, I bought some on a visit to Boston USA, and some more in Paris. I bought the first biography of Gould (by Geoffrey Payzant) in Toronto itself - his home town.


Listening to Gould's Bach (over and over again) became an almost essential part of my psychological harmony - I recall an especially bleak night 'on call' as a hospital doctor, being sustained by it. Then shortly afterwards he died.

Gradually, over the years, his fame grew.

My 1987-written venture into radio drama had Gould as a character and providing the music -



What I particularly valued about Gould was not only the playing but the whole package - the intensity and concentration with which he seemed to tackle everything.

And part of this was that he seemed to have his life the way he wanted it: a life that had fame - but at a distance; and a high degree of control and autonomy. He portrayed his life as one of solitude in the city.

This was, indeed, an ideal for me: something about which I daydreamed.

To find a comfortable but stimulating niche.


Gould described his life as Thoreauvian - and so it was; but not in the way that I understood the term at that time.


It now turns out, from recent biographical work, that although Gould was indeed highly eccentric and unusual as a person - the life of solitude and autonomy which he described and which I believed and regarded as an ideal - was pretty much a work of art. Not a description of the reality of his life.


Gould had a one-sided but compulsive need for society - or at least for listeners (whether by telephone or in person) - he needed this for many hours per day. Indeed it must have interefred with his work.

He had a marriage like relationship (with step children) for several year in his forties.

And he did not really seem to be happy with things - seems to have been pretty deeply lonely and frustrated with himself.


In this respect he was similar to Thoreau - whose life was not one of solitary autonomy (living in a hut by a pond, away from people) as portrayed in Walden; but instead one of sociality albeit semi-detached - mostly living at home or with Emerson's family.


I have found this disillusionment again and again as I read biographies of people whose lives I admire and at times wished to emulate.

The idea of life as an art form - Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said he put his genius into his life but only his talent into his art - seems to me essentially false.

Deceptive. A con.


Those who claim (usually implicitly) that their life is a work of art - something aesthetic, controlled, autonomous - are invariably being untruthful.

(There may indeed be some people who do achieve this ideal - but if so, we hear nothing about it. They are not famous. These people - if indeed they exist - are not in the public eye: are not major artists, poets, writers, musicians).


But the desire to make one's life something akin to a work of creative art - although alluring - is an error in itself: an error born of despair, it now seems to me.

An error deriving from the unsatisfactoriness of 'the world'; and attempting to combat meaninglessness, purposelessness and alienation by self-created meaning.


Yet if meaning depends on the self - that is, if the project succeeds - then it fails: because self-created meaning is not meaning but merely a delusion: a dominating autonomous personal belief immune to influence.

Even if others are drawn into the delusion and support it (as sometimes happens with artist-guru types, - Like Jung, or Robert Graves) then there is the background awareness that all this is contingent upon a perpetual act of will.

The extreme act of will required is itself probably evil - probably an extreme form of pride, an expression of power desiring to shape the world to one's own desires.


Anyway, Gould remains a beacon to me; nowadays for rather different reasons than he used to be a beacon - yet still I value above all else his combination of supreme technique, analytic musicality, ability, inspiration and intensity.

Gouldian levels of intensity are almost an escape from self-consciousness, indeed from consciousness itself; a complete absorption in the 'flow' of working and shaping.

So they are not really an answer, more of an escape; the ability to attain this absorption probably declines with age; and the 're-entry problem' must be exceptionally difficult - to come-down from the heights to the mundane; to fee concentration opening-out into diffuse dissipation.


But a continually fascinating personality.

And, maybe surprisingly, one who was very much and very widely loved - despite his autonomy, demandingness, self-obsessive qualities.

Much loved, and - even now - much missed.