Radio Gould

Glenn Gould gave up touring and giving live concerts in 1964. An odd notion, perchance, but he saw the future of music in recording. And besides, what he really wanted to do was compose - and the constant touring was getting in the way of that.

It was getting on his nerves. Giving concerts. Seriously.

Well, despite all his grandiose plans he never got much beyond opus 1 - his rather fine and really quite promising string quartet, fashioned after the very late and almost over-ripe late romantic movement, which he composed in his early twenties. Somehow nothing ever got finished except for a few incidental and trivial pieces. His magnum opus, the opera about Richard Strauss, certainly never materialised.

But he did have the urge, that burning urge to create compositions of his own, an urge never quite was sated by his recording work or the articles he wrote or the things he did for TV. The creative urge had to find an outlet somewhere. It did, in his radio documentaries.

The first one came in 1967, as a commission from the CBC. It was called The Idea of North and explored life in the Canadian north and the people who lived or worked there. What made it exceptional is the way Gould crafted his material. He treated his the long monologues of his interviewees as if they were pieces of music. He faded them in and out at will, sometimes playing three voices at the same time - making it fairly impossible follow any of them or to distinguish what was being said at all. He spliced the voices sot that it appeared that they were addressing each other, quarelling with one another even, when in fact they never even met. He called it "contrapuntal radio". It was - and is - quite delightful.

What he did was in fact rather clever. He created a mattress or if you will a tapestry of voice and depersonalized his interviewees or narrators and made them not individual persons but rather personifications. They ceased to be just a person and became instead voices of the north, archetypes and thus much more valid and credible.

In Gould's words The Idea of North was "a documentary which thinks of itself as a drama". It grew in part out of his early fascination with radio drama. And his abhorrence of linear documentaries which he found – well, predictable.

This is indeed hugely interesting. Very soon into the documentary one begins to listen to it as a cross between a symphony for voices and an opera. There are echoes of Ivesian grandeur – or madness – almost polyrhythmic elements, but mostly it's an opera. There are story lines, there are themes, there are characters, maybe there's even a plot of some kind. He plays around with words and concepts, bends them to his will, but subtly and deviously. All this is explained in his 1971 interview Radio as Music with John Jessop.

The north itself is the protagonist - and the villain.

One voice becomes all voices. All voices become one. It is the land that speaks.

The surprising thing is that very little music is used. It isn't necessary. Only snippets of Sibelius's Fifth symphony are heard - mainly I believe because for Gould Sibelius and the north are one and the same.

The amazing thing is – he didn't set out to do The Idea of North quite as revolutionary it turned out. Initially he planned to do it in five parts, with basically one voice per part. Then he did another version, a linear one which turned out to be, well - quite linear. Which Gould thought boring. The version was also too long. So, how to shorten it? Every scene was necessary. The answer was obvious – why, to run them simultaneously.

Thusly genius was born out of necessity. As often is the case.
And obviously, Gould being very much Gould, he never really ventured north himself . . .

The second part of what became Gould's radiophonic trilogy is The Latecomers from 1969. The idea and the concept are very much the same. Again we have the themes of isolation and solitude - this time on an island, Newfoundland. The piece isn't quite as fresh and innovative as its predecessor but still solid and fascinating in its own right.

Then we have portraits of two artists: Pablo Casals and Leopold Stokowski (with whom Gould recorded Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto). They are somewhat more conventional technically and live on the personality of the musicians. After the previous documents they seem almost flat, stale and one-dimensional. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that these are really inspiring fellows and well worth a closer look. And Gould being very much Gould music and art isn' everything we get to hear about - not by a long chalk.

The third and final part of the trilogy of documentaries on isolation, The Quiet Ones, 1977, is again a bulls-eye. This time Gould reverses his premise. From geographical isolation he goes to mental and spiritual isolation when he tackles the Mennonites and their take on the modern world. Now this is truly riveting stuff, especially for the non-believer, because basically their problem is the same as that of any sane individual: how to live in this world.

Is one to be, like a certain gentleman of Nazareth, among one's fellow men but not of them? Where does one draw the line? How much ought one to isolate from society, merely for the sake of common sense?

Isolation and solitude were for Gould, a notorious hermit himself, questions of the utmost importance. They never ceased to baffle him. I suppose his love of solitude was the real reason he ceased giving live concerts (which, by the way, to him were immoral because in them the performer had to prove something that never needed to be proved in the first place!), he just couldn't take that much exposure to people.

But back to the Mennonites. In Gould's portrait of the faith we encounter the very core of society itself - how ought a society to be and function, and how ought men to act in a society? What rights does one have and what duties? And can one really turn one's back on the world, however horrid it be?

And art? Or Art! What is the role of Art in a society? This too is something Gould has pondered upon, deeply.

After his trilogy Gould never did anything particularly significant for the radio. A pit. Maybe he'd said all he needed to say.

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