Glenn Gould From A To Z (by Michael Stegemann)

Don Hunstein / Jan 61


Gould owned a motorboat that he called Arnold S. He discovered his love of the father of twelve-tone music at a very early date, and it never wavered. New music? When Gould played Schoenberg, listeners suddenly understood why the leading light of the Second Viennese School saw himself as one of Brahms’s successors. Schoenberg was the only composer about whom Gould never uttered a critical word. He recorded practically all of Schoenberg’s works for or with the piano, and the only book he ever published was devoted to Schoenberg, who was also the subject of several radio series: Arnold Schoenberg – The Man Who Changed Music. Even in Moscow and Leningrad, where Schoenberg was effectively banned in 1957, he did what he could to promote the composer’s music. For Gould, Schoenberg was the first contrapuntalist after Bach and “we will some day know that he was one of the greatest composers who ever lived”.


“I can’t do without it. I would if I could.” It was Gould’s mother who taught him to sing along with the music when he was playing the piano at home. By the time he noticed that he had retained the habit when performing on the concert platform and in the recording studio, it was already too late. He could no longer rid himself of the habit, and it became one of his trademarks. Other musicians would sing or growl or hum along with the music – both Toscanini and Casals did so – but with no other musician is this contrapuntal accompaniment as noticeable as it was with Gould. (In spite of this, it remains difficult to make out exactly what he is singing.) He himself accepted the situation with good humour: when the producer Howard Scott once asked him in some desperation if he could somehow stifle the sound, Gould turned up at the studio for his next recording session wearing a gas mask from the Second World War. During the 1970s CBC producer Andrew Kazdin reports that “we erected a large, sound-absorbent screen just to Glenn’s right that partially shielded the microphones from an uninterrupted view of his face”. The idea of encasing the whole of Gould’s upper body, together with the keyboard and pedals, in a sound-absorbent box was abandoned only because “Glenn had to hear the sounds his instrument was producing as he played”.


Gould’s description of the atmosphere in a sound studio was one of “womblike security” will gladden the hearts of every psychoanalyst, as will his preference for a room temperature of 90˚ F for his recordings. Even his self-avowed “love affair with the microphone” implies an erotic undertone. He preferred to record at night, and his crew accepted this willingly, in spite of all union rules. Was he really a “man of mortar in the “dungeon of the despair-machine of his studio,” as the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard described him in his 1983 novel The Loser, one of whose characters is based on Gould? At best this description suits him superficially: “My idea of happiness is two hundred and fifty days a year in a recording studio.” For Gould, the studios of Columbia and CBC were the great love of his life, the roof over his head, his playground, his laboratory, his home and his happiness. The thousands upon thousands of takes and out-takes are the diary of an artistic obsession: “I can’t divorce the studio from my personal life.”