Glenn Gould From A To Z (by Michael Stegemann)

Don Hunstein / May 59


When Gould practised the piano (which he rarely did), the radio and television were generally both running in the background. No other classical musician of his day was as plugged into the world’s media as Gould, and no other musician exploited its possibilities as extensively and from such an early date in order to promote his art and his ideas. Even complex themes like The Anatomy of Fugue (1963) and the four-part series on Music in Our Time (1974–7) inspired him to produce textbook examples of how to communicate music. Between 1961 and 1981 Gould made some three dozen television programmes. Especially after his retirement from the concert hall, television offered an ideal platform by which to reach his public, and he was as adept at handling the demands of the small screen as he was at mastering the demands of the keyboard. In both cases he was a virtuoso. His television broadcasts reveal what a gifted entertainer he was as long as he did not have to perform live but could play to the camera’s unseeing eye: relaxed and playful, witty and original, surprising and spontaneous; and the charisma that he exuded has lost none of its ability to enthrall us.


Flying was the worst of all. The violinist Ginette Neveu, the pianist William Kapell and the conductor Guido Cantelli were all killed in aeroplane accidents. After 1962 Gould never again set foot inside a plane, preferring to put up with endless train journeys and car rides. His writings are full of horror stories about dramatic travel experiences, and the thought of having to set off on tour again filled him with exactly the same feelings that he had known as a child when having to go to school on a Monday morning. The sense of being “terribly out of touch with all the life that I knew” plunged him into a state of very real depression, and during the years when he was regularly on the road, he was frequently to be heard repeating the same phrase with mantra-like monotony: “Who the hell said it was supposed to be fun anyway?” His countless cancelled concerts and his ultimate decision to abandon the concert hall were almost certainly connected to his notorious dislike of, and fear of, travel.


Gould regularly ran up astronomical telephone bills. Outside the studio he led an anthropophobic, unworldly existence and maintained his contact with others by means of the telephone, by preference at one or two in the morning. His calls could go on for hours, regardless of whether the person he was calling had already gone to bed. Gould would declaim entire texts that he had written out in advance, working through production plans, philosophizing about God and the world or simply wanting to talk, no matter what the subject. One of his favourite games on the telephone was Twenty Questions – questions about a person whose identity the other caller had to guess. Many interviews were similarly conducted by phone, notably those with Jonathan Cott that were later published under the title Conversations with Glenn Gould. “Glenn, do you actually have a real physical presence, or are you just a ghost – a ghost in the phone-lines?”