Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 6, 2010

Two movies about Glenn Gould

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

Without giving short shrift to the various eccentricities that spring to mind when the subject’s name is mentioned, the new documentary “Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould” that opens on September 10 at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas offers a compelling portrait of the artist’s personal life and musical contributions. It is one of the finer film biographies you will encounter in this or any other year.

I first encountered Gould’s artistry as a freshman at Bard College in 1961 when his CBS Goldberg Variations recording of 1955 had achieved the iconic status of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” or Ray Charles’s “”Hallelujah, I love her so” albums. Despite the prevailing prejudice at the time for hearing the “authentic” Bach played on original instruments, the sounds of Gould playing Bach on a Steinway were likely to stop you in your tracks.

This was a universal reaction to as evidenced by the reaction of a Russian audience to his performance of the Goldberg Variations in a 1957 tour, the first by a North American (Gould was Canadian) since WWII. The hall was only half full since his reputation had not yet been established globally but after the Bach performance which occurred in the first half of the concert, there was a mad rush to telephones in the lobby where audience members called everybody they knew to come hear the amazing young artist. By the time the second half of the concert was ready to begin, the place was packed.

Co-directors Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, fellow Canadians, have brought an obvious love for Gould the man and Gould the artist. Despite the seeming apolitical character of their chosen subject, both directors have an extensive background as political filmmakers with a film about Chilean activist and writer Ariel Dorfman to their credit. Of course, there is a political dimension to Gould’s life that we will say a word or two in closing.

Hozer and Raymont were inspired to make this movie after learning in 2007 that the famous “loner” had a serious relationship with Cornelia Foss (the estranged wife of composer Lukas Foss) that was nearly consummated in marriage. In distinction to the mad genius image we associate with Glenn Gould, he emerges as a loving and considerate mate who doted on her two children while refusing to substitute for their real father. He was more of an uncle to them than anything else, but that did not prevent the two children—Christopher and Eliza—from growing very fond of him. Despite his reputation as a world-class celebrity, he lived for automobile trips with Cornelia and the two kids to lakes and parks all around Canada.

While he sought a kind of normalcy with the Foss’s, his eccentricities eventually drove a wedge between him and Cornelia that were impossible to overcome. Like Howard Hughes, Gould was an obsessive-compulsive, a hypochondriac who took his blood pressure several times a day, and an abuser of prescription medication in the same league as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. He died of a stroke at the age of 50, ostensibly from years of living an unhealthy life-style.

If this was all there was to Gould, there would not be that much of an appeal to this documentary. But most of it is uplifting and even hilarious at points. Gould was no stuffed shirt. He enjoyed playing the clown as we can see in a short film he did on a beach in the Bahamas. He conducts before an imaginary orchestra while a scantily clad local female does what appears to be the frug.

He was also fascinated by pop culture, taking a particular interest in Petula Clark, the British songstress best known for the hit tune “Downtown”. She was the subject of a radio program he did for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). After Gould decided to stop performing in concert, his attention shifted to studio recordings and his award-winning radio show “The Idea of North”.

The film includes an ample amount of Gould performances, as well as interviews he conducted over a lifetime. Both are compelling. We also hear from musical experts who explain what made his style unique. Apparently he learned that style from Albert Guerrero, a Chilean who had emigrated to Canada and stressed the use of “finger tapping”, a technique that consists of placing one hand with the finger pads on the keyboard and then releasing the fingers, allowing them to return quickly to the surface. The technique is intended to make the hand learn how to minimize the effort on keys, allowing for faster play. It is what gives Gould’s pianism its characteristic articulation and muscularity.

If you can’t see “Genius Within”, then you should see the next best thing, the idiosyncratic mixture of documentary and fiction called “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” that came out in 1993. Directed by French-Canadian François Girard and starring Don McKellar as Gould, it can be seen in its entirety on Youtube:

It is totally non-linear and consists of 32 independent segments, all intended to reveal different aspects of Gould’s musicianship and eccentricities. For example, one segment titled “CD318” (the serial number of his favorite Steinway) consists of a close-up of the inside of a piano as the hammers rise and fall in the Prelude No 2 from The Well Tempered Clavier.

Another segment is titled “Pills” and consists of nothing but a list of all the medications the pianist took over a lifetime.

What is missing from the film is any glimpse at the homespun Gould we meet in Hozer and Raymont’s film, but that is to be expected given the year it was made, long before the world learned of the Foss connection.

Neither film takes up the question of Gould’s departure from live performances on stage, something that people living in the age of the Internet would find most interesting since it is very much the same kind of issue as print versus electronics. Just as the book is very much a commodity, so is performance at a place like Carnegie Hall imbued with all sorts of class distinctions. The best seats are occupied by the wealthy and the major donors and board members tend to come from the haut bourgeoisie. Gould never really thought about the class issues, but he resented “performing” like a trained monkey in front of people in evening clothes. In fact, as Girard’s film reveals, Glenn Gould was the first artist to ever perform in a business suit on the stage of one of these places.

In the same way that the concert hall was a step upward from the kind of feudal control over musicians in the Baroque epoch within the monarch’s castle, the recording studio represent a kind of emancipation from the stultifying atmosphere of the Carnegie Halls of the world where geniuses are paid to perform in exchange for applause.

Gould’s passion was for the artistic ideal, not celebrity or riches. Perhaps his fixation on the recording studio was just one more eccentricity of a man with deep psychological problems who had trouble with human relationships. But at the very least, his defiance of the expectations of a celebrity-worshipping society puts him on the side of the angels when considered against the never-ending parade of “the greatest tenors” or “the greatest pianists” in PBS fundraising campaigns.


  1. Live music is still what music is about though. Recording studios to often routinely engage in outright fraud in the pursuit of perfection. Obsessive pitch tuning, rhythm quantzing, and overdubbing of ‘mistakes’ fragments musicality even if it noticeable on a subconscious level.

    As for the trained monkey stuff, it’s why I got out of the business. But I think there are many inherent aspects of that in music even beyond the obvious class issues from seating at the Met.

    Another issue, separately, is that classical music is dead as a vibrant art form. Why this is, I think, has to do a lot with the decay of capitalism as a modernizing social force. Most obviously, no major works written post-WW2 have entered the standard rep.

    Comment by purple — September 7, 2010 @ 4:40 am

  2. Long before any of today’s studio-generated popular music personalities were born, Gould was among the first recording artists to work closely with studio engineers to enhance the recorded product. As a former broadcast station owner and producer, I remember hearing the story of Gould at the CBS studios in New York listening to a playback of a “final” cut and expressing his great satisfaction with the finished result, only to overhear his engineer say: “Too bad you can’t play it like that.”

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 7, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  3. […] François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl mixes fact and fiction in a recreation of the 1957 […]

    Pingback by Howl « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 8, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: