Glenn Gould

The boy Glenn Gould at the piano with his dog

Glenn Gould (1932-82) was an internationally respected Canadian classical pianist and composer who stopped giving concert performances in 1964. Not unlike the Beatles (who quit performing live when they recorded their studio masterpiece Sgt. Peppers), Gould went on to push the boundaries of classical studio recording.

In his best selling CBS Masterworks album of J. S. Bach‘s The Goldberg Variations,¹ Gould pioneered the use of studio “punching in” for classical music. The technique allows the performer to non-destructively replace specific segments without altering the entire work (much like a word processor does with a text document).

In a published debate with the virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Menhuin deplores Gould’s emphasis on the studio. Menhuin says Gould’s studio wizardry is artificial and disconnected from the human element. Gould defends his studio techniques by suggesting that a listener’s relationship to recorded music is just as personal as a live performance, although within a different kind of realm.

In their debate Menuhin stresses the importance of live audience feedback. But Gould resolutely stands his ground by saying that he prefers to create and produces better work in the studio. ² On the latter point, time seems to have proven him right. Gould’s live recordings are interesting but his studio albums are by far the most memorable.

The Gould/Menuhin debate foreshadowed issues addressed today by fans and critics of digital sampling and electronic music (e.g. is electronica soulless or where it’s at?).

Bench statue of Glenn Gould in front of CBC bu...
Bench statue of Glenn Gould in front of CBC building, Toronto by mtsrs via Wikipedia and Flickr

It also prefigured recent philosophical debates about the nature of reality and human interaction (e.g. can we have genuine relationships without meeting people in person?). Obviously, these debates didn’t originate with the advent of the internet and virtual reality, but they are vividly brought to life and further developed by these media.

Some say that Gould was a genius. And many say that he was eccentric. In some of his recordings you can faintly hear his somewhat shrill voice sounding out over his piano playing. This kind of thing is unacceptable for most classical performers. But Gould got away with it—perhaps all part of his ‘eccentric piano whiz’ image.

Unfortunately, Gould did not enjoy good health throughout his career. His reliance on prescription drugs to manage pain might have been a contributing factor to his death by stroke at age 50. Had he lived longer, he apparently planned to branch out into other areas (such as conducting) and give up the piano or, at least, minimize his direct involvement with the instrument.

¹ Gould came to adore the music of Bach, likening it to a great castle or cathedral of the mind. In comparison, he saw Mozart as a musical poser, a position that not many would share.

² See The Music of Man by Yehudi Menuhin and Curtis W. Davis. Toronto: Methuen, 1979 (and the excellent video below).

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