Friday, October 08, 2004

Glenn Gould: Asperger's Syndrome, Marshall Mcluhan, and Walter Benjamin

Some friends in graduate school introduced me to Glenn Gould, initially through a biographical film called 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, and then through his many recordings of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms.

Gould was the first classical pianist I really clicked with, partly because his style seemed so radical. He sharp anti-romantic tendencies are evident in his approach to Bach in particular, and were made famous by his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. It appealed to the electronic music aesthetic; I still think there is a kind of unconscious affinity between radical electronic music composers like Autechre, Squarepusher, and Aphex Twin, and Gould's Bach. Since then, my taste has broadened some (I like more conventional players), but I am still pretty much a dodo when it comes to classical music.

I liked Michael Kimmelman's recent New York Review of Books review of Kevin Bazzana's new biography of Gould. I was interested about the speculation that Gould might have had Asperger's Syndrome.

He was born Glenn Herbert Gold on September 25, 1932, an only child in a Protestant family of furriers who by the late 1930s had begun to call themselves Gould, perhaps to avoid being mistaken for Jews. The Toronto where Gould grew up, Bazzana recounts, was a small, peaceful, puritanical, Anglophilic city. Canada was achieving a degree of cultural independence in those decades, increasingly through the radio and television. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was pioneering and experimental. Gould was among the few classical musicians (Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein were others) who, early on, recognized and exploited the potential of the new technologies.

As a boy, he was a loner, polite, gangly, and disheveled, already an insomniac, amusing when he chose to be but also a young fogy, intolerant of his friends' smoking, drinking, and flirting. There has been some speculation about Asperger's syndrome. He was the sort of teenager who affected a German accent after reading Nietzsche and who claimed to identify with Tonio Kröger, Mann's fictional aesthete.

Asperger's Syndrome has been on my mind after listening to an audiobook of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (about which a post may be forthcoming; I need to get a hard-copy of the book so I can quote).

Bazzana's biography apparently links Gould to that other famous Torontonian -- Marshall Mcluhan, and also speculates on possible links between Gould's famous renunciation of stage performance in 1964 with what has happening in the art world in the 1970s -- conceptual art especially:

Gould's attitude toward his recordings, as Bazzana points out, was actually akin to McLuhan's toward his books, which McLuhan once described to Playboy as "the process rather than the completed product of discovery; my purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means of insight." Likewise, Gould approached the studio, or at least liked to say that he approached the studio, without fixed ideas about a performance, trying out different approaches—this is what he enjoyed about recordings as opposed to concerts, notwithstanding that his various takes might be nearly indistinguishable to anyone except him—while he regarded the finished album as something listeners could modify according to their whims by fiddling with the hi-fi. "Dial twiddling," he pointed out, is "an interpretative act."

He imagined producing kits of variant recordings for listeners to assemble their own preferred version of a performance. He had the Brechtian idea of recording Scriabin's Fifth Sonata with pairs of microphones around the studio in order to produce an album in which the sound would be perceived as shifting from one place to another, as if to simulate someone moving through the room, making the physical space of the studio part of the recording.

He compared this concept with a filmmaker's mixing of long shots, close-ups, and zooms. But this was also the era of Conceptual art, of Rauschenberg's collages, of Fluxus and John Cage. Sol LeWitt was devising works consisting merely of instructions for other people to follow. Donald Judd was asserting the inextricable relationship between sculpture and the space around it. Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg and Yoko Ono were staging happenings. Gould, enough aware of what was going on in the art world, called the performance in which he sprawled across the piano lid the first happening in southern Ontario.

Despite the parallels, I find it difficult to place Gould alongside the rest of those names above. The sharpness of his playing does fit well with minimalism in a certain way, and his refusal of the concert piano form, and "dial-twiddling" are not to be overlooked. But mostly I think Gould was completely off on his own -- not a conceptual artist at all. Remember, Gould is most famous for his recitals of baroque music from 300 years earlier, not of original compositions.

The most conceptually interesting point made in Kimmelman's review is whether Walter Benjamin was right about the "era of mechanical reproduction." Kimmelman thinks not, and argues that Gould's own theatricality and endless self-contradictions cancel out his interest in going mechanical:

Walter Benjamin predicted that the proliferation of reproductions of art would eradicate the aura of the original. Following Benjamin, Gould believed that musical recordings would vitiate the public's longing for live performance. "When Aunt Minnie can turn on her four-screen television and watch the Berlin Philharmonic we will have reached total inwardness on the part of the audience," he told a reporter in 1962.

Just a few months after Gould left the concert stage, Horowitz ended a dozen-year sabbatical and made a widely publicized return, at Carnegie Hall, after which Columbia Records, which was also Horowitz's producer, rushed out a "live" version of the recital. Gould disdained everything about Horowitz's recital and the recording—he despised the Horowitz cult, Horowitz's choice of music (Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff), not to mention the spectacle of his return. For some years he pondered making a parody album of Horowitz's comeback. He speculated about his own historic return someday being a recital filmed in an empty Carnegie Hall. He felt live recordings mixed up the art of performing with the art of recording. The two were distinct. The recording studio, Gould said, had "its own laws and its own liberties, its quite unique problems and its quite extraordinary possibilities." It even had, he believed, a higher moral purpose than a concert, which celebrated a player's ego. "I think that the finest compliment one can pay to a recording is to acknowledge that it was made in such a way as to erase all signs, all traces, of its making and its maker"—which of course applied to no recording ever made by either Horowitz or Gould.

Like Benjamin, Gould was wrong. That live recording of Horowitz's return was itself a technological fiction. In the studio Horowitz rerecorded passages he had muffed on stage. But now Sony has reissued the album and restored the mistakes, arguing that the public wants the real experience, the authentic performance. The aura of the original, it turns out, has only increased, not diminished, with the proliferation of reproductive technologies.

This last point -- is it really true? People do fetishize the "live recording" (whatever that is), the live performance, etc. But isn't it true that when one goes to hear live music, one is always comparing it to the CD one has in the car?

People do pay $100 to see live music. But I often think it's become more a social ritual for rich people (dress up; see and be seen) than a bona fide site where music is experienced. For most people who take music seriously, that usually happens alone, in spaces where sound is contained and controlled: headphones (the Ipod), or the car.

[Speaking of serious music, but otherwise completedly unrelatedly, I'm very happy with my new M83 CD.]


Mel said...

There's an interesting bit in last week's Chronicle about the increase in Asperger's syndrome (or at least its identification) and impact on students/teaching etc.

About live music and the aura: I think there's a conceptual flaw in trying to apply that essay of Benjamin's to music. Thomas Tanselle (who I disagree with on many points) makes a good distinction between physical, static works of art like paintings and sculpture, and process or performative works of art like music, dance, and written texts. He describes the latter category as existing only as "a set of instructions for their performance". The difference is in what you consider the "work" actually to be: is it the mathematical arrangement of tones (by the composer) or the interpretation of that arrangement (by the performer). There can be no aura, really, in WB's sense, since there is no one originary work.

And certain genres or composers invite different levels of participatory enthusiasm that encourage the valuing of live performance (and its subsequent commodification): i.e., the Grateful Dead, and the extensive bartering of bootleg recordings (of them and other bands).

The ultimate extension of what I understand Gould to have been saying would be the veneration of the DJ in trance/electronica circles -- we gather around to watch someone play records recorded by other people. And it's art.

3:23 AM  

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