December 28, 2010

The Gouldian Kit

The basic legend of genius pianist Glenn Gould is that at 31 he stopped playing live, describing his audience as a “force of evil” who scrutinized his performance, watching for any failure in his perceived and expected greatness.(1) We know, too, of his meteoric classical performing artist career, from the early performances in Toronto and on Canadian radio broadcasts, to his historic New York City debut, at a mere 22 years of age, that quickly lead to a Columbia Records recording contract. The resultant first recording sessions for Columbia yielded Bach: The Goldberg Variations, an album that had the rare distinction of becoming a best-selling classical LP, and Gould's subsequent concert tour of Russia was a resounding success.(2)

After 1962, and for the remainder of his life, Gould honed his various mythic eccentricities – wearing overcoat, gloves and scarf in all seasons, obsessively taking his own blood pressure and self-medicating with prescription pharmaceuticals, humming distractingly during recordings – and died of complications from a stroke just days after his 50th birthday.

What is among the lesser known facts about Glenn Gould is that he foresaw music’s future in the technology of the recording industry. He understood that the limits of any live performance were its dependence on chance and the psychic and physical conditions of the performer. During Gould’s early experience in the then-developing technologies of analog (magnetic tape) recording, he would discover the inherent promise within the multiple “takes” of a recording session and the production qualities of microphone placements. He was able to see that the wonder of music’s presence and immediacy would one day have the potential to shift from performer to listener, that the “product” might be re-formatted, re-presented through “interpretive” recording techniques in a kind of do-it-yourself “kit” for personal enjoyment. In 1968, he said:

“I’m all for the kit concept…I’d love to issue a series of variant performances and let the listener choose what they themselves most like. Let them assemble their own performance. Give them all the component parts, all the component splices, rendered at different tempi with different dynamic inflections, and let them put something together that they really enjoy — make them participant to that degree.”(3)

Gould foresaw that music would survive the vagaries of random performance by expanding upon the recording technologies. Through this “post-production” music might have an infinite, never-ending potential to yield multiple interpretations.

It should come as no secret that Gould’s vision has now become a reality. Various performers in different musical genres have begun providing ways in which their fans can now interact and participate in their music via access to recorded tracks and/or individual recorded components of their musical works. These “stems” can be re-mixed to suit the fan’s tastes, shared with others, or even submitted back to the “original” performer for approval.(4)

In the postmodern world, this kind of leveling of the “playing” field makes perfect sense. As the author has died and readers have become “producers” of meaning, so too will the binary of performer/fan be usurped. Gould was ahead of the curve in his perception of the necessary breakdown of “live” performance and the then burgeoning freedom of late Sixties’ recording techniques. As Kevin Bazzina has noted:

His creative approach to interpretation, for instance – that free, subjective, self-conscious engagement with musical texts without regard for inherited traditions or the composer’s intentions – call to mind contemporary literary ideas like Umberto Eco’s ‘open work,’ Roland Barthes’s novella critique, and the whole phenomenon of reader-response criticism, even, in some ways deconstruction…His atemporal, ahistorical view of musical works, his advocacy of a mixing of styles (as in his String Quartet or his ‘Baroque-ish’ Mozart performances), his defiance of avant-garde factions and opposition to the notion of ‘progress’ in the arts – all resonated with intellectual trends of his day, in various fields, to such a degree that we might call Gould the first postmodern performer of the Western classical canon.”(5)

Image: Glenn Gould at age 23 in Nassau, Bahamas; photograph © Copyright by Jock Carroll.


1. Gould, Glenn. The Glenn Gould Reader, New York, 1984.

2. For more on Gould's life and career, see Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, playing this week on PBS stations this week – check local listings.

3. Bazzana, Kevin. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, New York, 2004, 267.

4. Former Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor figures prominently in the listing of performers who have provided such links.

5. Op. cit., 267.

1 comment:

Dorothy said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I have found yet another musician to research and look into. There was a bit of sadness there for me as well. How awful is it that artists and muscians can remedy something off key with a push of a button? Or, that, live performances never quite live up to the quality what has been heard first on an MP3, Pandora, or a vinyl record (which I still love and collect). There's, certainly, no surprise in his fortelling of the recording industry. Very good point about the producer/fan (or the 'prosumer'). What will happen to recording companies? In any case, thanks again for the post!