Friday, April 3, 2020

Glenn Gould and the Art of Social Distancing

During this strange period of “social distancing”, the one person I think of immediately is Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould’s entire life was about self-isolation and social distancing, about being in the world and not of the world. He lived alone in one of his many abodes, and communicated with his friends and associates by letter, and – for those fortunate few – via telephone conversations lasting hours. Gould despised the idea of a live performance, the “non take-twoness” of a concert, and went through hell before each performance he had to give during his concert years. He thought of a live audience is “a force of evil”. He wrote an article entitled “Let’s Ban Applause”, and sincerely believed that recordings are the way of the future.

And of course there is his landmark and groundbreaking trilogy of radio documentaries, often referred to as the “solitude trilogy”. The first and arguably the most original, The Idea of North, reflects upon the idea of people who, for one reason or another, chose to live in the far north of Canada. The Latecomersaddresses the lives of people who live in Newfoundland out ports. Finally, The Quiet in the Land paints a portrait of Mennonite life in Red River, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. The “characters” in this final documentary talks about the influence of contemporary society on traditional Mennonite values.

In his own life, Gould was careful about whom he associated with. Even with his closest friends, there seemed to have been a bit of a barrier, a shield that prevented people from getting too close. Artist Cornelia Foss, wife of the great American musician Lukas Foss, who once left her husband, relocated to Toronto with her two children, and lived with Gould for years, until Gould’s later idiosyncrasies[1] made life with him impossible. I seriously doubt that Gould would have been capable of the routines involved in family life.

Even in his music making, there seems to be something aloof, something unreachable and otherworldly, about the beauty he created at the piano. Perhaps that is part of the appeal, what moves us so much about Gould’s playing. In the words of Yehudi Menuhin, “To contemplate Glenn is to ask why God had made the world, and why in just six days.”

I will forever remember the filmed performance of his final recording of the Goldberg Variations. At the end of the performance, we see Gould, alone in a darkened studio, slowly lifting his hands from the keyboard and then bowed his head as if in prayer. It is a supremely moving moment after a supremely moving performance, an artist alone in the world.

Gould would probably have been quite amused at people’s reaction to this enforced isolation, and wonder what the fuss is all about.

Perhaps we should heed Gould’s life and philosophy, and treasure this time of solitude as a time to think, to ponder, to pray.

Patrick May

[1] Gould was infamous for multi-doctoring, and would get multiple and unnecessary prescriptions for tranquillizers and other medications that - we now know - have serious central nervous system side effects. The great artists purported idiosyncrasies in his later life would have been, at least partly, a result of a drug-induced alteration of his personality.