Notes/Tones on Two Pianists

Glenn Gould, Canada’s most celebrated musical son, and Dominic Amoruso, Joe Fiorito’s fictional creation in The Song Beneath the Ice, are both supreme pianists and “personalities” of the first order. What follows is not so much a narrative review as a game or puzzle in pursuit of leitmotifs that relate this biography and this novel in the mind of the common reader. It is written by another of this country’s supreme pianists, a man who is also a playful poet and whose favourite breakfast (like Gould’s) is scrambled eggs. [Ed.]

Glenn Gould was an ecstatic contrapuntist. His Bach is popular, immensely, internationally. His two sets of Goldberg Variations rival Handel’s Messiah for the world’s ear; both confer blessing. But Messiah is a composition. The Goldbergs are a performance. Dominic Amoruso, in The Song Beneath the Ice, is a Toronto pianist on the lam. In recital at the Art Gallery of Ontario he is stopped cold during “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the last of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He sees red and an Inuit sculpture and flees. A year later he sends a puzzle package of tapes and notebooks to his journalist buddy Joe Serafino to figure out. The novel puts the pieces together. In it, Gould the iconic and Amoruso the fictional counterpoint each other. But Gould, for once, is the backdrop.

Kevin Bazzana edits GlennGould magazine. He is a musicianly scholar. The real Glenn Gould is his Great Fugue subject and favourite conversation piece. He is a good talker, the best. Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work was his first book. It analyzed, compendiously, Gould’s performance practice, interpretation and aesthetics. It showed off Bazzana’s acute ear.

Joe Fiorito is a columnist with The Toronto Star. The Song Beneath the Ice is his Opus 1. It is as good as Alban Berg’s Sonata, Opus 1, a modernist boon to pianists. He has a way with a story and more than a touch of the poet. I was hooked from page one on and blubbered through the last pages. Fiorito is a serious seal hunter.

Kevin Bazzana has promised to fill the gaps in Glenn Gould’s stor y. Previous books stint on Gould’s early life, training and coming of age. They don’t explain how Canada made him. Bazzana is good on the Toronto of the 1930s and ’40s, its piety, ersatz-British stability and blandness — Gould’s nest. I remember being incredulous about Gould’s ethnicity. He must be Jewish — the furrier father, the name (Gould or Gold, they both sounded Jewish), the slightly aquiline profile. How could such a skyscraper talent loom from such middle-class Presbyterian roots? By the age of ten, with only his mother as teacher, Gould had memorized all of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He was born, raised and cosseted in the Beaches and given a generous radio platform on the CBC throughout his career. Bazzana removes the blanks in the interests of “accuracy and comprehensiveness,” not patriotism.

Dominic Amoruso is from Fort William, Italian working class. He was first taught, mercilessly, by nuns. His training hints of trauma. He is not like Gould, plays hardly any Bach and none of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). He is “more like Gould than he knows.” Amoruso (amorous) is fond of anagrams; some of them are leitmotifs, emblems of his story: “drowned: down red”; “Thorn of Idea: Idea of North.” Arnold Schoenberg anagrammed one son, Ronald; for astrological reasons Roland was renamed, and Arnold forgot to sire Lorand. Glenn Gould was childless. Dom Amoruso (not J.S.) is stricken by his lover’s abortion, one of his pursuing Furies.

The myth lingers that Glenn Gould was self-taught. Though the Chilean pianist Alberto Guerrero was his teacher for nine years, Gould acknowledged no debt; real music study, he claimed, began after Guerrero. Gould’s teacher was my teacher. Guerrero once spent a summer pondering the inexhaustible ingenuity of Bach’s first Invention in C; he introduced Schoenberg and Hindemith and the Goldberg Variations to Hogtown in the 1930s. He shared and did not withhold a culture both broad and subtle. He knew the tricks of the trade as no one else. Gould improved an already sensational mechanism through Guerrero’s “finger-tapping,” an obsessive and cultish exercise producing absolute evenness and ease in tricky passagework. Gould took 32 hours to tap the Goldberg Variations. Guerrero disputed with Gould to the hilt and honed the young man’s mind. Bazzana gives Guerrero his due, amply, for the first time.

Literary devices can pall or pull you urgently. Fiorito’s book binds better counterpoint than Huxley’s Point Counter Point. Amoruso’s notes unfold thought, narrative, migraines, new women, old men, Toronto’s Chinatown, Wolf Cove, an Inuit festival. His tapes record conversations, his own ruminating voice. Square brackets hold the boring and wild sounds of actuality, “[Short thick squeaks as his leather jacket is unzipped and shucked, and three sharp slaps as he folds his daily newspaper.]” Cagey verbal music. Serafino’s searching commentary in italics: Note: The jacket was a tic, a quirk; he performed in it whenever he could. He was known as the Punk Pianist in some of the papers. Everything interleaves.

Gould’s F minor string quartet was his only substantial composition. Its clots and slow loquacity are obvious downers. Sonia Eckhardt- Gramatté, by no means a spare composer, advised Gould to write silence so that the players could turn their pages. Gould could not take advice. Failure was a freefall, so he turned to “contrapuntal radio.”

His first radio-essay was “The Idea of North,” a talking train trip to Fort Churchill, Manitoba. Dom Amoruso criticizes it cuttingly. Its negative capability inspired Fiorito’s book. I once played the Ritual Firedance in Fort Churchill, in tails, on a cocktail-bar upright piano, no Inuit in the audience. The Inuit control Amoruso’s fugitive story in Wolf Cove, Northwest Territories. It is too cleansing to give away.

Bazzana writes easily, fairly, engagingly. His research is massive, listed at the back. He has interviewed new people, including the object of the younger Gould’s green affection. Was Gould discarnate, sexless? We can’t wait to know otherwise. He disapproved of “hedonistic” composers, like Mozart, whom he played like a machine, for fun or punishment. Amoruso is a vivid sensualist; the taped sounds of his rutting are not a spectator sport and Serafino censors them. Bazzana writes about Gould’s intimate friends who loved and respected him. There is a certain mysterious Dell (not Alice Munro’s). That is as far as he can go, though raunchy rumours get their airing (For she’s a jolly fellatrix!).

Amoruso remembers every poem he ever read; he plunders the wordhoard deeply. Fiorito can write poetic prose because he knows what poetry is. Gould used words like a polysyllabic raconteur. His live volubility transfixed Leonard Cohen. Bazzana criticizes Gould’s early writing style: no craft, rhythm, revision. Gould read, puritanically, for content. Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus was one of his favourite books. In December 1962, at the corner of College and Bay, we stopped for a red light. He asked me what I thought that book was about. I replied, “the unveiling of the German nation.” Wrong answer. Amoruso embodies synesthesia. His music comes to him in colours, as it did for Scriabin. Gould’s favourite colour is battleship grey. One of Amoruso’s women is a black and white photographer who wants to shoot his hands. Fiorito is good on crackup.

Bazzana conjures up the wonder of Gould’s best playing. He drove me back to Gould’s videos and recordings. Gould was the first western classical musician to perform in Russia after Stalin’s death. He charmed them, pinned their ears back at the Moscow Conservatory (Berg and Krenek sonatas, Webern variations and glorious Bach—selections from the Art of Fugue and Goldberg Variations). Gould could be untouchable. The Great Pianists of the th Century project awarded Gould a single volume, with two CDs only. Why was there no Bach in it? The dissidence of dissent at Philips.

A fictional exhibition entitled “The Art of Music.” Amoruso has an eye. Most pianists have bad visual taste or none at all, like Gould. Amoruso’s Pictures at an Exhibition is better than Richter’s, depends on holding Victor Hartmann’s drawings of them in his eye’s mind. The AGO’s St. Paul the Hermit Staring at a Raven, Henry Moore’s Draped Woman, a certain murderous Inuit sculpture, thicken the novel’s plot, like impasto. Dom is mad about colour.When bright colours drain away from his playing of Pictures, leaving only black-white scaffolding and a few red gouts like lapel roses, the pianist is in trouble.

A few pianistic quibbles for Fiorito: 1) Amoruso has “octave markers,” scars from surgery to increase his hand-stretch. I’ve never met a male pianist whose stretch wasn’t big enough to handle anything in the repertoire. Great women pianists—Annie Fischer, Myra Hess, Jeanne- Marie Darré, Alicia de Larrocha, Ilana Vered— are the ones with small hands. The opening of Schumann’s Carnaval is almost beyond them. I’ve shaken hands with three of these women; none of them had stretch marks. 2) In trying out pianos, pianists don’t play a sequence of exercises, as Amoruso does at the AGO. They run through their own favourite licks from the repertoire: the opening lyric melody from Chopin’s E minor concerto for cantabile in the deadest soprano range (Garrick Ohlssohn); Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso for fast repeating notes (Richter). 3) “Alberto Guerrero was Gould’s most important teacher.” Correcting Margie Warriner, Serafino’s fact finder: Guerrero was Gould’s only teacher; GG’s mother was a parlour-pianist. See Bazzana. 4) None of the three real rondos by Chopin fits Fiorito’s description on page 178. Otherwise, note perfect. Amoruso is a pianist as fascinating as Gould, a good foil (“recording = embalming”) and less infuriating.

Part V of Wondrous Strange is a portrait of the artist.Was Gould religious, romantic, hypochondriacal (lovely, clumsy word), neurotic, narcissistic, hammy, puzzle-posing, or simply “the well-scrubbed, gentlemanly boy next door”? Bazzana knocks them off, one by one, like ducks. “His composing, too, tended to resemble puzzlesolving, and that is why as a serious composer he did not succeed … What he lacked … was inspiration, that special spark that animates a piece of music into something other than a technical exercise.”

Amoruso takes pills: “A little codeine never hurt. A lot of codeine hurts less. And the prospect of careless dreams has never hurt at all. A blue jewel, and one candy-pink, and a couple of red and yellow antibiotics, for no good reason. For good measure. For sleep.” Pills and the Idea of North link the two books. I met Gould in the Eaton storehouse before my Toronto Symphony debut, January 1963. I was choosing a piano. I was frantically nervous. He emerged from under the Steinway wings. He suggested pills: “Take two of these and you’ll go out there saying ‘O you lucky people!’” He was cordial, indelible. The pills didn’t work.

Out of all of Bazzana’s pages, one quibble. Gould severed some friendships abruptly, without explanation. Only disconnect. “His relationship with Greta Kraus ended in a similarly unclear way.” She wouldn’t lend him her harpsichord for his Handel suites. She told me that was the reason. Just for the record.

Amoruso pitches perfectly his interpretations of music: of “The Old Castle” in Musorgsky’s Pictures—“Do not play this as architecture. Do not play it as the Dane who sees the ghost. Play this as the thought a man might have if he were alone at night in a castle of doubt.” And the flashes of critical insight: “The trouble with Gould … is that he played well enough to think he knew best … his gifts as a player trumped those of the composer.” The disguised voice of pianist Alfred Brendel, who arraigns Gould in his book The Veil of Order.

To be born with Glenn Gould’s hands (Arthur Rubinstein’s wish for a second life). To be born with Glenn Gould’s brain, its computer-like facility. Bruno Monsaingeon, Gould’s most congenial television collaborator, heard him play a movement from a Mendelssohn string quartet by memory after hearing it once on the radio. How did that brain die? Did his prescribed pills stroke him? There were enough of them.

Fiorito stage-manages a wealthy company: Geela Ashevak, Amoruso’s Virgilian guide; John Maisela Singer, a lofted South African pianist brought low; Carole Paterson, whose camera flash caused deadly migraine; a young Inuit, Malachai, “his last breath, the song beneath the ice.” At least a dozen more timbred voices. They play their lines in Amoruso’s Rite of Spring.

I read these two books in tandem, Bazzana first. A probing and complete biography, a rich and cathartic first novel. What will these two writers bring off next? Gould enough.

(In the interests of contrapuntal tension, the late John Cage would have read the foregoing paragraphs in random order, beginning with this one.)