Picture Perfect

Following a trail of iconic images in search of the real Glenn Gould

Georgia O’Keeffe has been the subject of two major exhibitions that ran concurrently this year. Georgia O’Keeffe, at the Art Gallery of Ontario courtesy of the Tate Modern, was a retrospective that re-examined the American painter’s career, her development and her contribution to modernism. The other, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, at the Brooklyn Museum, was not an exploration of O’Keeffe as a painter, but rather as the craftswoman of a carefully constructed persona indistinguishable from her art. Instead of being shown a room full of her well-known paintings, visitors to the gallery were invited into her closet. On display were the outfits she made or commissioned that reflected her aesthetic—the clothes that were the woman. All her designs, radical for the time, were loose, simple garments, often held together by just a belt or a single pin. The woman underneath was just a breath away. Also on display were photographs by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who has O’Keeffe posing in the clothes and without them, her naked body, beautifully choreographed. The image of an image. For some, this exhibit was revelatory, for others it was another instance of using artifact in order to mystify.

In his new book, The Great Gould, Peter Goddard traces a similar ethos in Gould’s celebrity. Like O’Keeffe, Gould cultivated a public image of artist as art, and he became indistinguishable from the music he played. On stage there was as much Gould as there was Mozart. And, as with O’Keeffe, the camera was essential to furthering the mystique. As a result there is almost as much visual material in this book as there is print. Goddard selects footage like a documentary filmmaker and narrates his story from behind the scenes. The 1955 album cover designed by Henrietta Condak for The Goldberg Variations is instructive: multiple images of Gould on a photographer’s contact sheet predate the Andy Warhol silkscreens, those perfect expressions of celebrity, but have a similar effect—blurry, overexposed images that turn their subjects into objects.

Overexposure is something Gould could be accused of. That, and of leaving such a long trail of artifacts that they practically replace him. An icon takes on a life of its own and is the embodiment of collective projections that can become something as monumental as a national identity. America has Marilyn Monroe. We have Glenn Gould.

The irony is that Gould, fiercely protective of his privacy, used his celebrity as a way to protect himself. “He was … great at the art of becoming famous,” remembers Goddard, who grew up in the shadow of Gould. But unlike so many celebrities who are “made” by the industry and are subject to its invasions, Gould made himself into an industry and exerted complete control over his public image. It is this image that is Goddard’s true subject, and he documents Gould’s development as a public figure, away from the piano, by including transcripts of radio and TV appearances from the 1950s when Gould was just starting out. Even as a teenager, Gould was camera savvy.

It did not take long before the CBC gave him free rein and Gould’s presence could be felt in every corner of the Canadian cultural map. The relationship with the national broadcaster would continue for Gould’s entire career. The CBC was indeed Gould’s second home. He appeared on TV, on the radio, in print and in the theatre—sometimes the intellectual, sometimes the funny­man acting out his many alter egos, but always with the stamp of an original thinker, a mind impossible to second guess. For the nearly 30 years that he was in the public eye, Gould never stopped inventing himself. And though it was his piano playing that brought him celebrity, he used his fame as licence to explore all of his other interests. He wrote film scores, tried his hand at string quartet writing (his most challenging endeavour) and transcribed symphonic literature for the piano. He also produced and was the subject of several documentaries, all the while keeping up with a merciless recording schedule, and, toward the end of his life, was in the process of reinventing himself as a conductor.

Peter Goddard is an award-winning writer and journalist who has been writing about pop music his whole professional life. He knows something about celebrity; his first book, in 1973, was a biography of Frank Sinatra. Since then he has chronicled the lives and covered the tours of many other legendary figures including David Bowie, Ronnie Hawkins and the Rolling Stones. For this reason I was suspicious of him taking on a classical artist. To me it was like a sports writer writing about ballet. What could he bring to the already large literature on Gould? What do we not know about the pianist who found Bach’s voice, the superstar of the keyboard who intimidated so many pianists that almost no one would take up the task of the Goldberg Variations after Gould’s 1955 recording made when he was only 23? (This phenomenon is not as unusual as one may think: the great Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich removed the Elgar Cello Concerto from his repertoire after Jacqueline du Pré’s recording was released in 1965.)

It is only recently, long after Gould’s death in 1982, that pianists, most notably Simone Dinnerstein, have had the courage to rethink what has become the definitive version of the Bach master­piece. These renditions, travesties to the Gould listener, imagine the variations as part dance suite, and the music is played with more lilt, a different energy and sense of improvisation brought to each variation, performances informed by the vertical and the horizontal lines in the score—lines Gould does not respect.

But no matter who performs this music or how it is conceived, all contemporary performances are still compared to Gould’s gold standard. It is a measure of the scope of Gould’s musical integrity that he has as much influence now as he did when he was alive. His recordings continue to sell, and there is a new, growing audience for them: people who have no affiliation with the classical tradition, young people who grew up with the internet and are riding the crest of a technology that could render human beings irrelevant. They do not listen to Schubert, but Gould’s music has resonance for them, possibly because they sense, listening to him, that he would have embraced their digital age. Think of his playing: the meticulous articulation, the almost computer-like accuracy, every note played with equal weight so that none of the many contrapuntal voices in Bach’s music is favoured. You could almost say that Gould did not interpret music. He just played it. His approach to a composition was to its structure, not its semantics. He either eschewed or was simply not attuned to the emotional and lyrical elements in a piece. A rogue virtuoso outside any tradition or school of playing, he did not alter his sound or technique to suit the different sensibilities in the various works he performed. Gould was an artist more interested in truth than in beauty, which could explain why some listeners hear the sublime in his playing, while for others he is a disembodied musician, cold and remote.

Contradiction is essential to understanding Gould. He was able to hold, simultaneously, several distinct thoughts. In Gould’s mind tonality and atonality were equally coherent languages. Try to reconcile an obsessive perfectionist (hours and hours in the recording studio) with a performer who could appear on stage dishevelled and uncombed. A man who professed brotherly love but kept such physical distance from the musicians he worked with that almost no one was permitted even to shake his hand. Here is the artist who put Canada on the international stage, and who left a good deal of his sizable estate to the Toronto Humane Society.

Gould stopped performing in public in 1964, the year he turned 32. (There are, coincidentally, 32 variations in Bach’s score.) He came to believe that live performance was contrived and that only in the editing room could a performance be perfectly mastered.

In 1965 Glenn Gould went north, far north, on a journey that put him in the centre of a frozen, sparsely inhabited world. A land at once dead and alive. It was “an opportunity to examine [the] condition of solitude,” he wrote. That opportunity put him face to face with a terrible beauty and with his own profound solitariness. His encounter with the ghostly wilderness saw the light of day two years later when the CBC aired his documentary The Idea of North as part of Canada’s centennial celebration. Goddard devotes an entire chapter to this subject.

The Great Gould does not take a critical look at Gould either as a musician or as a person. In fact, Goddard is careful to avoid any interpretation or analysis. He leaves those arguments to some of the many artists and scholars who have thought about this complicated figure. From these discussions and first-hand accounts—a number appear in the book—we discover the Gould who could abruptly end relationships without any explanation. We learn of his mood swings and of his more controversial musical ventures that bewildered many of his admirers. A case in point is the 1962 performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein is so troubled by Gould’s rendition that he makes a public disclaimer before the concert distancing himself from an interpretation “distinctly different from any [he has] ever head, or even dreamt of.”

Gould’s contrapuntal thinking is not suited to the music of Brahms. “You have to go with it” is a standard comment a master would make to a budding artist studying this work. But Gould refuses to “go with it.” He makes Brahms go with him and, as a result, misses the large sweeps in the score that give the piece its majesty. On the other hand, that same cerebral quality made him the ideal interpreter of the music of Anton Webern, music so condensed that for most it is as inscrutable as an abstract painting. Gould made sense of the space between the notes and revealed a poetry that no other musician has been able to access.

So, what does Peter Goddard bring to Gould scholarship? For Goddard, Gould is as much a popular artist as he is a classical musician, and his interest is in sensibility, not genre. The nature of Gould’s celebrity crosses the divide and Goddard delivers this portrait in the punchy prose of the other side: “I’ve seen his name associated with the word hipster … How else do you describe a brilliant recluse with shaggy hair who loved to drive big, shiny American cars … his pockets stuffed with uppers and downers, the radio picking up sad songs?”

Gould would be almost 85 years old if he were here to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. Goddard uses this occasion to fulfil a project that has been brewing since his early twenties, when the “Gould effect” took hold of him and changed forever the way he understood music. So the book is also a memoir of his childhood and of the Toronto he grew up in.

These sections are the melodic counterpoints in the book. This is Goddard’s elegy to a disappeared world and his lament for the loss of a musician who was able to elucidate the complex grammar of music and make it accessible. Without much ado we find ourselves on University Avenue and College Street, walking the dingy corridors of the original Royal Conservatory of Music, the “Con,” as it was known, where his father taught piano and where Goddard was himself a piano student:

It was there I met Miss Butler, a large, soft woman in a billowy purple dress that left her as shapeless as a cumulus cloud. Her pale skin received further lightening from a dusting of talc … She terrified me. She taught me to listen, though. The clarity of touch and thinking demanded by Miss Butler for Debussy is fixed forever in my head.

Always looming is the figure of Gould. Sometimes Goddard, eleven years his junior, caught sight of him in the cafeteria of the Con long after Gould had graduated from the school, holding forth, already a celebrity. He was known among the Kiwanis Music Festival set as “the Ten Hottest Fingers.” This bastion of WASP culture was an unlikely womb to have delivered a genius.

Glenn Gould had a perverse devotion to Toronto, a city so dull in the 1940s that it was fodder for any comedian passing through it. It was also a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and Gould’s father, Herbert, a prosperous furrier, changed the family name from Gold to Gould in the late 1930s so as to not be mistaken for Jewish. What teenager didn’t look beyond the borders of the “squat” and “serious” Toronto, as Goddard describes it, to the razzmatazz of a big city such as New York? Glenn Gould, who, even as an adult, hated any city that imposed itself on him. The Toronto he revered was a conservative (both big and small c), church-driven hamlet that kept its finger off the pulse of modernity. If he could have had his way, it would not have changed, and he did not welcome the large immigration in the 1950s that began turning the city on its heels.

Toronto was his sanctuary. When he wasn’t travelling, he divided his time between the city and the family cottage on Lake Simcoe. He was never far from his origins and lived with his parents into adulthood. His mother, Flora, was determined to produce a great musician, and while Gould was still in utero she listened to as much music as she could, as if she had read the research that came out 50 years later claiming that babies exposed to Mozart are smarter. Her only child’s precocious talent only furthered her resolve, and by the time Gould was twelve years old he was as convinced as she was of his singular genius. But her overbearingness rang loud his whole life, translating in later years into an often debilitating anxiety about his health (he was a world-class hypochondriac) and accounted for the eccentric clothing he was so famous for. You never saw Gould without earmuffs and gloves, sometimes clad in a fur coat in midsummer. In this he is a little reminiscent of the composer Richard Wagner, who summoned the heat of inspiration by draping himself in fur in a room with several fires blazing.

The Great Gould is not a leisurely book. It is a dense, action-packed six chapters, and along with the many photographs there are also inserts, capsules of reportage too good to leave out from the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Petula Clark, of whom Gould was oddly enamoured (so much so that he wrote an article, “The Search for ‘Pet’ Clark,” praising her voice for being “fiercely loyal to its one great octave”).

Goddard might as well have used the multiple images on Condak’s album cover as the template for this book. He gives us Gould one frame at a time. Of particular interest is that it is now believed that Gould suffered from focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects a muscle or muscle group and causes contractions and abnormal postures. Hence his signature pose: curled over the piano like a snail. Hence his idiosyncratic fingerings, which always favoured his three middle fingers.

Goddard has drawn a comprehensive portrait of the many faces of Gould, from dude to icon, and given us a tour of a life of such protean productivity that one can only be in awe. He runs the risk of mystification with the plethora of photographs and iconic imagery that fill so many of these pages. But the last frame, the four pages that comprise “Coda: The Lesson,” shows us a different face, one that goes beyond image, beyond artifact, beyond the great Gould.

It is 1961. Erika is a young piano student entering the Kiwanis Music Festival in Toronto. She is having trouble with the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven and must prove to her father that she can play it. She seeks out Gould by surprising him on the dock of his cottage. She has heard he can help. He looks at her copy of the piece, and by the letters written over every note realizes that she cannot read music. Nonetheless he takes her into his house and gives her a lesson, Einstein helping a teenager with her math homework.

The account is so moving as to make you cry, and you suddenly realize that Goddard has done something remarkable: he has taken Gould out of the frame and brought him into such close relief you can almost touch him.