Glenn Gould: Gentle Genius
Gould was born in Toronto, Ontario on 24 September 1932. His mother and father were both music enthusiasts, and he learned piano from his mother until he was ten. From an early age Gould was recognized as a musical genius. He had absolute pitch, could read music notation by the time he was three and started composing his own pieces at the age of five. At the age of eleven, Gould began studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto under Alberto Guerrero and Leo Smith. In successive years Gould would win the Kiwanis music festival, pass the conservatories professional music exam, play his first piano solo with an orchestra, give his first professional solo recital, and compose a piano sonata. He was only 15 when he retreated to his parents’ cottage to determine the direction his life would follow. He decided that he did not want to be a professional pianist: he wanted to be a musician and an artist. However, to earn a living he would perform as well. In the 1950s Gould toured as a pianist and signed a recording contract with Columbia records. He was the first North American pianist to play in the Soviet Union. Then, on 28 March 1964, Gould gave his last public recital. Gould would not give another public concert for the rest of his life; instead, Gould made recordings, radio documentaries and films. In 1982, after completing over 90 recordings, he died. Gould was a gentle genius whose mastery of the piano was considered equal to Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni (Roddy 121). Yet, his most important achievements were his musical theories, the practice of which have changed music today and will continue to change it tomorrow.
Not in Concert
Gould abandoned performing at public concerts for a number of reasons. He felt that the pressures of a public performance changed or ruined the artistic qualities of the work. He was either forced to perform repertoire that suited a concert or play in a style that could be heard by all. Gould hated embellishing his usually subtle and expressive playing when he was in a large concert hall. Primarily, Gould disliked the public concert because of the relationship it created between the artist and the audience. Gould thought that the relationship between the music and the audience was more important. Thus, Gould disliked much of the concert tradition such as audience rewarding the performer with applause (Angilette 18). The audience corrupted the performer's presentation of the work because they distracted the musician. Too often, the performer was more concerned with giving a technically correct performance rather than expressing their artistic vision. In addition, Gould disliked the idea that the artist had to "conquer his audience" (Angilette 18). The concert, in his eyes, was a very dominating, artist-centric exhibition. This fit into his view of the entire music industry as a hierarchy. This hierarchy caused the musician to be influenced by both the public whim, and the socio-economic forces that controlled the music industry, while in turn the musician held the audience in thrall. If anything should captivate the audience, Gould thought it should be the music.
Similar sentiments have been seen in the visual arts movement. The Russian constructionist artists also attacked the institutional art world and its "bourgeois" galleries. It is interesting to note that they attacked the same type if institutionalism and hierarchical social structure as Gould, but for contrasting reasons. Gould believed art and music to be a spiritual transcendence, it was a to be enjoyed outside of the materialistic world. Constructionist thought that the work was part of the world, and should have a purposeful use. Although their reasons were different, their conclusions were the same, and both theories incorporated the idea that art is a not about a single experience or work, but it is a way of perceiving and living in the world.
When Gould turned to recording
and broadcast media he was able to create music and connect to the audience
in a more personal, private manner. Technology created an escape from the
concerts and touring of the music industry, as well as a haven in which
the demands of an audience would not affect him directly. He did not have
to worry about technical perfection because recording techniques allow
multiple takes to be seamlessly spliced together. He could position the
microphones and play on a piano of his choosing, giving him more control
over the tonal qualities of the sound. He never
had to compromise his artistic expression due to the environment he was playing in. The technology of recording allowed Gould to convey to his audience the sense of ecstasy, which he felt himself while he played.
At the same time, neo-avant-garde artists, like Richard Serra, questioned the role of the institutions and concert halls of the visual arts world. Serra rejected or tried to subvert the gallery in his quest to integrate site and art seamlessly. He wanted his work to be in a public space so to better reflect, and become more intimate with, the public around it. This echoes Gould’s idea that, "art [is] a direct and accurate reflection of the social dynamics of society" (Angilette 82), and his concern for private, intimate enjoyment of music.
Gould expected more sophistication from his listeners; he wanted his audience to enjoy his music in a comfortable, personal setting. The listener was encouraged to play an active role in the music by adjusting the different volume levels and by repeating favorite or intricate segments of the piece (Angilette 22). In this way, the recorded performance was of better artistic quality and a better listening experience for the audience. Recorded media allows the audience to listen to music at any time, not just at a concert. It also allows a more indepth analysis of the work. This fit Gould’s belief that art is not "the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but… the gradual, life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity (Gould, 1984, p.246)."
The synthesis and combination of visual and audio media into digital multimedia art has strengthened the resistance to the socioheirarchy of the art world. Multimedia and networking technology, such as the World Wide Web, is empowering the individual artist by giving them a relatively cheap medium to publish their works. These artists are able to create using powerful tools in the privacy of their own homes, while still reaching a global audience. Musicians who work solely with electronic music are now foregoing public concerts and the music industry. Likewise, artists are able to put their works on display all the time, not just in exhibitions. Audiences also benefit from network technology; they get access to and are able to privately enjoy art and music published on the Web. The audience also has the capability to mix together different recordings or even create multimedia compositions. Ironically, in creating a global communications structure, privacy has been enhanced. In addition, access to art and music has increased because of this global network; allowing Gould’s dream of life-long enjoyment of art to become possible for a growing segment of the population.
The Anonymous Artist
One of Gould’s most interesting ideas what that of privacy and anonymity in art. This view furthered his theories on the relationships between audience and artist. To reduce the influence the public has over artists, the artists need to isolate themselves from their audiences. Without physically removing themselves from society, the best way artists could isolate themselves is through anonymity. Gould felt that anonymity could be created by the collaboration of multiple authors and technology (Angilette 89). Collaboration made it possible for musicians to write a music piece without the audience knowing what each person contributed. Recordings were collaboration between the musician and the recording artist. This type of anonymity could only be preserved if no live concerts were performed. The ability to record and broadcast music could also help contribute to an artist’s anonymity in other ways. Although not practiced, because of the economic implications, music could be sold or broadcast without indicating the artist.
Anonymity in the visual arts world is quite rare, mainly because of the need for artists to support themselves through the sale of their artwork. Anonymity was made increasing difficult by the development of copyright laws, however, groups of artists have tried collectives and collaboration, such as the Group of Seven. Technology may be a final method to create the anonymous artist. It is possible to hide ones identity online, and it is possible to sell artwork anonymously through an intermediary service. Soon it will be possible to sell and distribute digital artwork anonymously without using an intermediary or resorting to collaboration. Technology such as the Internet, watermarking*, electronic commerce, and encryption* can be combined to create a framework to protect an artist’s privacy and livelihood, while making purchasing and distribution of the art simple and accessible.
Digital art has not been well accepted by the traditional art society because of its recentness and its replicability. A digital artwork, either sound, image, program or a combination of the three can be perfectly replicated as many times as desired. This does not fit into the traditional structure of uniqueness that artists use to make money. An artwork's value has typically been derived from the prestige of the artist and the availability of the work. Digital art cannot be so easily defined; Gould proposed that, "one could no longer examine electronic culture in terms of invention, originality, or imitation. These concepts when used with electronic culture are no longer capable of conveying the precise analytical meanings they once possessed." (Gould, 1964) Anonymous artists, on the otherhand, do not concern themselves with fame or prestige. Creating unique works is not as important either, for although watermarking would prevent others from directly copying the work, it would still be possible for others to recreate or mimic the work. It would be possible to electronically date the work so that the "first" work could be determined. This could also be used to verify originality, so long as some means of verifying that the time stamp was not falsified was developed.
Artists will not start to work anonymously just because it is possible to do so. The temptation of fame is very strong, and societal rewards that come with fame are great. Yet, Gould believed that once enough artists gave up their fame and false responsibilities to the public, the public would stop its demands of the artist. The possibility that the public would begin to evaluate the work for itself, rather than in the context of the artist is incredible. Generalizations and simplifications, the type of historically or popularity based thinking that Gould disliked, would be difficult but not impossible. Other writers and artists have also started to question the role of the author and how it is changed by digital media. According to Gould, the most pure form of authorship was anonymity. This state is attainable through digital media.
Other theories of Gould’s also mesh well with the possibilities available in digital technology. Gould saw in recording technology the power to create the ideal conditions for an artist or musician to create art. The capacity for digital media to be replicated and distributed fit into Gould’s theories much better than the vinyl records, 35mm film and AM broadcast radio that he worked with.
Exploring the (Digital) Dreamscape
Gould lived his life dedicated to music and, some would say, neurotically protecting his artistic ability. He was obsessed with the idea that good art was not flamboyant or popular, and a good artist was a bad celebrity. However, Gould was also concerned about communication. He wanted audiences to be more than passive concertgoers. He wanted listeners to get involved with the music and be able to reach the same level of understanding that the performer had. Privacy, especially through anonymity, was important to Gould – for both the artist and the audience. Gould embraced early recording technology, but his dreams were never fully realized. Now recording technology has advanced enough that music, images, and video can all be broadcast and replicated flawlessly, privately, and globally. Technology has created a situation where artists can continue the dreams of Glen Gould; they should take up the challenge and explore this vast dreamscape before them.
- Ryan Kelln 1998
Angilette, Elizabeth. Philosopher at the Keyboard: GLENN GOULD. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992.
Cott, Jonathan. Conversations with Glenn Gould. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.
Gould, Glenn. "The psychology of improvisation." In T. Page (ed.), The Glenn Gould reader. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gould, Glenn. "Strauss and the electronic future." Saturday Review 47 (1972), 58-59.
Roddy, J. "Apollonian."
Glenn Gould: Variations. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Limited, 1983.
- Glenn Gould