It’s only a little fughetta in C minor, a piece J.S. Bach wrote into a notebook he was keeping for the purpose of teaching his eldest son. When Wanda Landowska played it, on one of the records with which she pioneered the twentieth-century revival of the harpsichord, she skipped through it in not much more than a minute, which seems about right. Here in this piano recording, though, it’s twice as long, twice as slow. We hear every detail. The left hand starts, setting out the subject, which is hardly more than an up-down scale pattern until a tight little motif arrives, to be heard three times. Then the right hand enters–necessarily, this being a fugue, to echo what has happened. The two hands become two voices talking to each other, and the left now has to be the accompaniment to the right. But since the right is merely repeating what the left has already said, it would be hard to say which is in control. Neither sounds cramped by the other. Neither seems to have any limits, only a firm resilience at its center. Both sing. The tempo is deliberate, and the notes are slightly separated, as if each were a distinct event, but still both lines are unfolding a continuous melody. Halfway through, the left hand comes up with what sounds like a nursery rhyme. Later, the right keeps cresting through a slight deceleration and spilling over. Nothing is irrelevant, and nothing that these two singing hands project is unconsidered. There’s another voice, too, a kind of baritone groan that mostly follows the lower line, urgent but distant–urgent, perhaps, precisely because it is distant, excluded from the hands’ communion with the music.
This is Glenn Gould, in one of his last recordings, made two and a half years before he died in 1982 at the age of 50. As Kevin Bazzana points out at the beginning of Wondrous Strange, his supremely thorough and illuminating biography, Gould has endured. Virtually everything he recorded is available on CD, selling better than it did when he was alive. He has been the subject of novels, poems and films, and of scholarly studies that notably include an earlier book by Bazzana, Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, a critical analysis of his recordings. Like no other classical performer, Gould goes on being taught, debated, adored and written off. He has ascended to that mythic heaven whose twin temples are the classroom and the chatroom, where he can be almost anything the worshiper desires: a doomed idol of popular culture (Bazzana suggests comparisons with James Dean and Elvis Presley in Gould’s dazzling entry into public consciousness when his first Columbia recording, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was released in 1956) or an esoteric philosopher at the keyboard, a knot of hang-ups or a man who simply used the freedom of success to create his life as he wanted it, a pianist of extraordinary gifts derailed by the imp of the perverse or an artist fulfilling a consistent yet constantly widening vision of creativity in the electronic age, an inhibited homosexual or a hermetic straight man, a wonder or a clown, a tragedy or a triumph.
Wisely and skillfully, Bazzana avoids making any of these choices. Unlike previous biographers, he is not trying to explain Gould–though he does, helpfully, give his subject a context. Gould is revealed here in his Canadian-ness, heir to a scrubbed Presbyterian morality (his mother’s Scottish background was always more important to him than his paternal fur-trading forebears), living in a country that was beginning to find its cultural feet during his youth, aware of the North as the great wilderness beyond. His debts to his one conservatory professor, Alberto Guerrero, are also recognized for the first time. But Bazzana is conscious of dealing with an extraordinary individual, one whose extraordinariness was bound up with his mercuriality and multiplicity. It is a Gouldian strength of this book that it acknowledges paradox, can find performances at once “refreshing” and “maddening.” Bazzana is also a little Gould-like in telling a compelling story as a succession of discrete moments, in some of which he steps outside chronology to consider abiding traits, preferences and quirks.
Of these last there were many. Having a horror of catching cold, Gould wore winter clothing at the height of summer, would leave a restaurant at the faint suspicion of a draft and dosed himself liberally with whatever medicines he could persuade his several physicians to prescribe. (By a painful irony, it seems to have been an ordinary cold that brought on the stroke that killed him.) While playing the piano, he used a little chair his father had adapted for him in 1953, from which he could hunch over the instrument. This chair traveled with him to Russia in 1957, shuttled back and forth with him on the train between Toronto, his hometown throughout his life, and New York, where he regularly recorded in the late 1950s and ’60s, and was still in use, almost seatless, when he died. He ate only one meal a day, otherwise sustaining himself with cookies, crackers, tea, coffee and soft drinks. Usually he would eat by himself. He needed friends, but much preferred them at the end of a telephone line, over which he might read a lecture he was preparing or play a tape he was editing, in calls lasting hours.