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.
Bazzana concludes, from his comprehensive study of the archives and from interviews with numerous friends, colleagues and acquaintances (appropriately conducted mostly by phone), that Gould was aware of the cachet of being labeled an eccentric. He attracted publicity. He also diverted curiosity. Behave like a recluse and people will steer clear. Act normal and they will start to ask questions about how you relax and–as happened to the young Gould–whether you have a girlfriend. (On this matter Bazzana deduces that Gould did have a few intense relationships with women, but with such women, he remarks ruefully, as are least likely to confide in biographers.) This does not mean that Gould’s oddity was put on (though it could, on occasion, be put off): His hypochondria and summertime overdressing went back to his childhood, and surely caused him more inconvenience and even discomfort than mere affectations would have merited. But if he was indeed wondrous strange, he was also wondrous logical. His peculiarities, and the advertising of his peculiarities, all helped him satisfy or validate his most pressing need from the world: isolation.
Logic, too, determined his most crucial act of separation, from the concert platform. His Goldberg recording made him a star at the age of 23, and during the next three years he was on the international circuit. He may have canceled more concerts than he gave, but, quite apart from his Russian tour, he appeared at the Salzburg Festival, elsewhere in Europe and in many North American cities. Then he let his engagements dwindle. Then he stopped taking any. On April 10, 1964, in Los Angeles, he shuffled off the stage after a recital of Bach, Beethoven and Hindemith, and never returned. Henceforth he would be heard only through loudspeakers, and seen only as an image on an LP cover.
He may have removed himself because of personal fears–of crowds (and their germs), of unknown hotel rooms (and their drafts), of air travel (so productive of both)–but he had, too, an artistic rationale. Recording had changed the nature of music-making. Not only could musicians now give their very best to an almost unlimited audience, but listeners could choose when to hear a recording, and could do so repeatedly, in privacy. Musical communication had become more elevated, more secure and more intimate. It was also more permanent. Recordings could and should now be judged on their own merits, not as approaches to some ideal of performance under the defunct conditions of the concert hall. By 1964 there were already several different versions of any standard piece, and so new recordings would have to justify themselves by their novelty, even their eccentricity, always provided there was some musical reason for doing things differently (and Gould was a master at finding wild purposes). Also, there was no reason for performers and record producers not to use the medium creatively, in editing and even in manipulating the acoustic. Exactly as film had developed its own techniques, aesthetics and personnel, branching away from the theater, so recorded music would become an art form in its own right.
It has not quite worked out that way. The number of front-rank musicians who have withdrawn from live performance in favor of recording is still what it was forty years ago: one. Recordings made as studio composites, from manifold takes, are in retreat; many musicians and record producers prefer the “live recording,” conveying a performance, notionally unedited, that was given in front of an audience. So bent on seclusion, Gould has remained alone on his career path.
Were he still alive (he would be only 71), his apartness might by now be even more striking: He was, as Bazzana notes, “in transition.” One problem he faced was that of burning up his repertory, for where a concert pianist could return again and again to favorite pieces, Gould as a recording artist had to be constantly moving on. He almost never went back to offer a second version: One great exception was his return to the Goldberg Variations–in 1981, twenty-five years after his first recording came out–which eerily gave his life a pattern. Just as Bach’s work is a great journey that arrives back at its starting place–with a repetition at the end of the opening “Aria,” whose potentialities have now been fully extended–so Gould’s life as a recording musician ended as it had begun, his death coming the month after the second Goldberg disc was released. For one who was determined to be in control, to the extent of scripting his broadcast interviews (which therefore, as much as his recordings, disturb our judgment of what is natural, casual or incidental, forcing us to hear intention everywhere), a perfectly timed departure might not seem out of the question. And though death was not what he had in mind, he clearly felt his life as a pianist was reaching a terminus. In the seventeen months after the Goldberg remake he recorded only a Brahms album and the sonata by Richard Strauss, while all around him doors were closing. The artists in charge at his record company were being replaced by businessmen. He was losing the Toronto studio where he had been recording since 1971. He was drawing away from Steinway and moving tentatively toward Yamaha. He was worried that age was beginning to limit his technique. He was fully aware of reaching the end of the keyboard repertory that meant most to him.
Of course, he could have looked a little harder at what he had rejected. His Schumann, his Chopin or his Debussy–evenly articulated, displayed as counterpoint, no doubt with some pieces bewilderingly fast or slow–might have been as refreshing/maddening as everything else he recorded. He could also have considered music by contemporaries other than the three Canadians he recorded: Bazzana informs us that he found Pierre Boulez’s second sonata “intellectually intriguing but cold,” but he might have had a different opinion of the sonata by Jean Barraqué or of pieces by Elliott Carter and Brian Ferneyhough. Besides all that, he would by now be preparing his third, fiftieth-anniversary recording of the Goldberg Variations.
That is one possibility. Perhaps more likely is that he would have abandoned the piano for the orchestra. Two months before his death he conducted Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in the studio, and Bazzana lists many other works he was considering recording, including pieces by such cherished composers as Schoenberg, Strauss, Haydn, Sibelius, Wagner, Brahms and, of course, Bach. He would have had to work fast, because apparently he was planning to make, as his farewell to conducting, a film of Bach’s B-Minor Mass in the composer’s tercentenary year of 1985.
After that, or alternatively, he might have flourished as a film director, developing the work he had begun in his radio documentaries of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when he had, characteristically, exploited the technology to produce counterpoints of several speaking voices. Or he might finally have emerged as an original composer. As Bazzana points out, one of the things that drew Gould to Bach was that you could take the music apart and put it back together pretty much as you liked, in terms of speed, articulation and dynamic level, and he applied that approach to other music–not least to Mozart in his celebrated/notorious sonata recordings. This was not so much interpretation as reconstitution, the work of a co-creator, and in his youth Gould evidently thought of himself as a composer, perhaps first and foremost. He completed a string quartet in 1955 and sketched other works, the most tantalizing of which is A Letter From Stalingrad, setting a German officer’s expression of stoicism in the absence of hope. Maybe, having come to the end of the road as a pianist, he would have had the time and the need to explore musical worlds that were his alone. This might have been advance from a further level of retreat, from the recording business as well as from the concert world, for maybe, as Bazzana imagines, he would have become a master of the Internet, and we could all be regularly visiting www.gould.com to download kits for putting together Bach fugues from keyboard lines in alternative colors, speeds and phrasings, or montages of wind and snow scenes and Sibelius, or comic dialogues (all voices by Gould), or the unimaginable inventions of an artist in the ecstasy of total solitariness.