Our Earbud Solitude Isn't the High-Tech Serenity Glenn Gould Predicted
Glenn Gould was born 80 years ago today. To listeners of classical music, Gould was an iconoclastic pianist, most famous for the interpretations of Bach that, in his day, stirred controversy for their relative strangeness. To everyone else, Gould was a broadcaster and essayist. He called himself "the last puritan," and his thinking was often organized around a sort of radical humanism that often put him at odds with his own personality cult. Gould thought often about the relationship between art and life. And when push came to shove, Gould usually came out in defense of life. He lived his own days monastically, and in the last decade before his death in 1982 had become as famous for the severity of his lifestyle as he was for his records.
As I catch up with the journalism celebrating Gould's legacy, I can't help but feel something fundamental has changed in the three decades since his death, something that paints the Gould we think we know -- the crown prince of the nutty geniuses -- in shades less exotic than he once seemed. This is because, today, the Gould that has been rendered for us in movies and books -- that beanie-and-mitten-wearing monk of agoraphobia and technophilia; hunched over in a crooked posture; shrunken skull nestled between a pair of headphones; forever babbling witticisms to no one in particular -- looks like a grotesque parody of us.
But there is at least one major difference. Gould knew exactly what he wanted to obtain through his cherished union of music and machines. Today, many of us don't. Hence, the absurd vision right this moment of one of the last puritan's descendants, in midday, walking in the city, earbuds up, gaze down -- a recluse in a crowd, insulated by algorithms.
Gould left a paper trail of brilliant essays explaining his position: why he forsook the concert hall for the recording studio and the hi-fi, and what he hoped to obtain at his little altar of turntables and amplifiers. His aims included "a lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." And Gould sought this consolation through music. But, more pointedly, he sought it through music he would make and listen to in solitude -- what we now boil down to his fabled reclusiveness.
As far back as the 1960s, Gould settled upon solitude as the phantom theme uniting many of the essays he wrote on the subject of "electronic media." He wrote that listeners, rather than go to concerts, should stay home and "play creatively with their phonographs." It was an eye-popping statement then, coupled as it was with Gould's prediction "that the public concert as we know it today would no longer exist" in a hundred years.
Today, based on these essays, some commentators like to lean on Gould as a prophet of remix, mash-up, and "share" culture within music. They see Gould as the spiritual father of the increasingly sociable way music is distributed and listened to today. It would be an uplifting story if it were true. But it's here, at the point where solitude is blurred by online networking, that Gould's vision diverges from our digital present.
That Gould embraced the technology of his time doesn't mean he would necessarily have taken to ours. Nonetheless, this is exactly what a recent gathering at the University of Toronto proposed. Called Dreamers, Renegades, Visionaries: the Glenn Gould Variations, the Globe and Mail described it as an event "infused with the belief that Gould not only predicted but would also heartily endorse our interactive culture of downloading, sampling, and remixing."
But I think Gould's delight with the the unhurried meditational space technology afforded a listener -- what he summarized as "the charity of the machine," a phrase borrowed from the Canadian theologian Jean Le Moyne -- bares out another potential view of online music, one less rah-rah than the Toronto party presumes.