And so, I’ve become whole-heartedly obsessed with Glenn Gould through my act of reading books and essays — both primary and secondary — about the pianist, and listening to his very fine music, which has begun to quasi-crypto-change my thoughts on iPods, iTunes, and all things iRelated-to-Technology.
Stephen Dixon‘s Gould and 30 Pieces of a Novel (Buy them. Now.) are somewhat based on the great Canadian musician. Gould‘s protagonist is serendipitously and eponymously named Gould — after the pianist — while 30 Pieces of a Novel‘s structure is meant to mirror the 30 parts to the Goldberg Variations — Glenn Gould’s most famous recorded performance. I’ve also been reading Thomas Bernard‘s The Loser, a novel told in one long paragraph about two piano students (one eventually kills himself, the other suffers the rest of his days in a dilapidated [physically, mentally, the novel is his rambling narrative as he enters an Austrian Inn] state of artistic inadequacy) who studied with Glenn Gould.
To this day, Stephen Dixon touch-types his novels on an old typewriter. He writes every day after he had taken care of his wife — stricken with MS and bound to a wheelchair, who succumbed to the disease over the summer. Both Thomas Bernard and Glenn Gould are now dead. They died very young, 58 and 50 years old, respectively.
I’ll admit that a lot of what I know of Glenn Gould comes from the fictional Glenn Gould and not the actual Glenn Gould, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. In the mid 1960s —- right before the time in our history when young Americans began fleeing the draft by heading due North — Gould forever shunned public performances and isolated himself in his studio outside of Toronto in order to create the most perfect versions of these pieces.
Glenn Gould was a bit peculiar. He insisted on sitting on the chair that his father built him when he was a boy whenever he played. He wore heavy clothing, even during the summer, just in case he should get a chill. The slightest physical touch would send him into fits about possible injury to his back and arms. When he played, he rocked to the music, as if caught in some religious devotion to his instrument.
You know the Goldberg Variations. More specifically, you know Glenn Gould’s version of them. It’s the music Jonathan Demme chose to play in the background to the scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lechter slices and dices the two police officers in Memphis (the subtext being that the Goldberg Variations were created for the harpsichordist Johann Gotleib Goldberg to play during his master’s frequent bouts of insomnia, in order to lull the Count to sleep). Glenn Gould was perhaps the first person to famously play the Goldberg Variations on a piano, giving the piece an emotion previously missing from the tinny Baroque harpsichord.
But what tends to fascinate me about Gould’s pieces, especially the Goldberg Variations, isn’t the emotion, or the technical prowess, or the ease with which they’re performed. It’s that he hummed while he played. Like, audible humming, on every recording. The humming used to confound the sound engineers in Gould’s studio. They’d try to isolate the piano music, but with the technology available to them at this time, it was nearly impossible.
I’m thankful for the humming. I’m hoping that the engineers will never isolate and remove it. It reminds us that there’s a human behind the machine, a man that suffered for his art. Glenn Gould shot to fame at 22 — virtually unknown in this country — and died of a stroke at age 50, a few months after he recorded a second version of the Goldberg Variations.
Download the Goldberg Variations to your I-Tunes. Turn them up. Turn them waaay up on your stereo. Beyond the nachtmusik, the sounds meant to inspire dreaming and sleep, you can hear humming. It’s a good reminder that somebody’s behind the machine, that there are certain things technology can’t and won’t erase. And it makes me happy, very happy, very very happy, every time I trudge through the black remnants of snow on 7th Avenue and listen to variations composed in the 1740s for the harpsichord, and played in the 1950s on the piano, and the voice of the sad, sick, old Canadian man as he hums along in time to the music and I can’t help but think of the other old man, Stephen Dixon (not so old, though, roughly the same age as my father) and his typing, and his wife, and his daughters (roughly my age) and as I’m rounding the corner on Greenwich, it gets so good that I can’t tell what is walking and what is listening and what is playing and what is humming.
Variations 8, and onward, continue: