Glenn Gould and the art of recording

Richard Eyre Tue 3rd October 2017

How Glenn Gould’s relationship with his audience created a new authenticity in performance, by Richard Eyre

I recently saw a film about the life of Glenn Gould. It was composed of edited documentary and newsreel footage, TV clips, concert recordings, home movies and some deft fictional re-creation. The film is mostly black-and-white which, like the rare footage of James Dean, suits his musical equivalent. Occasionally there are beautifully timed excursions into etiolated colour, Canada in autumn, New York in summer, Gould playing on a beach. Despite its title – Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould – it is funny, warm, touching and illuminating.

The film contains footage of the recording of his celebrated debut recordings in 1955 of the Goldberg Variations. Gould’s extraordinary quick and pin-sharp fingering are shown as having been derived from his Toronto teacher who taught him at first to tap the keyboard rather than pushing the notes down. The fiendishly hard cross-handed passages are played with a grace and ease that seem on film to be weightless, like dancing. The singing, it seems, came from his mother who encouraged him to sing while playing, and it became an almost indelible part of his music-making.

If you knew the Goldberg Variations only from performances other than Gould’s you might find his approach at best surprising and at worst perverse, but it would be hard to resist, seeing Gould in concert and in recording, being persuaded not only of the brilliance of his playing but also of the genius of his interpretation. He believed – indeed it became his credo – that it was his right to make interpretative choices, that it was his obligation to bring a new perspective to any work, otherwise there was no value in revisiting old music. There is no way Bach, for instance, could be played “authentically”.

In an essay called “Forgery and Imitation in the Creative Process”, Gould argued that we had no right to assume that in a work of art we invariably communicate with the historical attitudes of the period in which the work was created and, moreover, that the composer isn’t necessarily accurately communicating the spirit of his time. There’s a wonderfully wilful example of this belief in the film when, at a concert in Carnegie Hall, Leonard Bernstein addresses the audience before the concert. He says that he and the soloist cannot agree on tempi for Brahms’s First Piano Concerto but, because of his respect for Gould, he will conduct it according to Gould’s interpretation. Gould became convinced that concerts were not only anachronistic but a “force of evil”, which encouraged an audience to have an appetite for the performer’s errors or for his failure to meet expectations. In the case of opera in the grand houses, I would say he was more than three-quarters right. He suggested that he should found GPAADAK – the Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds – and withdrew from the concert platform to the recording studio.

Here he developed a “love affair with the microphone”. Concentrating exclusively on Bach’s work, he controlled every aspect of the music by editing parts of different takes together to create a “performance” that, at least to him, was more authentic than its equivalent could be on the concert platform.

He was prescient. Nowadays “live” performances of concerts and operas are no more live than films of the same event – they are spliced from take to take and, in addition, they are digitally manipulated. In short, the music can be re-made. Clearly it ceases to be “live” but unquestionably it has its own authority. To dispute authenticity when listening to a recording – analogue or digital – is like counting angels on a pin.

We have become habituated to all kinds of manipulation of music. When we listen to recorded music the relationships between the instruments, soloists and the orchestra, the volume at which the music is heard, are not remotely analogous to the concert hall. Yet we do not feel, sitting in our car, our living room or on headphones on the tube, that we are having an inferior musical experience to the concert hall. Different, yes, but not inferior. When we used to lower the stylus to the vinyl, we waited as expectantly as we did for the conductor’s down-beat in the concert hall. The quality was and is in how we listen. But sometimes, though, the quality is in the quality. One evening in the 1990s I had to go to the opening of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and afterwards to Covent Garden to catch the end of La traviata, which I had recently directed. After being bullied for three hours by the sound of Oliver!, the orchestra in the opera house seemed so quiet, the unamplified singers so vulnerable, the orchestrations so subtle that I began to think that perhaps Glenn Gould was wrong: if there’s no such thing as authentic, there is such a thing as fake. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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