Classic Glenn Gould interview: "I don't practise very much, I may go two or three weeks without touching a piano"

Glenn Gould (Gramophone, February 1979)Glenn Gould (Gramophone, February 1979)

Classic interview from the Gramophone archive, February 1979, by Robin Stringer

Though records by Glenn Gould continue to be issued by CBS here and still find their discriminating public, he in fact has made none for almost two years. Not that he has foresaken the medium, but he has simply lacked a studio that meets his demanding criteria since April 1977. 

From 1955 until 1970 he had always recorded in New York. 'And then', he recalls, 'I persuaded CBS to come to a rather remarkable hall on top of what was a department store, one of the Eaton chain, in Toronto. It was on the seventh floor and would not accommodate a full orchestra, only a chamber orchestra. We thought it didn't have very good acoustics but one day I did a test there and put the piano below the stage, not on the stage, and I could get as precise and clean a sound as I did in New York. So I recorded there for seven years and then the store was sold. It closed on March 31, 1977. I was there on March 30 recording right until the last moment. Current plans have it opening a year from now but, being on the top floor, it's bottom priority. I have found nothing else on the local scene that suits, though if my arm was really twisted – which is not the way one should have it when one is playing the piano – I suppose I would go elsewhere.' 

This single-minded insistence on doing things exactly the way he wants is no more and no less than one would expect of this extraordinary Canadian who in 1964, at the age of 31, abruptly terminated a glittering concert career to devote himself to other things. The idiosyncrasies of that 11-year career touring the concert halls of North America and Europe, a career during which, in 1957, he became the first North American pianist to be invited to play in Russia, have now passed into legend and been much embroidered in the passing – the flat hat, the wearing of overcoat and muffler in heatwave conditions, the famous battered old low-slung piano chair, the apparent hypochondria, the fear of flying and so on. He still hates travelling and avoids face-to-face interviews but, over the telephone when he feels relaxed and well, no-one could be more approachable and helpful. He is as formidably articulate as the stream of articles that has poured from him over the years might suggest. 

In fact, as he admits, 'a very small share' of his time is sp ent on purely musical activities. 'I don't practise very much, I may go two or three weeks without touching a piano. I could never understand how anyone could play for eight hours a day and think it a proper thing to do'. He recalled his amazement when staying 'many years ago in a New York hotel with Serkin. He had the suite directly below. I read in the paper at roughly 9.45am that Rudy had played the night before. It mentioned that he had played the Schumann [Concerto]. Within five minutes of my reading that I began to hear it in slow motion from below.' 

He has not changed his beliefs. His love affair with the microphone, which began in his teens, still runs strong. He still stands by his famous prediction that the concert hall is doomed and that the future lies in the recording studio. He has no regrets about abandoning the concert platform: 'it was a very unpleasant period. In the sense of one's responsibility towards the music it was not a difficult decision to take. It was something I did not take very seriously. There never was a time really when I felt that reciprocal thing that Rubinstein talks of. I was never aware of that. It was not a rewarding experience but ultimately an exhausting and futile one.' 

Gould has written at length about his reasons for espousing a musical career exclusively in recording. The possibility of a greater intimacy between performer and listener and a deeper awareness of the inner workings of the music than are achievable in public performance are just two justifications. These and others are examined very approachably by Geoffrey Payzant in his new book, Glenn Gould, Music and Mind, which is published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in Toronto, follows the Gould career and philosophy to date. Though Gould protects his privacy to an exceptional extent, this book demonstrates that there is a wealth of material on which to base such a study, not least from the pen of Gould himself. Payzant quotes liberally from this central source. 

In fact rather a large percentage of Gould's time is devoted to writing – music criticism, articles and essays both serious and humorous, sleeve-notes for his recordings, and plays and scripts for CBC. He regularly performs in and produces musical programmes for CBC on both radio and television – on tape, that is. Most of Gould's work on radio programmes is now done at his Toronto home, where he has his own studio facilities. 

One of his most recent articles was a 10,000-word memoir on Stokowski for the New York Times and he is now deeply involved in devising a radio programme on Richard Strauss. He describes it as 'a merger of documentary and dramatic techniques, approaching the subject through reminiscence and brief personal contacts with Strauss, using eight characters, Norman Del Mar and John Culshaw among them.' It follows previous programmes on Schoenberg and a much-praised series, The Solitude Trilogy about existence in the isolation of Canada's vast northland – which Gould has described as an autobiographical statement. He has frequently gone north to spend summer months there and has even talked of spending a winter there in a latitude where daylight hardly dawns, though it is plain he is not thinking of real wilderness living in a wooden shack. 

At the t ime when we had our talk Gould was editing some recordings of Bach's Toccatas and Fugues that he made some two years ago. 'I had not listened to the [tape] copies but they [the toccatas and fugues] tend to show Bach at his most improvisatory. There is some pretty bad fugue writing. Sitting down to hear them now is rather like sitting down to a crossword puzzle – gradually it all comes back.' He was already considering inserts 'not to correct wrong notes but to lift phrases into a different context to perhaps create a greater sense of contrast. It's a different kind of art. You can build good lines if you know what you are doing in the studio.' On one of Gould's latest records, which is of piano music by Sibelius he actually describes the mixing process in the sleeve-note. 

Gould is still manifestly going his own way. Work is still in progress on many fronts even if the lack of a recording studio inhibits him at present on one such front.

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