Conversations with Glenn Gould

Conversations with Glenn Gould

by Jonathan Cott

ISBN: 9780226116235

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Writing about the works of the late-Elizabethan composer Orlando Gibbons, you once observed: "One is never quite able to counter the impression of a music of supreme beauty that somehow lacks its ideal means of reproduction." You've also talked about the "idealized aspects of the works of Baeh." And this emphasis on the idea of "idealization" really seems to me to define your approach to music.... But perhaps I'm starting off on too abstract a note.

No, it's marvelous, it's an interesting point, and I suppose that if one fed it into a computer, probably that phrase - "ideal means of reproduction" - or some variant of it would turn up very frequently in what I say and write. I hadn't realized it before, but it is a preoccupation, and I think it would be interesting to explore why it is.

But let me start out on a very practical level and proceed from there to something more abstract. I was recently talking to a group of educators about the problems concerning the teaching of pianists in institutionalized technical "factories." You see, I think there's a fallacy that's been concocted by the music teachers' profession, to wit: that there's a certain sequence of events necessary in order to have the revealed truth about the way one produces a given effect on a given instrument. And I said: Given half an hour of your time and your spirit and a quiet room, I could teach any of you how to play the piano - everything there is to know about playing the piano can be taught in half an hour, I'm convinced of it. I've never done it and I never intend to do it, because it's centipedal in the Schoenbergian sense - that is to say, in the sense in which Schoenberg was afraid to be asked why he used a certain row in a certain way, saying he felt like the centipede, which doesn't want to think about the movement of its hundred legs because it would become impotent; it couldn't walk at all if it did think about it. And I said: Therefore I'm not going to give this half-hour lesson, but if I chose to, the physical element is so very minimal that I could teach it to you if you paid attention and were very quiet and absorbed what I said and possibly you could take it down on a cassette so that you could replay it later on, and you wouldn't need another lesson. You would then have to proceed along certain rather disciplined lines whereby you observed the correlation of that bit of information with certain other kinds of physical activity - you would discover there are certain things you can't do, certain kinds of surfaces you can't sit on, certain kinds of car seats that you can't ride in.

And by this time I was getting a great laugh - they regarded this whole thing as a routine, which it was not. I was trying to make quite a serious point, which was: that if this were done, you would be free of the entire tactile kinetic commitment. No, correction - you would not be free, you would be eternally bound to it, but so tightly bound to it that it would be a matter of tertiary interest only. It would be something that could be "disarranged" only by a set of circumstances that would confuse it.

I once talked about such a "set." It involved a time in Tel Aviv - the fall of 1958, in fact - and I was giving a series of concerts on an absolutely rotten piano, the manufacturer of which shall be left unnamed [laughing]. Israel was, after all, a desert country, as they kept explaining to me, and they had desert pianos, understandably enough. I was playing I think eleven concerts in eighteen days, which for Isaac Stern would be like nothing, but for me is very difficult - was very difficult, I should say - and I think eight of the eleven were given on this monstrosity.

In any event, one day I was switching programs, which was a real problem, because till then I'd coasted on a kind of tactile memory based on the experience of playing the earlier repertoire, and now suddenly I had to change. I had to do a little practicing, and it was at that moment that things began to run downhill. So on the afternoon of the first of that series of concerts, I'd gone through a miserable rehearsal at which I really played like a pig because this piano had finally gotten to me. I was playing on its terms. I had "put it on," as Mr. McLuhan would say, and I was really very concerned because I simply couldn't play a C-major scale properly. I was incapable, apparently, of responding on any terms but those which were immediately presented to me through the medium of that piano.

So I had a car, rented from the Hertz agency in Jerusalem (the idea of which delights me), and I was in any case staying about fifteen miles outside of Tel Aviv at a place called Herzliyya-by-the-Sea (it's an American colony where there are rather nice hotels and you feel as though you're in the San Juan Hilton). And I went out to a sand dune and decided that the only thing that could possibly save this concert was to re-create the most admirable tactile circumstance I knew of. And at that time that was in relation to a piano which I still own, though I haven't used it in many years, a turn-of-the-century (about 1895) Chickering - supposedly the last classic piano built in America - classic by virtue of the fact that it had a lyre that looked as if it were off the cover of the old B. F. Wood edition - short, stubby legs and slightly square sides. This piano was the prototype of the piano that I now use for my recordings and the other one that I have in my apartment as well, in that I discovered a relationship of depth of touch to aftertouch, which admittedly had to undergo a considerable amount of modification for a Steinway. It couldn't just be transferred across the board (no pun intended), and both of the pianos that I own were modified along the lines of this turn-of-the-century Chickering.

So I sat in my car in ye sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room ... and first of all to imagine the living room, which took some doing because I'd been away from it for three months at this point. And I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualize the piano, and ... this sounds ridiculously yogistic, I'd never done it before in precisely these terms ... but so help me it worked.

Anyway, I was sitting in the car, looking at the sea, got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day. I got to the auditorium in the evening, played the concert, and it was without question the first time that I'd been in a really exalted mood throughout the entire stay there - I was absolutely free of commitment to that unwieldy beast. Now, the result, at least during the piano's first entrance, really scared me. There was a minimal amount of sound - it felt as though I were playing with the soft pedal down, which at times I often do, but without the intention of creating quite so faint-hearted a piano tone.

I was shocked, a little frightened, but I suddenly realized: Well, of course it's doing that because I'm engaged with another tactile image, and eventually I made some adjustment, allowed for some give-and-take in relation to the instrument at hand. And what came out was really rather extraordinary - or at least I thought so. And so, apparently, did a couple of elderly souls who wandered backstage after the concert. One of them was the late Max Brod - the Kafka scholar, who at that time was living in Tel Aviv and who wrote for the Tel Aviv German paper. He came backstage with a lady, whom I took to be his secretary, and made a few nice sounds, and the lady in question, whose name I didn't catch, came up to me and in a rather heavy German accent said - bear in mind I'd just played Beethoven Two - and said [conspiratorial half-whisper], "Mr. Gould, ve haf attended already several of your pairformances in Tel Aviv, but tonight's, zis vas somehow, in some vay, somesing vas different, you vere not qvite one of us, you vere - you vere - your being vas removed." And I bowed deeply and said, "Thank you, madam," realizing of course that she had in fact put her finger on something that was too spooky to talk about even, and I realized that with her obviously limited English there was no way I could convey what I'd really done. But then she finished it off by saying, "Yes, I haf just been saying that zis was unquestionably ze finest Mozart I haf ever heard" [laughing], and of course it was Beethoven.

When you were sitting in the car in the desert, were you performing the piece in the air on the dashboard, or ...

Neither, neither. The secret is that you must never move your fingers. If you do, you will automatically reflect the most recent tactile configurations that you've been exposed to.

Is there a difference between imagining a total performance of a piece and performing it in your imagination? Were you simply imagining a performance of the piece in your mind?

No. That is something profoundly to be wished for and not necessarily contradictory to what we've talked about, but at a certain point there is an overlap, and odd bits and pieces stick out, and I think we should define those bits and pieces. There is a difference, and the difference is something like this: I don't know if you've ever experienced it - and certainly they're not going to try it on me - but some years ago they discovered a remarkable method of local anesthesia which was employed in dentistry. The method was that of taking a patient who, for some reason, was reacting badly to Carbocaine or Zylocaine or whateverocaine, and giving him two dials, one of which contained white noise, while the other controlled possibly a radio or a cassette or record player, on which was a piece of musical information with which the patient was familiar - Mantovani or Beethoven - whatever he knew. It had to be something he could "pull in," so to speak. Now then, that meant that his reaching out to that source had to be impeded in some way, there had to be an area of blockage, and that area of blockage was represented by the dial which controlled the white noise. It was arranged in various ratios, but at all times the ratio of white noise to actual sound had to be in favor of the white noise, so that you had to fight through that sound barrier, quite literally, in order to pull out remnants of a remembered sound. And it was discovered that without exception this was the most effective local anesthetic they'd ever employed in dentistry. They had a remarkable success with it ... except that there were very few people who were willing to have it tried on them [laughing]. But the reason for its success, I think, is quite obvious: if you are forced to concentrate totally on some object that is other than that which concerns you most deeply at the moment, there's an element of transcendence implied in that concentration.

To give you another example of the same sort of thing: years ago I was playing for the first time Beethoven's Sonata no. 30, Opus 109. I was about nineteen at the time and I used to try out pieces that I hadn't played before in relatively small Canadian towns, and this one fell into a program that I was giving about'one hundred twenty miles from Toronto - a university town called Kingston. I never bothered to practice very much - I now practice almost not at all - but even in those days I was far from being a slave of the instrument. I tended to learn the score away from the piano. I would learn it completely by memory first, and then go to the piano with it afterwards - and that, of course, was another stage in the divorce of tactilia from expressive manifestations of one kind or another. No, that's not quite accurate, because, obviously, certain expressive manifestations were built into the analytical concept, but the tactile assumptions were not.

Now, Opus log isn't a particularly difficult or strenuous piece, but there is in it one moment which is a positive horror, as you perhaps know, and that is in the fifth variation in the last movement - a moment which is an upward-bound diatonic run in sixths. It's an awkward moment, not only in terms of black-versus-white note fingerings but also in terms of that break in the keyboard around two octaves above middle C where problems of repetition most often show up. For at that point you have to change from a pattern in sixths to a pattern in thirds, and you've got to do that in a split second. I had always heard this piece played by people who, when that moment arrived, looked like horses being led from burning barns - a look of horror would come upon them, and I always wondered what was so intimidating about it.

Anyway, about two or three weeks before I was to play the thing for the first time, I started to study the score, and about a week ahead of time I started to practice it (which sounds suicidal, but that's the way I always operate). And the first thing I did, foolishly - very bad psychology - was to think in terms of Well, let's try the variation, just to make sure there's no problem - it had never seemed to be one when I sat down and read the thing through when I was a kid ... but better try it, better work out a little fingering system just in case, you know. And as I began to work out my system, one thing after another began to go wrong. Before many minutes had elapsed I found that I'd developed a total block about this thing. And three days before the concert, the block, which I'd tried to get rid of by all kinds of devious means - not playing the piece at all, for instance - had developed apace, so that I couldn't get to that point without literally shying and stopping. I just froze at that particular moment.

I thought, something's got to be done about this - I've got to change the program or delete the variation or pretend that I know something about the autograph that they don't. So I decided to try the Last Resort method. That was to place beside the piano a couple of radios, or possibly one radio and one television, turn them up full blast - that's really in effect the experiment that years later I was to read about re Non-Anesthetic Dentistry - turn them up so loudly that, while I could feel what I was doing, I was primarily hearing what was coming off the radio speaker or the television speaker or, better still, both. I was separating, at this point, my areas of concentration, and to such an extent that I realized that that in itself would not break the chain of reaction. (It had already begun to make its mark, the problem had begun to disappear. The fact that you couldn't hear yourself, that there wasn't audible evidence of your failure, was already a step in the right direction.) But I realized that I had to do something more than that.

Now, in this variation, the left hand has at that moment a rather uninspired sequence of four notes, the third of which is tied over the bar line. There's not too much you can do with those four notes, but I thought - all right, there are, we'll say, in terms of accent and so on, maybe half a dozen permutations that would be possible [sings several of the permutations], and I played them as unmusically as possible. In fact the more unmusical the better, because it took more concentration to produce unmusical sounds, and I must say I was extremely successful in that endeavor. In any event, during this time my concentration was exclusively on the left hand - I'd virtually forgotten about the right - and I did this at varying tempi and kept the radios going, and then came ... the moment. I switched off the radios and thought: I don't think I'm ready for this ... need a cup of coffee, made a few other excuses, and then finally sat down. The block was gone. And now, every once in a while, just for the hell of it, I sit down and do that passage to see if the block's still gone. It still is, and it became one of my favorite concert pieces.


Excerpted from "Conversations with Glenn Gould" by Jonathan Cott. Copyright © 0 by Jonathan Cott. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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