Monday, January 12, 2004

The Idea Of Glenn

It's a reprieve, we're told, before more, worse cold. I am fretting about various medical related jaunts I must navigate in the upcoming arctic blast. I am fretting about returning to work. I am fretting about my son. About cars. About being on call again soon. I am fretting about, well, everything. Mega-fret. One of my great talents.

But in the midst of my chilly fretting I began thinking about the "Idea of North."

My father, the dear Raul Stanati, introduced me to the recordings of the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) when I was very young. I can't recall the context, but he pointed out that, if one listened very closely, one could hear Gould humming along with the music. He also pointed out some of Gould's oddities -- playing bundled in scarves and with fingerless gloves.

When, later in my life, I began to listen extensively to Gould, this ghostly humming became very dear to me. His playing is extremely precise and calculated. The passion in it, and I'm thinking of the recordings of Bach for which he is famous, is the rigorous intellectual passion of the music itself, the passion inherent in the counterpoint, not affectation imposed by the performer. The passion inherent in form, Platonic form, architectural form. His thin humming amidst the rigor and grandeur is like a tiny human watermark.

I don't know whether the work of the philosopher Suzanne Langer (again, she came to me via Raul Stanati) is still to any degree au courant, but her idea of music as a "form" of feeling always rang intuitively true to me: tension and resolution, call and response, calm and agitation, serene reflection.

On the wall of my study, in a cheap Walgreen's frame, I have juxtaposed two photocopies of famous pictures of Glenn Gould. In both he is at a grand piano, playing. In the first he is quite young, probably in his early, prodigious twenties. He is pale and angular, his hair is long, fair and tousled; he's wearing a white shirt that echos brilliant sunlight coming in behind the piano; he is smiling ecstatically, mouth opened, playing characteristically close to the keyboard, but looking slightly offside. In second photo he is older, near the terribly premature end of his life; thickened, hunched at the keyboard, looking straight at it through thick glasses, thinning hair slicked back. He's wearing a thick, dark sweater. Light and shadow; grace and gravity.

This is not the exact picture of the young Gould, but it gives a sense of his ethereal grace; here is the 1981 Gould.

Musically, of course, these photos are iconic of two of his most famous recordings, the bookends of his career: his 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The first is quicksilver, virtuosic, exuberant, angelic, joyous; the second is somber, slower, introverted -- intentionally played, he said, all to a single pulse: this gives it a stately, inexorable, almost funereal weight. They are an amazing pair of recordings. I have a videotape of Gould talking about and playing his 1981 version of Goldbergs. It, and the music, prompted these poems:


In Memoriam Glenn Gould


The boy, an angel of velocity,
leans, oblique, to the keys
transparent to the music
as if it were his own radiance.

Hand, ear and eye constellate,
ecstatic, mercurial, and strike
the wood and wire like flint strikes flint
for the spark different each time,
yet each time born in the bliss
of obedience: the contrapunctus
in which body is the ground,
the particular, the pianist
humming along on his
broken chair.


And leans yet, but to
a different gravity
like a star becoming stone,
a star become so densely singular
that its light involutes
to a pianissimo, largo, whisper, silence.

His fingers linger on each note,
in not quite regret or au revoir,
but stoic, somehow,
even sacrificial,
preparing to give back
everything -- body, fugue,
chair, voice -- and enter
the cantus firmus of the dark.


On Watching Glenn Gould Record
the Goldberg Variations, 1981

As much as he loved
the fetishes of the studio,
it wasn’t just the advent
of Dolby or Stereo
that convinced him
to re-do the Goldbergs
in 1981, it was the pulse.

Smiling, he allowed that while
the ‘55 record was very nice,
it lacked a certain unifying
rhythmic design. Like a fond
maestro, he indulged the lost
prodigy, the quicksilver angel,
the beautiful boy who read fugues
like star charts, and filled the sky.

So who is the sallow, thickened man
who bends to the keys ? The ghost
of an angel flickers like a private joke
behind his hornrims, and under
his sweat-slick, pallid hair.
His buttonless polyester cuffs
flap and iridesce like navy blue pigeons
riding his wrists, acolytes in the thrall
of the white dove hands
that swoop, dive, skim and carve
a long annunciation from the air.

This music that once seemed
to fall through an angel,
like the light of God through glass,
is rising through him now
as if it were his own blood
impelled by a pulse
that is his, and God’s and time’s.
And listening, we feel
the quickenings and rubatos
of the incessant inner stream,
like the music that water makes on stone
in its determined voyage seaward,
and toward calm.


The "Idea of North" is a non-musical composition of Gould's -- a composition of spoken voices, people interviewed about their experiences in and thoughts about the far north of Canada. He uses speech like musical lines, in places contrapuntally; I'd had the disc for years but had not listened to it until today. It's far less compelling than his musical performances, but interesting and emblematic nonetheless.

The Arctic North fascinated Gould: its distance, its cold, its solitude. He had little direct experience of the north, but was enamoured since boyhood with the "Idea of North." Gould himself was quite a solitary, who nonetheless was an avid and witty raconteur and interviewee, and, from all accounts, loved talking on the telephone. A man of distances.

When I read, once, about how he had pored over maps as a boy speculating about Banks Island, Baffin Island, enthralled by the very idea of them, I was astonished: I had done the same.


A man at a piano plays Bach and hums;
a man, alone on ice under stars, hums.
A dead man hums, so gracefully dead
the blackout curtain seems to chink a bit
on queer brightness. Glenn, in these latitudes,
the idea of heaven is always due north,
and the black-legged ivory gull rises, falls
and balances on air like music does.

When I also die I would like to come
to your cottage on the northern shore
of heaven, Glenn, to make you tea
and lay out your pajamas night after night
as the curtains of the aurora swing open
and the glacier cracks like a cannon
under the tundra flowers’ thrust and bloom.
And if you need me, I’ll be in the next room

with my lamp and pen and writing paper.
And thus, dear Glenn, we’ll be long dead together.


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