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GG: On and Off the Record (long)

At Mary Jo's suggestion, I am reposting this mail, which I wrote to a friend,
to the list... it's some thoughts about the video "Glenn Gould: On and Off
the Record" which she had mentioned earlier (and which I also recently

<<First of all, I was charmed by almost the whole thing ("On and Off the
Record"), but I think that was more a function of the Gouldian personality
than of the National Film Board.  The voiceover and setup are bizarre to the
point of surreality to me (we open with  the New York skyline...  uh....  and
then Joe Friday begins his deadpan, monotone, industrial-safety-anti-VD-film
narration... what???  What is going on here?)  But I enjoyed everyone's
nervous self-consciousness on the Steinway factory floor (lots of handshaking
all around, and apparently a problem with Glenn's trousers  :->  he is hiking
them up throughout the entire segment!  "Don't his pants fit?"  a friend and
fellow Gould admirer who watched the video with me inquired.... she was
sympathetic about the necessity of having to lash one's clothes securely to
one's wispy frame, or pay the social price  :->   

It's amusing to me how ill-at-ease the Steinway men are, and how relatively
relaxed Glenn is... it's that self-possession before cameras that you and I
have noted.  The part that fascinated my friend and me, though, was something
the two of us have been amazed at before... Glenn's ability to drop from
normal conversation into an instant and intense concentration at the piano,
even if he is only playing for a second or two to test its sound.  It reminds
me of Browning's poem "Andrea Del Sarto"... Andrea, as the narrator, asks his
wife if she knows how many artists in Florence would die to paint such a
thing, "such a little thing as you smeared carelessly passing with your robes
afloat."   Gould casually tosses off effortless fragments that most pianists
could only dream of playing after a lifetime of preparation...  I never get
over my awe at his ability.

Then we go (as the narrator helpfully informs us) to Lake Simcoe... which is
where that fragment from the Sony video << Prelude - Vol I>> that I referred
to before is taken from  (when Gould tears through a Bach partita with
breathtaking and joyful virtuosity.)  I found the interview segment
interesting, but more for what Gould didn't say than what he did.... he was
such a guarded person, and every revelation and personal thought expressed
during the interview was, very obviously,  a calculated decision on his part
about what to give away and what to keep.  What he said was, by and large, no
less true for that, but there was a quality of intellectual fencing in any
discussion with Gould concerning himself, from what I gather, and Joe Friday
from the NFB is no match for Glenn  :->  so we see only what it is desired we
should see (I contrasted this in my mind to Bruno Monsaigneon's film of the
taping of the last Variations...  when Gould's preoccupation with the work,
and sense of urgency occasioned by his own failing health, made him less able
to protect and withold himself from the camera and thus the viewer.)  Glenn
Gould, as these "On and Off the Record" films demonstrate, was a very
charismatic person in the oldest and most powerful sense of that word.
 Though he was, for much of his life, a handsome man, it is not related to
his physical appearance (though in the Jock Carroll book, I think there are
many photographs where he is playing off that quality... there is almost a
flirtatious relationship with the camera, a full awareness of the response he
could create in the eventual viewer of the photographs.)  His charisma is
instead related to the force of intellect... one always senses a strong mind
working, and his desire to conceal creates, of course, an equally strong
desire in his audience to know, to uncover those tantalizing witheld secrets.
  There is an element of this in any celebrity myth, any famous person's
appeal to the public, but I think that Glenn Gould was unusual in his
enigmatic and contradictory relationship with the viewer, at once so intimate
and so remote.  Performing music before an audience (even the invisible
audience of tape or film), especially music written for solo instrument, is a
act of terrible intimacy, and this is something Gould lays before us with no
attempt at self-protection, no concealment.  The contrast between the
interview segments of the film, with his bland, blank defensiveness, and his
unbridled responses to the music in the performance segments, is hypnotic and
disturbing.   I understand why people sometimes reacted with embarrassment to
Gould's playing ("Mr. Gould approaches the piano con amore" the New York
Times said delicately in one review...  my friend, on viewing one of the
Simcoe performance segments, was startled; "Perhaps Glenn and the piano would
like to be alone!!")   The laying bare of self that is a requirement of any
artist is magnified in the solo pianist, and the sense of embarrassment in
the onlooker springs, I think,  from Gould's unreserved acceptance of this
exposure.  Such an apparent loss of self-control is a startling sight in a
man who at all other times seemed so acutely and painfully self-conscious and
mannered;  the rapt abandon of his aspect, simultaneous with the perfect
technical control of his playing, presents one of the paradoxes which make
Gould such a compelling performer.  

There is an urge, when watching Glenn Gould on film, an odd desire to wish
one could disassemble a genius like a clock, and see from what source, from
what spring the miracle comes....  I suppose that's why so many people still
talk and think about, and admire and listen to, Gould.  What was the source
of all that music, what Gould himself called "that gleaming lustrous sound"?
 I think that's why I bought the NFB video... it's a human curiosity, I
suppose, to see and try to understand, to answer the question  -    What was
so special about you?  Why did this come to live inside of you?  -  What
makes a Bach, a Mozart, a Da Vinci, a Michaelangelo, a Shakespeare?  Is it
some chemistry within, or is it some power without?

The question is only begged the more by the other parts of the film.... the
scenes in streets and taxicabs and gardens, or of pleasant ordinary bonhomie
in restaurants.  (I was surprised at the sight of Glenn doing shots of
whiskey(??) during the taping of the Italian Concerto... I was under the
impression that he didn't drink.  But I must say that the sound engineer who
growled "Every kid in America plays this thing" was right... it has been such
a staple of piano-lesson labors, and I have heard it played so badly so
often, that even with Glenn Gould at the klavier I feel I could use a shot of
liquor myself to listen to it  :->  aaaargh!!  Not the Italian Concerto

Those paradoxes and personal contradictions are evident again as well....
 the same man who carelessly drops wads of banknotes in the snow is later
perusing the financial pages with a sharp eye to his investments....   and
recording, the ecstatic, entranced artist shares places with the careful and
workmanlike craftsman.  Very interesting...  no wonder people still ponder
and discuss the maddening Glenn Gould!   :->      >>>