BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some audience research suggests that classical music lovers shun modernity, but one of history's best-known classical pianists distinguished himself by embracing everything the latest electronic media had to offer. More than 20 years after his death, pianist Glenn Gould remains perhaps the most controversial performer of classical music in the 20th Century, though he performed for only half of his creative life. An international sensation at the tender age of 31, he suddenly renounced the concert stage and declared that he would henceforth express himself solely through media. On the Media's Senior Producer Arun Rath climbed down from his ivory tower with this appreciation.
ARUN RATH: If we want to be glib, we can reduce Glenn Gould's media prophecy to this: the concert is dead. Long live recording. [STRAUSS'S ELEKTRA W/BIRGIT NILSSON SINGING UP & UNDER] Of course the concert isn't dead. Classical ticket sales are doing better than ever. But it's also true that media have forever changed our experience of music. Tim Page is a music critic for the Washington Post and the editor of the Glenn Gould Reader.
TIM PAGE: To give you an example, when the Metropolitan Opera put on Strauss's Elektra in 1981 with Birgit Nilsson, and they telecast it over PBS, it's estimated that more men, women and children saw and heard the work that night than the sum total of all audiences that had encountered Elektra since its premiere in 1909. Now that's one single night. That's saying quite a lot. [MUSIC: SCHNABEL PLAYING BEETHOVEN 4]
ARUN RATH: Gould even found possibilities in the limitations of technology. As a child listening to Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven concertos, Gould enjoyed the mandatory breaks every four minutes to flip the 78s. Breaking the music down into these segments helped him understand Beethoven's structures. [GOULD LIVE IN LENINGRAD, BACH KEYBOARD CONCERTO NO. 1] Gould believed the concert hall bred bad habits in even the best musicians. In a 1968 interview, he described how he came to put exaggerated phrases in a Bach partita.
GLENN GOULD: And the reason that they got into it, was that I had to play it in very large halls which weren't set up with Bach in mind, certainly, and try to project it to that man up there in the top balcony. And as I did that, I gradually picked up all kinds of what I suppose Sir Tyrone Guthrie would call "bits of business," you know? And I added this hairpin and that hairpin to a phrase that didn't demand it, didn't need it, and that ultimately destroyed the fabric of the music. [APPLAUSE]
ARUN RATH: So Gould favored an intimate acoustic in his recordings. Andrew Quint is the classical music editor for The Absolute Sound. [GOULD/BACH SINFONIA 9 IN F MAJOR UP & UNDER]
ANDREW QUINT: Gould's recordings were all made for Columbia and CBS in studios or in studio-like environments, like the little department store auditorium that he utilized for all those years in Toronto, and not in concert halls. This, of course, gave him a great deal of control over the finished product, but it also allowed him to reject sonically the concert hall experience. He didn't want the music to have any kind of acoustic halo or to sound overly reverberant. The sound on his records is very close up and immediate. I think with these recordings the listener at home is invited to join him in what's a very intensely personal experience, an exploration of the music at hand, and Gould's recordings really pull you in.
ARUN RATH: The intimacy was crucial. Gould longed for what he called a "one to one" relationship with his listener -- something he thought couldn't take place in a crowded concert hall. A large part of Gould's concert aversion came out of his personal hangups. He hated traveling, hated playing with unfamiliar orchestras and untested instruments. And while playing before thousands of people, Gould felt as uncomfortable as a Buddhist in the Roman Coliseum.
GLENN GOULD: There's a very curious and, and almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concert listener, and there's a waiting for it to happen, a waiting for the horn to fluff; a waiting for the strings to become ragged; a waiting for the conductor to forget the subdivide, you know? And it's dreadful!
ARUN RATH: But mostly he objected to the hierarchy of the concert hall -- the plight of the guy in the cheap seats who couldn't hear as well. Gould thought that if music gets distorted for that poor fellow in the last row of the balcony, aren't concerts unfair, even immoral? Andrew Quint.
ANDREW QUINT: I think there's a democratizing aspect of recordings, to be sure. But this becomes less of an issue when the right kind of music is being played in the right kind of form.
ARUN RATH: Even an acoustically perfect performing space wouldn't have been enough for Gould. Part of his moral quest was to deliver as inspired and perfect renderings as possible, and he resented what he called the "non-take-two-ness" of the concert. Gould threw himself into the production process - the ability to equalize the sound - splice in corrections and pick from alternate takes -- and for this, the perfectionist was loathed by the purists.
GLENN GOULD: They feel that there's a certain amount of cheating involved, and of course there is, and they resent the fact that you can, in fact, virtually eliminate error.
ARUN RATH: He relished what he called "discovery in the studio." For instance, one of his more provocative interpretations of Bach was a product of an editing session some weeks after the original recording.
GLENN GOULD: One fugue, the A Minor from the first volume of the Wohltemperte Clavier consisted of two extraordinary takes which were absolutely different in character and which miraculously matched each other, paced each other in tempi, and this is very unusual. [WELL TEMPERED KLAVIER UP FULL]
ARUN RATH: Unless you're especially sensitive to piano technique or listen very closely, it's hard to detect the splices between the turgidly-phrased take 6 and the jaunty take 8. Most of the time, the effect is of a subtle sense of emotional movement. So through an act of inspiration after the actual performance, we get an interpretation that never could have occurred in the concert hall.
GLENN GOULD: I think one can really treat tape as, as a film director treats his rushes. One can look at it the day after and say now what have we really got here? What can we do with this? What does this all mean? [WELL TEMPERED KLAVIER UP FULL, ENDS] [START GOULD/BRAHMS RHAPSODY NO. 2 UP & UNDER]
ARUN RATH: Electronic media also gave the listener some creative control, moving closer to that one-to-one relationship that Gould craved. That relationship began with the first volume knob, but what Gould ultimately had in mind is a lot more involved.
GLENN GOULD: I'd love to issue a series of variant performances and let the, let the listener choose what they, themselves, most like. Let them assemble their own performance. Give them all the component parts, all the component splices rendered at different tempi with different dynamic inflections, and let them put something together that they really enjoy. Make them participant to that degree.
ARUN RATH: That's a lot to ask from a listener, but Gould thought most media so far had under-estimated consumers. He believed in the capacity of people, not just to handle the technology, but to comprehend several ideas at once. If he had a favorite musical form, it was the fugue -- a composition that simultaneously makes use of several melodic lines. When he made a radio documentary about the Canadian North, Gould used his interviews the way Bach used tunes. [EXCERPT FROM IDEA OF THE NORTH PLAYS] [ALL OVERLAPPING EACH OTHER]
SPEAKER 1: Well, I did one of 30 days....
SPEAKER 2: ...and then for another 11 years....
SPEAKER 3: Perhaps they assume -- they, they would....
GLENN GOULD: There's no particular reason, it seems to me, why one shouldn't be able to comprehend clearly and concisely two or three simultaneous conversations.
SPEAKER 1: ...simply traveled it month after month, year after year....
SPEAKER 2: ...I can't conceive of such a person being really untouched by....
SPEAKER 3: More skeptical....
ARUN RATH: Not a surprising sentiment for a guy who could play a 5-voice Bach fugue and give a distinct character to each individual line. He may have over-estimated his audience a little, but the fact is media consumers engage in this type of fugal multi-tasking all the time. Like now, maybe you're listening to the radio while flipping through the paper or surfing the net. And even television, the one household medium apt to capture our whole attention, is cluttered with boxes and crawls, and we have the option to follow some or all of them at the same time. In his own time, Gould used the power of media to open new frontiers and old music, but he also predicted in his quirky, take-no-prisoners fashion, the potential of electronic media and its audience to open new frontiers on the full range of art and ideas. For On the Media, I'm Arun Rath. [MUSIC ENDS]