Canadian pianist/genius Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a strange and fascinating person. He’s most famous for his interpretations of Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations.” I’ve always been intrigued by what makes artists of various kinds tick–go about their work–at least in part this is envy–wanting to be like them. (However, I’m a very conventional sort of guy–except for a few of my inexplicably “uncharacteristic” activities–for example, I’ve spent a good part of the last 15 years focusing my attention on a personage named “Shep.”) I think there are some similarities between Shep and Gould.
Although I listen to very little classical music these days, I’ve got a couple of Gould recordings and I’ve read a major book about him to see, in my own conventional sort of way, if I could somehow understand his ticking. (Yes, I know–people like Gould can’t be understood by reading books about them–but maybe a bit of understanding can be grabbed?! For the most part, in my Excelsior, You Fathead! I didn’t try to understand Shep–I felt it much more important to describe and appreciate what he’d created. And as for interpretation, I tried to give quotes and suggestions from others who knew him, adding what Whitman referred to in another context as “faint clues and in-directions.”)
The book I read years back, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations by Otto Friedrich, says this on its back cover:
He was a virtuoso of the piano who inspired an almost religious fervor in his fans, yet he hated performing and left the concert stage forever at the age of 31. He was a tireless advocate of the technology of recording, an artist who looked forward to a time when mere musicians would be rendered obsolete.
He was a notorious–and some thought, a deliberate–eccentric, who muffled himself in scarves and gloves, liberally dosed himself with pills, and once sued Steinway & Sons because one of its employees had shaken his hand too roughly. He lived in hermetic solitude and liked to call himself “the last Puritan,” but those who watched Glenn Gould play piano saw an eroticism so intense it was almost embarrassing.
One encounters many descriptions of Gould that might well make one think that he was a totally goofy guy. Why did he wear gloves and be so ultra sensitive about his hands? Why did he perform with his own odd piano seat (His father had made it for him and it made him feel more physically comfortable than any regular seat he’d ever sat on. It was unusually low, so that his hands on the piano keys were at a seemingly strange angle). Critics complained about his odd mannerisms on stage: singing loudly while playing, waving his hands about. It’s said that he approached each performance “from a totally re-creative point of view”–that is, with the aim of playing a “particular work as it has never been heard before.” Why did he abandon public performance? Many other oddities. But each had its “reasons”–he was not just the cuckoo he appeared to be on the surface. Watch the film “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.”
What do Gould and Shepherd have in common?
Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shep enthusiast
Joel Baumwoll comments on the matter.