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What do Gould and Shepherd have in common?
Part 2, in which Shep enthusiast
Joel Baumwoll discusses the matter.
In this Part 2 post about Glenn Gould and Shepherd, I present my original inspiration for discussing Gould–a couple of years before I began blogging about Shep, I read an intriguing email (12/27/2010) discussing the similarities between Glenn Gould and Jean Shepherd. I’d printed it out and filed it, and now its author, Shep enthusiast Joel Baumwoll, has given me permission to reproduce it here. Thanks, Joel, for this:
American Masters played a fascinating biography of Glenn Gould tonight. As I listened to the story unfold, I was struck by the parallels between Shepherd and Gould. The enigma that was Gould was purposely created by him to keep his distance from all but those he chose to share his life with. He was a genius who detested audiences after having been a great performing success. He considered them a mob. He retreated to a security of recording where he could control every moment, every utterance and decide what he would put out there.
He decided to create a radio program on CBC where he talked and explored human nature and his own nature. The shows described were very much like many of Shep’s programs. I would love to hear these programs. I am sure they would be as fascinating as Shep’s deepest programs were.
He was obsessive compulsive, dominated every relationship, was a total control freak and eventually became quite paranoid. People said he would talk to them for hours on the phone or in person, and would not stop talking. [I’ve also read that he would call friends in the middle of the night and expect them to listen to his long monologs.] Yet his genius of music put him in a class so far above others that established and recognized pianists and musicians said he was in a class by himself. His technique left them in awe, he refused to trod any path but his own, and refused to retread any path. “Why should I play Beethoven like everyone else has and has been heard before?” he explained when he did a rendition of a sonata that was so different from any ever heard.
His Goldberg Variations were at once a work of wonder and so deviant from what people knew of Bach that they were amazed…. [Most famously, he recorded them proficiently at an incredibly fast speed–in later years he re-recorded them more slowly.]
Unlike Shepherd he loved children. But in many other ways, he was quite similar in his habits and eccentricities. I left the program amazed at how similar in so many ways these two geniuses were in their art and in their lives.
Another Shep enthusiast, Dolores Nocturni added her thoughts:
You don’t develop technique like [Gould’s] without incredible discipline, and I’m not sure Shepherd had it. Gould came to hate audiences because they got between him and some ideal of perfection he could only achieve in the studio. Shepherd craved audiences (the Limelight shows, colleges, Carnegie Hall), although I believe he was best in the studio, talking one-on-one to solitary listeners. Maybe that’s a Gould connection, too.
Otto Friedrich, his biographer, commented that as for control, for Gould: “over the years it became a passion, an obsession. It was the need to be in control, really, that drove him from the concert stage to the recording studio.” One might remember that A Christmas Story director Bob Clark commented that Shepherd’s need for control became an impediment to him in work on the film.
Library and Archives Canada:
In the 1960s Gould began to take a strong and active interest in radio and TV documentaries, nearly all for the CBC. He was the deviser, compiler, interviewer, writer, narrator and even producer of many of these programs, which ranged in subject matter from contemporary music to Newfoundland, from Stokowski to the Mennonites. He approached the technique of the documentary as a composer might approach the fugue or sonata movement form, or even an opera. Weaving together spoken voices and background sounds in counterpoint to each other, Gould achieved highly inventive and original effects. [As one commentator put it, in the documentary “The Idea of the North,” Gould used human voices to musical effect. I think Shepherd would have applauded this.]
One can grasp clues suggesting for us Shep-enthusiasts, some similarities (but not exactitude), between Gould and Shepherd. [For the following quote, I use color and underline to indicate my suggested similarities.] In the New Yorker of April 18, 1994, Anthony Lane reviews the documentary “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” in which he writes:
…it is Gould’s achievement to engage us not only with the demeanor of his performances but with their suggestion of larger virtues beyond the piano–of a living temperament, a limber philosophical stance, unlocked by its keys….Gould was a solitary, but not an eccentric; rather, he made himself central, and drew people in. He was one of a band of impassioned ascetics thrown up by our century, all of them immune to intellectual half measures; this means that Gould groupies are a scary lot, who tend to read Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil, although it’s probably safe to say that Gould was the only one with a taste for tomato ketchup and Petula Clark.*
* [I’d love to know in what ways both Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol found
Petula Clark so fascinating–and in what ways they’d disagree.]
What genius does not have some neurotic personality disorder that somehow goes along with his/her extraordinary ability? One aspect of Gould seems to have been his obsessiveness–yet he obsessed on such a variety of fields of interest–seems like a contradiction. “Incredible discipline” is a less judgmental way of approaching the related issue.
In their intensity and obsessiveness, Gould and Shep were somewhat different. (Gould appears to me to have had a much higher pitch of intensity and obsession.) Each could be a delightful human; but when they were in one of their “moods,” I think I might have felt uncomfortable in Shep’s company and I think that in Gould’s company I’d have been in a state of shock.
I greatly admire them both.
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.