Gould pointed to future of classical music

September 28, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

TORONTO — A week-long celebration in the city ended yesterday at a graveside in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. It was the final resting place of the pianist Glenn Gould, Toronto's (and perhaps Canada's) most famous native son, who would have been 60 years old last Friday, had he not died almost exactly 10 years ago.

But if the cemetery visit honored great achievements, it was also the culmination of a festival that celebrated the possibility of ever greater things to come. For Glenn Gould was more then just a great pianist; he was an eccentric visionary who abandoned the stage at the age of 31, proclaiming that "the concert is dead." He spent the last 19 years of his life making records, broadcasts, videos, and prophesying the dawn of a new age created by technology that would have made it possible for formerly passive audience members to become artists themselves, living lives that, in the Utopian pianist's words, "would themselves be art."

The Canadian government honored Gould with extraordinary lavishness, inviting scholars, musicians and critics from as far away as Europe, West Africa and Japan to a conference called "Music and Communication in the 21st Century: Variations on Themes of Glenn Gould."

Critics and aesthetic theorists delivered papers on the meaning of Gould's pronouncements; composers using computer-driven technologies gave more than 15 world premieres; a new play, called "Glenn," examined the pianist's life; the Canadian Broadcasting Company opened a state-of-the-art recording studio and concert hall named after Gould; and the city of Toronto interrupted one day of traffic on one of its main streets with a parade on Gould's birthday.

In most respects, Glenn Gould never cared what anyone said about him. He was a pianist who was as famous for his eccentricities as for his playing. He wore an overcoat, wool cap and muffler in summer; he played on a battered 14-inch stool that brought his nose almost to the level of the keyboard; he eschewed almost all of the music written in the 19th century; and his singing, which can be heard on all of his records, was a constant accompaniment to his playing. Some of this was self-conscious, but there is no doubt that Gould was a deeply troubled man. In his last years, he become ever more isolated, working through the night and sleeping during the day, and keeping in contact with friends and family almost exclusively by telephone. He was a famous hypochondriac -- he traveled with a case containing about 50 varieties of prescription drugs -- and drug abuse may have hastened the stroke that killed him.

The technology which he used to isolate himself from others was also his salvation.

"Unlike other musicians who are petrified of recording, Glenn regarded microphones as his friends," said Howard Scott, the legendary record producer who helped make Gould's first albums.

Gould shocked the concert world when he retired from the stage. One reason, of course, was that he dreaded an audience in a context he called a "gladiatorial blood sport."

But another reason was that he sincerely believed he could create superior performances by using the techniques of the recording studio, treating recordings in much the same way a director makes music.

It is no wonder then, that much of the conference concerned technology's effect on music. Most of the conference delegates agreed Gould was premature in predicting the death of concerts, but they said that recordings, broadcasts, videos and computer-driven technologies already play the broad role Gould predicted. The next decade, it was suggested, may even make Gould's predictions seem conservative.

There was a sense of foreboding about the future of classical music. Future centuries, it was said, may regard classical music like mosaic art -- which flourished in Italy between the sixth and ninth centuries (almost exactly the amount of time between the early masterpieces of Bach and the present) and now occupies a niche as a glorious dead end in the history of visual art.

"The path of music has changed the least in traditional, classical music," said the electronic composer Tod Machover. "In 10 years there will be two musical cultures -- and classical music will be increasingly marginalized."

There was also a certain amount of worrying that technology could alienate and isolate human beings because it already -- in the form ofvideo games, for example -- mass produces for the lowest common denominator.

But there was also a sense of Gouldian Utopian optimism because technology, if combined with artistic imagination, could the words of Motoyukio Nakagowa, the head of Japan's NHK Satellite Broadcasting Dept.) "make human beings live as human beings should."

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