Northern Ways to Think about Music: Glenn Gould's Idea of North as an Aesthetic Category

By Mantere, Markus | Intersections, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Northern Ways to Think about Music: Glenn Gould's Idea of North as an Aesthetic Category


Mantere, Markus, Intersections


When I went to the north, I had no intention of writing about it or of referring to it even parenthetically in anything that I wrote. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing musical critiques, for instance, in which the north-the idea of the north-began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban oriented and spiritually limited thereby.

Glenn Gould (GGR, 391)

The argument put forth implicity by the title of this essay-that the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-82) was a "northern" artist par excellence, and that the North plays a pivotal role in his aesthetic thought-may sound, to anyone familiar with Gould's life and work, merely obvious. Indeed, particularly after his 1964 retirement from the concert stage at the peak of his career, Gould became more and more fascinated with the northern part of his home country.

However, Gould cared not so much about the geography, history, population, or economy of the Canadian North, but rather about the symbolic and metaphorical meanings that the idea of North implied for him. The North, in his aesthetic thought, served from the very beginning as a metaphor for things Gould regarded as indispensable to his music-making: isolation, loneliness, and the ideal of artistic creation as an activity taking place outside institutions, canons and conventions of the art-world.

Gould's fascination with the North (in this abstract sense) plays itself out not only in his work-particularly in the Solitude Trilogy-as well as in many of his writings and interviews, but also in the public reception of his artistic persona. Gould is, in fact, reflected as a "northern artist" all over the place: in biographies and other commentaries about him, in photographs taken of him and used in many album covers of his recordings (about whose designs he was very fussy), and even in François Girard's award-winning movie, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Gould, in his own as well as in the eyes of others, became, over the course of his career, the "pianist from the North"1 whose eccentricities-his deliberate isolation from direct social interaction, his hypochondria, his strange stage mannerisms, his harsh criticism of deities (like Mozart) of the Western art music canon-have formed "the myth of Gould" which is widely circulated in biographies, documentary films, and other commentaries on the pianist.

Gould was unquestionably an odd figure in the history of classical music performance. Indeed, as Edward Said (1991,22-23) has put it, Gould "seemed never to have done anything that was not in some way purposefully eccentric," and for this reason his career seems like a "self-conscious counter-narrative to the careers of all other musicians." seeing Gould apart from "all other musicians" may be an overstatement on Said's part,-what, were that the case, should we make of, say, Vladimir de Pachmann or Thelonius Monk?-but it is safe to say that Gould's eccentricity, together with his unconventional and provocative insights on music, have been crucial in evoking the huge public fascination with his character. Referring to Gould's cult status, Terry Teachout (2002) has written about "Gouldism"; the publicity of Gould's persona, which is almost comparable to that of pop stars, and the fascination created by it show no signs of weakening even now, twentythree years after his death. Gould has become a cult figure in and outside the world of classical music, an artist who is celebrated year after year in film festivals, panel discussions, congresses, and travelling exhibitions. Gould's North, together with the values and ideals that it stands for, is a prevalent theme in many of these events, as well as in the reception of Gould more generally.

Ultimately, Gould's North as an aesthetic construction concerns larger issues which are the focus of my essay. …

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