Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work: A Study in Performance Practice

Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work: A Study in Performance Practice

Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work: A Study in Performance Practice

Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work: A Study in Performance Practice

Synopsis

This book is a detailed study of the Canadian pianist, broadcaster, writer, and composer Glenn Gould (1932-82). While focussed primarily on his performances, it also situates his work and thought more broadly within relevant musical, cultural, intellectual, and historical contexts. It incorporates most of the existing primary and secondary literature on Gould, as well as many ideas, interpretations, and perspectives that have never before been offered. It also incorporates ideas from a wide range of literature, both musical and otherwise, and has benefitted from on-site research at The Glenn Gould Papers in the National Library of Canada. The book offers a more comprehensive, balanced, and thoroughly researched portrait of Gould as pianist and interpreter than any previous volume in the Gould literature. Following an introduction that summarizes Gould's career and the posthumous interest in him, the book divides into two parts. Part 1, `Premises', focuses on the intellectual and aesthetic ideas that informed Gould's performances, and draws on literature from many fields, including music history and aesthetics, cultural history, the history of performance practice, theatre, literary criticism, and music analysis. The three large chapters of Part 1 cover a wide range of topics: Gould's idealism, views on the musical work, musical tastes, and repertoire; his position on the role of the performer; the analytical, critical, and ethical discourses embodied in his performances; and his approach to performance in the contexts of Romanticism, modernism, neo-Classicism, post-structuralism, the historical performance movement, twentieth-century theatrical and literary practices, and cultural currents in the 1950s and 1960s. Part 2, `Practices', focuses in detail on Gould the pianist, illuminating important features of his style through prose description and critical analysis, and including graphic musical examples, plates, and a supplementary CD of Gould's performances. This second part focusses on specific aspects of Gould's performance practices: his relationship to the piano; his approach to counterpoint, rhythm, dynamics, articulation and phrasing, and ornamentation; and his uses of recording technology as a kind of performance practice. A conclusion serves in part as a summary of previous findings, but also discusses how, in light of these findings, Gould's work as a performer might ultimately be assessed.

Excerpt

The most basic premiss of Gould's aesthetic was that music is primarily mental and only secondarily physical--that sound is a medium for the transmission of music but not a necessary, defining aspect of music itself. For Gould a musical work was an abstract entity that could be fully comprehended in the mind in the absence of performance, without even the recollection of sounds or of physical means of production. a musical work thus existed beyond the sensory experience of it. Such a premiss may at first seem odd: Gould was, after all, first and foremost a performer, not a theorist, and much of his thinking about music took place in the context of performance. His work brought him constantly into contact with physical aspects of music-making; indeed, he took a more active interest than most classical musicians in such practical matters as the mechanics of his body, the action of his piano, and the techniques of recording. and he certainly cared about how his performances sounded. But there is really no contradiction here. To think about music in abstract terms is not necessarily to ignore music as sound; it is merely to make the physical aspect of music subservient to the conceptual. the hands serve the mind, not the reverse. Such a premiss is in fact commonplace: it places Gould within a particular tradition in the history of music aesthetics, a tradition with a long history and a substantial literature, and including performers of many different historical periods and intellectual backgrounds. What set Gould apart is that, unlike most performers, he did not reconcile his abstract view of music with conventional views on matters of performance. Instead, he permitted his view to influence his musical opinions and activities in unusually direct and idiosyncratic ways, and it was this willingness to adjust practice to accommodate theory that was the source for many of his controversial ideas and interpretations. Ultimately, it is to Gould's abstraction, however commonplace it might at first seem, that we owe much of what is most interesting, characteristic, and provocative about his work.

Gould had no formal education in music aesthetics or philosophy (he did not finish high school), nor did he undertake systematic study or sustained writing in such subjects in later life. His aesthetic premisses are sometimes stated, more often strongly implied, in his writings and interviews, but can be inferred most reliably from his musical practices; moreover, those premisses were largely consistent . . .

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