Aesthetics and Repertoire
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