Sunday, September 19, 2004

Glenn Gould and Indigestion

This Rosh Hashanah I had too much to eat. By the morning of the second day I had indigestion, and that made me think of Glenn Gould, the eccentric, but brilliant, Canadian pianist known especially for his performances of the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Gould lived from 1932 to 1982, his early death at 50 one of a number of tragic losses suffered by the piano world in the second half of the twentieth century.)

Glenn Gould's playing was truly unique, but for me, it is his playing of fugues that has made him more than just another pianistic superstar. A fugue is "a composition, or compositional technique, in which a theme (or themes) is extended and developed mainly by imitative counterpoint. It involves two or more voices, and what makes it so difficult for a pianist to play is that usually the voices operate independent of one another. One person must handle the polyphony. So the major challenge for the pianist is to separate the voices from one another so that each one is given its due. Glenn Gould remains unmatched in his ability to do this.

Gould was an intellectual, though, and he wondered what would happen if he tried to apply the idea of a fugue to spoken voice. So he produced a number of radio programs, the first one called, "The Idea of North", in which two or three people spoke at once on a particular topic. The entire episode which led Gould to produce "The Idea of North", and two other programs like it, is masterfully depicted in the 1993 Francois Girard film, 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. Gould sits in a diner, and listens to a lovers' quarrel, a trucker telling a story to his teamster friends, and a customer ordering a piece of pie. Expert sound editing simulates the way Gould mind's tunes each person in and out.

From time to time I've tried to do this - listen to 2 or 3 conversations at once, with varying degrees of success. Varying degrees of limited success. It's very difficult. That second morning of Rosh Hashanah, I simply listened to all of the sounds of morning, a sort of symphony domestica without the Strauss. My father coming down the steps, turning on the radio, remembering it's Rosh Hashanah and turning off the radio, making hot cereal in the microwave. It was oddly soothing.


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