Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Directed by Michèle Hozer & Peter Raymont. 2009.

At some point in the life of every music lover, particularly fans of J. S. Bach and keyboard music, he comes across Glenn Gould. Perhaps one does not so much come across Gould so much as get struck by him. Be it the articulation, the distinction of the voices, the tension, or perhaps just the humming, I suspect the first acquaintance is often a startling one. Such was certainly the experience of many when Gould burst from obscurity onto the music scene with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. That an introduction to him and his take on music still arrests individuals would please him very much, I think, and I say that a little more familiar with him after this splendid documentary.

To begin at the end, the film concludes with the notion that it is the mystery of Gould, not the narrative of his life, that drives peoples' attempts to rediscover him again and again. In this respect, and another which I think would please the late pianist, Gould is himself like a piece of great music: it asks a lot of you, it brings a lot to you, and it gets richer the more you live with it. I say live with and perhaps that's what comes off most from this two-hour film, that Gould lived a musical life. From the age of three when he began to read musical notation (before he could read words) and acquired his trademark habit of singing along to his playing, through his truncated concert career and through his long sessions practicing and recording it is clear he lived and breathed music. He came at a piece from every possible direction, he took it apart and put it back together again, and he internalized it. We gather that he understood pieces as only their creators did and in fact Gould once told a composer who was fretting at Gould's interpretation, "You don't know your own piece!"

Perhaps this internalization was closely linked to the loneliness which followed him through his whole life. As a child he avoided common social affairs and during his adult life it seems he never had more than a handful of friends. This desire or need for privacy and isolation, whether on account of illness or an inability to share his clearly vibrant passion for music or both, was clearly at odds with a musical career. First, performing is an intimate experience in which the performer shares a great deal of himself with a great many people. Second, there is a certain intangible feedback a performer gets from an audience. Third, there is probably a certain degree to which an audience drives the performer to greater lengths. Yet Gould considered "concertizing" hideous and audiences (not individuals but audiences en masse) "rule of mob law." Such too is at odds with his plans, rather vaguely conveyed at least in the film, to "democratize music" with "kits," i.e. to provide people with recordings they could somehow manipulate themselves. (Presaging, of course, today's remixes, edits, "mashups," and playlists.) Yet this paradox in Gould between inner and outer is again like music itself, with its dichotomy between being personal and universal, and both with the utmost intensity.

Gould seems to elicit rather strong, often contrary, emotions. He was quite difficult, but most kind. He tried to control situations, but not people. He had perfect technique, but imposed on the piece. Famously conductor Leonard Bernstein, before a performance of a Brahms concerto with Gould, actually prefaced the concert with a disclaimer that he had great respect for Gould but differed with the interpretation which was to follow. A revealing fact, and one consistent with the man this film introduces us to, is that Gould took Bernstein's comments as having been said in the best spirit. What Bernstein did was of course what anyone who understands music would do. The performance cannot be constrained even by the conductor. It has to, as Gould says, express the individuality of the performer. For Gould, and he said this many times throughout his life, art was about creation and making your own world. It was about expressing your own uniqueness and isolation. Again we see a dichotomy, here between composer and performer.

Indeed in one segment while discussing his performance of a Mozart sonata Gould explains why, though reverently, he changes Mozart's adagio marking to allegretto, and why he draws out the opening so slowly, almost comically: to bring the audience into the world of the piece. You cannot do that by pulling a piece off a museum shelf but by creating something in front of people. He takes such liberty to seize the audience, to let them know something important is happening in front of them, that something rare and beautiful and fleeting is being created and will pass away. In this way too Gould is himself musical: he was himself as fragile and fleeting as a piece of music desperately reaching out through time.

Genius Within falls rather cleanly into two halves, the first of which chronicles his youth and concert career. It was a career with a sudden dazzling rise, punctuated by his spectacular Soviet tour in 1957. The first performance of the tour was poorly attended, owing in part to a lack of popularity for Bach due to him being broadly labeled as evangelical by the government, yet after the intermission the house was packed. One imagines hundreds of giddy phone calls to friends and family akin to, "You've never heard anything like this before. Come!" Surely their enthusiasm for the music gratified him. During his performing career the quirks and eccentricities were under control and perhaps Gould, knowing how they helped his popularity, didn't even mind when they were overplayed in the news. He had his custom chair, his gloves, he canceled performances. He was popular. Yet on April 10, 1964 he gave his last public concert. Henceforth he was to perform only in recording studios, which suited both his desire for privacy and his desire to control the environment of the performance. He also began a series of radio programs and documentaries.

He was to gain something else which he lacked and sought: intimacy. Cornelia Foss, wife of German-born American composer, conductor, pianist, and professor Lukas Foss, left her husband for Gould and moved with her children to Toronto. Again, Gould seemed happy. A friend recollects that he must have said a dozen times throughout his life that, "These are the happiest days of my life." Gould pioneered recording and took advantage of the unique creative possibilities (mixing and splicing) it provided, using an auditorium in a Toronto mall. After a seemingly ideal period in which he recorded prolifically, enjoyed time with Cornelia and her children, indulged his love of nature, and enjoyed his control and privacy, he grew more difficult. His paranoia, controlling temperament, and hypochondria all worsened.  Cornelia left him, saying the eccentricities began to overshadow his personality. Despite a period of collaboration and likely romance with Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Roxolana Roslak, Gould was clearly slipping away. He began to script all of his public appearances. Yet before he died he recorded the Goldberg Variations once more. More eccentric this time, but perhaps more thoughtful too. A touching scene is composed of original footage from Gould's Toronto funeral. In a packed church of over 3,000 they played Gould's performance of the Goldberg aria and the attendees wept as as they listened, Gould characteristically humming along.

Genius Within is a little conventional as a documentary. Chronological and neatly segmented, it is structurally simple. Too it spends a tad much time on his romance with Cornelia Foss and his guilt late in life at not having properly taken care of the parents who were so devoted to him. It is very light on musical analysis. Yet the film is brought to vivid life by the plethora of original footage of Gould and the many interviews with those who knew him. They are all particularly candid and frankly they seem a little baffled and overwhelmed by the effect Gould had on their lives. The most penetrating remarks are from Gould's biographer, Kevin Bazzana, and two of his friends, including the late violinist and conductor Peter Ostwald.

The film ends on a perfectly fitting note: that his mysteriousness perplexes and draws us in to rediscover him. And rediscover him we ought to. His friend suggests he'd have liked to be remembered not just as a performer, but as a Renaissance man, a creative artist who didn't just play but tried to share a philosophy of performance for this most special, curious thing we call music.

N.B. A selection (Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Book II) of Gould's performance of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was included on the Voyager I space probe launched in 1977. See http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/music.html for the other music included.


  1. I'm still working my way through the Inventions, and I do say that of all the recordings I have ever heard, I like Gould's the best. His style seems perfectly tailored for Bach. For example I have recordings of Murray Perahia playing the Bach keyboard concertos. In my opinion they are over-polished, compared to Gould's more deliberate and articulated approach. When Gould is playing you can actually hear the counterpoint.

    This is probably a common complaint, but I really don't like Gould's performaces of any other composer. It is like he developed a heavy accent, tailored for Bach, that he couldn't shed. And why should he?

    Interesting anecdote about Bernstein. It's hard to believe he did that - wasn't that a breach of etiquette? It would have ruined the performance for me if I were in the audience.

  2. I second all of that: well said! I'm rather attached to Gould's Goldbergs (in the film a girlfriend of his calls them the "Gouldbergs"): they feel so. . . alive. And every time at that. As you say about the counterpoint, there is so much detail and not so much gloss.

    I've actually not heard many his performances of other composers, but what you say seems most sensible. Gould discussed his performance of Mozart's famous Turkish Rondo:


    Fascinating and valuable, and as he says it forces you to listen, but is that really what the piece *is*? On the other hand the counterpoint (and contrasting themes) in the final Mozart piano sonata are quite brilliant.

    I actually had no idea he had performed and recorded so very much: I have quite a bit of listening to look forward to!

    (Indeed the Bernstein incident was most irregular. I don't think I would have liked to hear that at all.)

  3. Happy New Year!

    I agree completely with Brian. I've heard so much about Gould's eccentricities but no one makes Bach sound so good on a piano.

  4. You too Tom: Happy New Year!

    I was pleased that the movie didn't go into clinical detail about his eccentricities and illness. We understand that he suffered a great deal without looking at him like a specimen. I certainly felt grateful for the many great, and timeless, gifts he left us.