Glenn Gould is difficult to discuss. He is so odd, and for that very reason so clouded in myth, that it’s hard to see him for who or what is actually is. But this much is sure, that he retired from public performance because he found the ritual of the concert hall vulgar and harmful to music. It’s not that Gould didn’t like people. It’s that he preferred the company of the dead to the living. I can only imagine his closest friends were Bach, Händel and Mozart, and for the reason he retired form life with the masses, so that he could be alone with his friends, which even include prized pieces of furniture.
Recall that Gould, while still alive, spent countless house driving through Canadian snow fields in his luxury automobile and listening to recorded music on the car stereo, as if he were already in a casket or a hearse, as if he were in some state of cryogenic suspension. There is nothing gothic or morbid though about this practice of Gould’s. Gould takes these drives, according to a perspective informed by Eliot’s, not in some lugubrious quest for eerie thrills or ever stranger sensations. Gould’s drives, his whole chosen mode of life, is designed to help him feel more at ease with the dead, at home with them. Because he prefers their company, and holds himself up to the standard they set. Again, all this seems to me to be all very much in keeping with Eliot’s view of art, literature and music.
It does not seem to me that Gould’s facial and bodily gestures are attempt to emote, express or perform in any way for others. Rather, playing as he does on vinyl and film, instead of in person, liberates Gould from the terrible sense of self-consciousness that can’t help but arise once live performance turns into mere spectacle, a veritable freak show. Gould’s visible rapture might be seen not as any instance of showing off but rather as the look of someone who is able, against all odds, to surrender himself entirely to music.
One might well ask, though, What about all of the recordings Gould made, both audio and visual, after his retirement from the concert hall? Are these not so many attempts to appeal to the public, to be seem performing by an even larger crowd? I would say no. Rather, than performing for the broad public in his sound recordings and films, it seems that Gould is using the technology of his day in order to transform himself into a document. In this manner he is able to perform not for the present but for the future. Gould enters into the apparatus of recording, it seems to me, deliberately in to cadaverize himself, to transform himself from a living personality into one of the dead, to commune with them more perfectly. Further, Gould uses documentation to give the very few persons who will in the future remain capable of such artistic communion, the means necessary for entering into it.