Pianist Gould foresaw tech role in music
Forty-five years ago this week, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould stepped off the stage of the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and became the prophet of a new technology.
Gould’s act was an act of omission, not commission. That April 10, 1964, recital in the Los Angeles hall was the last concert he ever gave -- a forsaking of the tradition of public performance that was unprecedented for such a young (31) and eminent interpreter of Bach and Beethoven.
I thought this milestone of Southern California cultural history worth revisiting not only because Glenn Gould happens to be one of my personal heroes, but also because his vision of music and the music business has been so thoroughly validated over the years.
For Gould’s withdrawal from the concert stage did not mean his withdrawal from the music world. Rather, it enhanced his stature in that world, making him an inspiration for the digital recording era.
Over the following two decades, until his untimely death in 1982 at the age of 50, he released scores of albums, in some cases exploring a repertoire he would never have dared to present onstage -- modern atonal and pre-Baroque music alike. He developed recording and performance styles aimed at an audience granted unprecedented control over what it heard and how it listened.
The public recital, he predicted, would fade away, supplanted by a purely individual interaction between listener and artist -- an outcome he welcomed. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gould saw recording not simply as a means to document performances, but also as a way to fashion new interpretations.
He foresaw how listeners would be able to compile their own programs via technology and even alter existing performances. “Dial twiddling,” he held, is “an interpretive act.”
As he wrote in 1966, “forty years ago the listener had the option of flicking a switch inscribed ‘on’ and ‘off.’ . . . Today, the variety of controls made available to him requires analytical judgment.”
Those controls were only a hint of the future he imagined.
Someday, he wrote, a listener would be able to alter the tempo of a performance without affecting pitch, or vice versa. If you preferred Bruno Walter’s interpretation of section of Beethoven’s Fifth but Otto Klemperer’s version of another, nothing would prevent you from splicing them together for an “ideal performance.”
Gould’s vision has certainly come true today. Any music fan can dial-twiddle at home, using computer programs such as Apple’s GarageBand or the audio editor Audacity to adjust tempo or pitch in a digital music file, perform seamless splices, remix, even recompose.
With iTunes I can compile an evening’s listening from symphonic movements, jazz charts and pop cuts, as structured or random as I please. I once created a 2 1/2 -hour version of “Round Midnight” by concatenating the 26 versions residing on my hard drive. (That didn’t help me figure out Thelonious Monk’s chord progressions, though.)
This has had obvious implications for the music industry, which still grapples unsuccessfully with the copyright and marketing issues implicit in the technology. Certainly it has sounded the death knell for the traditional pop album yoking together timeless performances and dreary filler in roughly equal measure -- one can now buy only the cuts one wants online after sampling them all. Meanwhile, the availability of classical and jazz material on iTunes and specialized MP3 sites has surely buoyed sales in what had become niche genres.
Gould didn’t focus on such commercial issues. His departure from the concert stage was more the product of his own personality: He hated performing in public, which he pictured as a “blood sport” pitting artist against audience.
Indeed, he often subverted the process with mannerisms and eccentricities -- the most famous being an April 1962 interpretation of the Brahms D-minor concerto with the New York Philharmonic that provoked Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, to disavow it from the stage. (My judgment, based on a live recording, is that Gould’s interpretation has a uniquely hypnotic majesty.)
Gould didn’t exploit the end of his concert career as a marketing device: He never made a formal announcement in Los Angeles or elsewhere; he just stopped performing. (The 1993 movie “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” got this wrong.)
But he understood, perhaps instinctively, that via recordings and videos, of which he made many, an artist could achieve much greater intimacy with his public than as a figure performing under pressure on a distant stage.
His fans still cherish the crystalline fidelity with which studio conditions reproduced his indescribably fluid technique, along with such peculiarities as his ever-present humming and the creaking of his personal piano chair. For his 1964 recording of the Bach two- and three-part inventions, he tightened the action of his favorite Steinway so mercilessly that the tampering yielded an audible “hiccup” on certain notes, which Gould dismissed as a “charming idiosyncrasy.”
We also cherish his commitment to placing technology at the service of art. He frequently scorned the notion that a recording could never be as “real” as a live performance, or that inserts, splices, overlays and other engineering manipulations somehow violate artistic integrity.
One time he challenged a panel of 18 friends, ranging from audio engineers and professional musicians to his doctor and a librarian, to identify by ear the splices in eight sample recordings.
No one caught more than a handful.
“The tape does lie and nearly always gets away with it,” Gould concluded.
Gould’s embrace of technology has been vindicated by the continued popularity of his recordings, which remain big sellers for Sony Classical more than a quarter-century after his death.
Today we have little difficulty grasping his pioneering approach to performance and recording. But his fellow virtuosos never believed he would stay off the stage. As late as 1971 Arthur Rubinstein told him, “You will come back to it, you know.” Gould replied, “If this is a bet, maestro, you will lose it.”
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.