Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould, Haptics, Ekpyrosis.

Glenn Gould is up  at the family cabin.  He's young, playing on the family piano.  Something by Bach.  You can hear the articulation click-clack on the left hand line and then he's up and over by the window.  The relentless flow of information continues, he's still practicing, still playing, but looking at the lake.    


 Haptics are the physical actions required to play an instrument, the sense of touch, the interaction with mechanics.    That's part of what we're seeing here.  

There's a structure, an underlying phenomenon, the Ineluctable Modality of Bach, let's call it.   There's this other thing, let's call it Glenn Gould.  Imagine a Venn Diagram.  Some part of Glenn Gould interacts with the Ineluctable Modality of Bach.  Some other part of Glenn Gould  moves through a world of chairs and dogs and fingernails.   The intersection of the three is at the keyboard, to "play the piano" . 

When I write music, I can't hear notes.  I've never had a great ear, sightsinging and ear-training I just wasn't very good at it.   What I do get is a sense of what it would feel like if my body were the shape.  A sense of gesture.  If Messiaen wrote by Synaethesia, I'd describe this as a sense of "Kinaesthesia".  It's not dancing, I don't visualize choreography or movements.  But I do feel  muscular contraction.  My body isn't convulsed, I'm not talking about actual movement.  Rather, there's the intuition of a gesture. 

 If I could compose in the medium of physiological twitches and quiverings, I think I would.  Sound is an epiphenomenon of these  Kinaesthetic whispers.

I always write at the piano.  The  exercise of compositional craft is to be able to recognize when I've fit the right notes to the gesture.   Today I spent an  hour trying to figure out a rhythm I'd been tapping on my fingers this morning on the bus.    I'm spending the time trying to figure out if I need to notate a precise tuplet rhythm, or a trill with poetic license.   There's something about the difference between an appogiatura and a grace note that I feel could define a big piece.  But I can't remember the damn thing.   

Most of the time, the music under my fingers at the piano ends up not feeling right.  Composition requires time, sure:  but we all have time.  What it really requires is urgency and if that's lacking, then it requires faith.   

Gould at the window




Glenn Gould's Hands

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently issued a DVD collection  of all the  television performances recorded for them by Glenn Gould.  From the early years, there is a recording of Gould rehearsing Bach Partita #2 - he's working on the articulation in a left hand passage.  Gould plays with a precision of intent, looking for not just the overall downward sweep of the gesture, but also some intricate patterning within. 

He is surrounded by his dogs, and the practice session is taking place in a cabin . Gould leaves the piano and stares out the window, continuing to mutter the rhythm of the music.  His hands are contorted, conducting, performing, extracting something from the air.  

Bach is a convenient medium for the ideas he is examining, just as the piano is a convenient instrument for expressing them in sound.  I'd go further and say that Gould is tapping in to some sonic experience which has Glenn Gould as it's most convenient avenue for expression.  Gould is ensorcelled.  No wonder he has his dogs around, they are atavistic companions to ensure a safe return. It makes me think of Carl Ruggles Sun-Treader.  Ruggles also had an unrestrained, magnificent relationship to counterpoint and the title for his symphony comes from Robert Browning describing Shelley --"Sun-treader--life and light be thine for ever."  We don't think of Gould as a romantic pianist, but that's because of the repertoire he preferred.  His approach to sound belongs with Shelley, although Gould wasn't one for jumping on the roof or sailing in home made boats. 

GouldHandThe interface for all that are these fingers.   Gould sat low at the piano, using a 14 inch stool his father made for him as a boy and which he used for the rest of his life.  Who knows what really this allowed.  Certainly the leverage on the hands would be affected. 

The physical act of playing is more important to me than the sound created.  In part no doubt because my damaged hearing  interferes with the one, I'm never sure exactly what I'm hearing any more.  But the haptic sense of a piece has always been important.  My teacher, Natash Chances, had been a student of Cortot.   I practiced the Cortot exercises as a student.  The exercises begin with each finger holding down a key so as each progressively complicated pattern is played, the non-active fingers stay sunk in the keys. 

Gould practiced 'Finger Tapping' exercises developed by his teacher (Guerrero).  The music was played slowly, hands separately, and with the non-active hand tapping the fingers of the hand under examination. 

When I play, I sit fairly high and often press my leg up against the base of the keyboard.  I feel like the keys are being moulded by the action, like clay.  Other players, you can see that .they are leaning in from above, the full strength of their torso used to impress the instrument.  And then there's this guy

None of this prevents a delicate tone.  I'm speaking of the root for the pianistic movement.  The hands take all that energy, channel into specific articulation, from whatever the source,  Sitting so low, Gould would be pulling the keys in towards him. 

Speculation. Time to listen.