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The cult of Glenn Gould

It began, unpromisingly, with music written to put you to sleep. But when the dashing 22-year-old Glenn Gould recorded a little-known piece Bach had come up with to soothe an aristocratic insomniac, the pianist's ecstatic, ferocious playing kick-started popular interest in the composer. Few had heard him performed this way: as a living, almost modern, force.

Just as important, Gould's 1955 recording of "The Goldberg Variations" ignited a career that would make him one of classical music's last culture heroes. Gould would become not a New York insider like Leonard Bernstein, nor a middlebrow regular-guy like Van Cliburn (or later, Yo-Yo Ma), but a rebel angel from the Canadian wilds who drew both disdain and comparisons to James Dean and Jimi Hendrix. Like theirs, his reputation seems only to have grown since his death.

During his life, Gould revolutionized the way we hear 18th century music. Now, more than 20 years after a stroke felled him in 1982 at just 50, he has one of the decade's best-selling serious piano records. Last fall's three-CD set "A State of Wonder," which collects two versions of "Goldberg Variations" with a disc of interviews and outtakes, has sold nearly 60,000 copies since its release. Those numbers are astronomical for a classical release -- the set dwarfs the sales of any single CD by Rubinstein or Horowitz, including Rubinstein's legendary version of Chopin's "Nocturnes." (Scores of Gould albums remain available, and a collection of him playing Romantic music, called " ... And Serenity," is due this fall.)

He's also the rare classical figure who appeals to rock musicians, Gen-Xers, jazz pianists and Net-heads, as well as artists, writers and folks with little interest in other classical music. It's no surprise he's inspired a play, a film and at least one novel. For some, Gould's records are the first of many classical purchases.

His disparate devotees include maverick filmmaker John Waters ("Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray"), the actress who played the wisecracking Flo on the sitcom "Alice," even a young guitarist who tours with the Allman Brothers.

"I can put him on for hours -- he's like nobody else," says Waters, who owns 10 books on Gould, hunts for anecdotes on him and gives his CDs as gifts. "He was the ultimate original -- a real outsider. And he had a great style, the hats and the gloves and so on."

Much of Gould's support, of course, comes from the classical cognoscenti. But Gould has unparalleled powers to reach outside them. In some ways, he's a man of the 1950s and '60s -- perhaps the last era when an undiluted high culture figure could become a media star. But in a broader sense, the idiosyncratic Canadian, who disdained fashion and called himself "the last Puritan," has become -- with his interest in publicity, technology and pop culture -- a man for our time.

Touchstone film

Sometimes, it starts with the movie. Jason Moran was a high school kid in Houston when he took a date to see "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," an unconventional 1993 picture by Francois Girard that focused on the pianist's eccentricity.

Electrified by the film and by Gould's intense dedication and stunning technique, Moran couldn't help notice that his 16-year-old companion was sinking into her seat. "That never happened again, me and her," says Moran, now 27 and a leading New York-based jazz pianist signed to Blue Note. "If you can't deal with Gould, then maybe you're not my type."

Moran became a serious Gould fan, reading about him, seeking out his music, watching the film again and again. He saw Gould as a parallel to his hero Thelonious Monk, both eccentrics -- jazz great Monk was as famous for his wild hats as Gould was for wearing overcoats in August -- who approached music with a "reckless abandon."

Born middle class in Toronto to a furrier and an amateur musician, Gould became a prodigy who at 14 played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Toronto Symphony, but he neither entered nor won the contests that have since announced the emergence of a virtuoso. After his first American recital, in 1955 in New York, an executive from Columbia Records heard Gould and signed him immediately.

His playing was marked by its clarity, its accuracy and -- often and controversially -- its speed. In his Bach, he avoided the pedals, so the notes aren't sustained or shaded as they can be with other interpreters: The result is a dry, clean style, each voice articulated clearly, that some listeners find lacking in emotional nuance.

While he's best known for his Bach, Gould was unusual in recording both the overlooked Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons and 20th century atonalists like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. By contrast, he mostly avoided the 19th century masters -- Chopin, Schumann, Liszt -- who make up the meat and potatoes of the piano repertoire. When he recorded them, he skipped well-known pieces, favoring obscurities. He's considered an intellectual player especially attuned to a piece's structure, to producing what one critic called "an X-ray of the music."

Why, then, the broad appeal?

"Musically, he represents a kind of purity," says jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, 33, a former Angeleno who discovered Gould at age 11 through Brahms recordings at his local library. "It's an uncompromising pursuit of the aesthetic in and of itself. He approached the music head-on, with a kind of emotional baldness that shocks you."

Gould's single-mindedness, Mehldau says, makes him a hero to musicians of all kinds. "Gould's Bach is like watching Bach with 3-D glasses."

"One of the things that makes him speak to us jazz musicians is his unbelievable time," says Bill Charlap, another jazz pianist in his 30s. "He's really a swinging piano player when he plays Bach. The playing is so clear, so rhythmically vital, so extemporaneous."

Besides Gould's purely musical side, he continues to generate followers for his ideas and the strange way he managed his career.

In 1964, two years before the Beatles quit concert performing to make intricately crafted records with George Martin, Gould stepped down from the stage -- where he'd developed a formidable reputation -- because he found it demeaning and craved the ability to edit and manipulate his work. (His decision came, as it happens, after a concert in Los Angeles.)

Gould spoke and wrote frequently about his withdrawal from the stage, and of his fascination with technology and its ability to transform art and culture. Appropriately, fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan was a frequent conversation partner of Gould's. In contrast to the often technophobic world of classical music, Gould was almost a figure from the Internet age.

"Any dedicated thrift-store hound stumbles upon that Byronic, pretty-boy edition of the 'Goldberg Variations,' " says Drew Daniel, a San Francisco electronica musician with the group Matmos. But Daniel's drawn to Gould's technological side -- specifically to his experimental radio documentaries like "The Idea of North," in which the pianist interviewed people and mused essay-like on philosophic themes -- more than to his Bach.

"I just couldn't believe what he was doing as a sound editor," Daniel says from Portugal, where he's in the midst of the European leg of a tour with Bjork. "It was this bizarre polyphony: Everything slowly ramps up and dissolves into everything else. He had so much trust in the ability of the ear to follow two voices at once." Daniel has given a copy of "North" to the Icelandic chanteuse.

Gould resonates with sound-art aficionados, he says, because his fierce playing offers an alternative to what Daniel calls the "Novocain for the elderly" programming on most classical music stations.

"He's one of their validating figures," UCLA musicologist Robert Fink says of the appeal of Gould to electronica musicians. "Because he theorized the idea of the studio as better than live performances, an ethos of the studio as a tool. If you think [ Brian] Eno's cool, Gould has exactly the same ideas."

A restless recluse

Otto Friedrich's biography describes Gould -- rumored to be one of history's worst drivers -- speeding in his Lincoln Continental through the Canadian countryside one day, waving his arms wildly inside the car. When a policeman pulled the pianist over, Gould told him he was driving under the influence of a Mahler symphony that had so consumed him he was conducting it with both hands as he drove.

Anyone who's seen the captivated way Gould played, live or on film, will understand why the judge who heard the case let the pianist off.

His legend wasn't all about fast cars: Gould was known as a recluse who spent most of his time in a dreary suburban hotel because it offered 24-hour room service, who wore not only overcoats but gloves in August, packed dozens of pills and lived, as he put it, in "horror of catching colds." Restlessly intellectual, he called friends and associates all over the world for long, wide-ranging discussions.

"He would always call me person-to-person, and we'd have these two-hour conversations and he'd get billed $4 a minute," says Tim Page, the Washington Post critic who edited "The Glenn Gould Reader," a fascinating collection of the pianist's writings. "He'd continue calling people till 7:30 or 8 in the morning, which was his bedtime."

Gould usually wanted to talk about theology, film, philosophy -- anything but classical music, Page says. The pianist's wide-ranging mind was in contrast to most musicians', says UCLA's Fink. "It's like talking to a figure skater," he says of conversations with virtuosos. "There a cloistering effect to classical music, a narrowing of the intellectual horizons." Not everyone liked Gould's playing. He was dismissed by some early-music purists for playing the music of Bach (who composed for the harpsichord and organ) on the piano. And Gould -- who said he recorded a set of Mozart's piano sonatas to demonstrate how bad they were -- was considered musically brash and unlovely, too free and easy with a composer's work.

In 1962, Bernstein actually warned the New York Philharmonic audience when the pianist came to perform a Brahms concerto, with "Don't be frightened." The conductor all but disavowed Gould's glacial approach to the piece, and reviews were dismissive.

Many listeners, now as then, can't abide the pianist's loud humming over his own playing. But even this annoying mannerism helped fuel the myth: One puckish Web site advertises "the Glenn Gould Devocalizer 2000," an imaginary item calibrated to remove Gould's moans. Filmmaker Waters calls the humming a sign of Gould's subversive individualism.

Gould's star eventually rose, Page says, because of "a younger generation of critics who took what he was saying as seriously as what he was playing. Glenn's real legacy has been posthumous."

The pianist was also oddly, sometimes comically, obsessive. In "Glenn Gould: The Alchemist," a 1974 documentary released on DVD this past spring, Gould describes the battered, sawed-off chair on which he performed all his concerts as a member of the family. When his bespectacled French interlocutor, incredulous, asks if the chair could be as close to him as the music of Bach, Gould deadpans: "Oh, much closer, actually."

Unlikely followers

The pianist's legend resonates outside the world of musicians. "It's like a secret world, Glenn Gould fanatics," says Waters, who calls "Thirty Two Short Films" one of his "five favorite tasteful films" and listens to Gould almost every Sunday.

"He's definitely crossed over," the director says, noting that he doesn't typically obsess over classical musicians. "But to what kind of people? Extreme people in the other arts. Inspiring a cult from beyond the grave -- I'm all for it!"

Gould, who had a natural sense of the dramatic, has long compelled actors. Among them, says Page, are Barbara Feldon, who played the sultry Agent 99 on TV's "Get Smart," and Polly Holliday.

Holliday is best known for playing Flo, a saucy diner waitress on the series "Alice," where her signature exclamation was "Kiss ma grits!" But since leaving the show, she's become a huge Gould fan.

While shooting a TV series in Los Angeles in 1995, she found a biography in a bookstore, was intrigued and then picked up a copy of the 1981 "Goldberg Variations" and played it over and over. "Having not heard music for years, I was absolutely stunned," she says. "I remember that day so clearly because that's all I did that whole day."

Despite not having listened to or played music for decades, Holliday now practices Bach on the piano every day, goes to concerts and underwrites a New York chamber music series. "I'm more interested in music than I have been in my entire life. It seems like music has just invaded my life since I played those Glenn Gould tapes."

Some musicians who follow the pianist are equally unlikely. Derek Trucks, 24, a Florida-based blues guitarist who plays with the Allmans, is another Gould freak. "I'm always drawn to people who create their own worlds," he says, praising the pianist's dynamic range and comparing Gould to jazz visionary Sun Ra.

"The classical world is a forbidding world to an outsider, and any welcome is welcome indeed," says Sean O'Hagan, a member of two British rock bands, Stereolab and the High Llamas, that evoke Kraftwerk and Brian Wilson more than J.S. Bach. "I don't think Gould was comfortable in the classical world, and that immediately sends out a positive signal to those who are anxious to know about the music but shy away from the culture of the structure that surrounds it."

More than his quirks

The early Gould got a lot of mileage out of being a mad artist. "There's also the fact that he was kind of beautiful," critic Page says. "He seemed kind of autoerotic. When you see him playing, there's this sense of someone making love to his music."

While pop culture elements -- television, fashion, a media star's mystique -- fueled Gould's fame, his cult is not a passing pop fad like pianist David Helfgott, whose uplifting tale of surviving childhood abuse inspired the film "Shine," or famously blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli. Take the biography away and Gould still turned out sturdily great music.

"He helped me define what I call the peak moments in music, the mountaintop experiences," says Charles Enman, a Canadian classical music critic who was transfixed, at 10, by one of the pianist's television appearances. Gould's playing, Enman says, offers "a sense of stepping outside time: He was the first musician of whom I remarked that quality." It's a quality he still seeks to find in other performers.

"Part of the hook for getting people into Gould is the '50s maverick angle," admits Jon Brion, the L.A. pop musician and producer who provided the music and sound design for the films "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love." "It's easy to focus on the eccentricities. But when you hear the music, you hear what it was all for. The part that spoke to me was his commitment."

A Gould cult flourishes in Russia (he was the first Western classical musician to play the USSR) and Japan. It's irresistible to think of Gould fandom spreading to other planets, thanks to his recording of Bach sent on the 1977 Voyager spacecraft.

The ability of art to move people decades and centuries after the death of the artist is one of culture's strangest mysteries. It's hard to imagine what will come next in the world of pop music and youth culture and what taste will be like in 20 or 30 years. Yet chances are Gould's music, personality and penetrating ideas will speak to that time as vividly as it does to ours.

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Gould desert island discs

John Waters, film director, chooses Hindemith Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2: "I'd take that one because everyone else would take Bach. I take that one because it's out of fashion and difficult, and I like Glenn Gould for being difficult."

Polly Holliday, actor, was initially exposed to Gould through his 1981 recording of "The Goldberg Variations. "I liked the clearness of it -- for the first time, I was not just hearing it but almost seeing it. It's got such energy. Now I wonder how I ever did without it."

Jon Brion, L.A. pop musician and producer, can't pick a single record but likes Gould's Bach. "Bach was writing music to prove and exalt the existence of God ... which involves getting all the gears inside your head firing at the same time. Gould grasped that -- for him it was self-evident."

Jason Moran, jazz pianist, prefers Gould's Schoenberg. "Some of those opening phrases, God, are just to die for. I like the seriousness he gives each note."

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An introduction to the world of Gould

"Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould": A movie made, like the composition "The Goldberg Variations," of fragmented pieces that add up to a unified whole. The movie tracks Gould, played as an adult by Colm Feore, through a wide range of personal and musical excursions, some of them almost wholly abstract.

"Glenn Gould: The Alchemist": A French documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon, made in the 1970s and newly issued on DVD by EMI Classics. Besides interviews, in which the pianist is both charming and mischievous, the film includes performances of Gibbons, Berg and, most impressively, Bach's Sixth Partita.

"The Loser": A celebrated 1983 novel of sorts by Thomas Bernhard (1931-89), a dour Austrian who served as a literary model for the late W.G. Sebald. The book, a fictional memoir, tells of three pianists, Gould among them, who meet to study with Horowitz. The other two are overwhelmed by the force of Gould's talent. Translated by Jack Dawson and published by the University of Chicago.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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