Playing a Game of Twenty-One: Glenn Gould Biography Review

Blurb for Extraordinary Canadians: Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell

Glenn Gould, one of the twentieth century’s most renowned classical musicians, was also known as an eccentric genius—solitary, headstrong, a hypochondriac virtuoso. Abandoning stage performances in 1964, Gould concentrated instead on mastering various media: recordings, radio, television, and print. His sudden death at age fifty stunned the world, but his music and legacy continue to inspire. Philosopher and critic Mark Kingwell regards Gould as an innovative thinker whose ideas about music governed his life. But those ideas were contradictory, mischievous, and deliberately provocative. Just as Gould played twenty-one “takes” to record the opening aria in the famed 1955 Goldberg Variations, Kingwell offers twenty-one takes on Gould’s life. Each version offers a different interpretation of the man, but in each, Kingwell is sensitive to the complex harmonies and dissonances that sounded throughout the life of the great Gould.

My Review

The author of this installment in the Extraordinary Canadians series says this of Gould, his subject: “The real Glenn Gould, whoever he was, is replaced by a loose assemblage of odd traits and strange behaviours. These stand in for the real person.” This, after almost twenty chapters of philosophical ramblings given spurious relevance by random suppositions and insertions about and of Glenn Gould, his music, his personality, and portrayal.

I will, with the characteristic lenience on repetitive phrasing in keeping with my education as an English major, overlook the nearly synonymous phrases of “odd traits” and “strange behaviours,” the one giving almost the same vague meaning to the reader as the other, and used together certainly do not provide enough contrast to justify each its own presence.

Instead, I will simply be petty and odiously clever by turning the phrase of this verbiose, self-styled “philosophical biograph[er]” back around on him. Of this book I say, “The real biography of Glenn Gould, wherever that went, is replaced by a meandering collection of Kingwell’s philosophical musings and heavily biased anecdotes about Gould. These stand in for the real biography.”

Let’s give the proverbial devil his due: Mark Kingwell is not a musican, a historian, or a biographer. I would add to the list and say he is not a writer, but his authorial credit of having fifteen books to his name would make that a rather insupportable claim on my part. But, Kingwell doesn’t feel underqualified to give his opinion in a field he is not versed in, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t stick to my guns and go with my initial assessment: Kingwell is not a writer.

He can write, but I’m drawing a purely personal, arbitrary, philosophical distinction between that ability and the quality of being a “writer.” Call me elitist, I don’t care. I’ve had about all the audacity I can take for one evening after finishing this book.

No, Kingwell is rather, instead of any tangentially useful vocation or discipline when one is looking for a biographer of a ground-breaking and historically significant artist, a philosopher.

Oh, sorry–philosopher and critic, the author bio tells me. Well, that’s a heap of a lot more information about Kingwell in half a sentence than Kingwell manages to impart about Gould in almost 200 pages.

The man had twenty-one opportunities to fashion some sort of coherent structure on which to base a justification for his being chosen Gould’s biographer for this significant book series. By his own conceit, which is Gould’s famous 21 takes of the Goldberg aria before he got the right one for his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, Kingwell uses twenty-one “chapters” or “takes” of Glenn Gould’s life and work in an affort to provide a seemingly fractured yet ultimately internally cohesive portrait of the eccentric genius.

Another comparison to Gould’s own work readily presents itself: Gould specialized in drawing out the structure of a piece so masterfully that it was so logical and organic as to seem improvised on the spot. A seeming contradiction? Perhaps, yet it is something Gould aspired to and by all accounts repeatedly achieved in his performances and recordings.

Kingwell’s book, meanwhile, has the facsimile of a structure (the 21 takes) standing in for a real, logical sequence of tension and resolution. And as for its seeming to be improvised on the spot… well, in this case, that impression is less of an accomplishment than it is an indictment of whatever editing process this work went through.

Okay, enough negativity. Was there anything to like about this book? I finished it, after all, and was not sufficiently disgusted, enraged, or bored by the 30% mark to DNF it to ignominy.

Kingwell does occasionally present an interesting idea about music, time, and the interplay of philosophy, self, and performance, in a way that is almost intelligible and, therefore, appreciable. I own the weakness in my understanding of some of these opaquely articulated ideas, not to their supposed opaque articulation, but rather to my own unfamiliarity with terms and philosophical assumptions.

However, and it’s a big “however”–that’s not the phrase: But, and it’s a big “but,” this is not meant to be a high-level philosophy essay. This is meant to be a, somewhat philosophical, yes, but mainly accessible biographical look at Glenn Gould’s life, works, and ideas.

Gould has some convoluted philosophies of his own, to be sure. Why not present those, in all their contradictions or implications, and, instead of obfuscating the matter by starting from some other faroff point and working your way backwards to sort of tie-in with something Gould might have said once when he was playing a character in one of his radio broadcasts, just relate it naturally to some neighbouring philosophical ideas or movements, carefully explaining any jargon and subsequent implications, and then move along? Your audience would be much the wiser, and maybe even have actually learned something about Gould, in addition to exploring a pattern of thought they may not have followed before.

Basically, I just want it to be about Gould. Instead, the author gets things a bit backwards, trying to fit Gould into his already thought-out philosophical framework, jumbling up the man’s parts and gifts to shoehorn them into the chapter. It’s not that you can’t see the connections where they are made, it’s just that he seems to have gotten the wrong end of the stick.

In other places, despite an initial seeming respect for the artist and his work, Kingwell is frankly derisive of some of Gould’s more theatrical experiments with radio production and his acted-out projections of his internal critics. As someone who has not heard the work in question or even read other reviews of it, I can’t say for a certainty whether Kingwell is unjust in his critique. Indeed, from his description of it, I am inclined to think him very just in his critique.

But regardless of the intrinsic merit of this particular output of Gould’s, I do not think Kingwell is justifiable in the tone he uses to voice his critique. Not in this medium, anyway. It is all well and good to write an independent review of a piece and frame it in a polemic fashion. It is not all well and good to write an academic work about someone’s life and present a view of one of their works that is so unpretendingly opinionated and ungenerous. Disdainful, I would almost call some of the language used. Disdainful language as well as value-judgements and personal preferences rather than balanced and non-biased representation of a work’s qualities, good and bad.

For someone claiming to use philosophical frames to pull out some insights into Gould’s life, there was precious little of that going on. In his scathing review of Gould’s exploration of self in a self-referential fashion, there is little time left for Kingwell to draw any useful comparisons about what Gould might be doing with his production and how it might relate to that period in his life, ideas, or even psychological development. An attempt was made, but it fades into obscurity as more of an afterthought than a crux of significance.

(Photo by Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Of course everything cannot be perfectly explained without question or speculation. Of course there is no definitive “solution” to the Gould mystery: was he autistic? was he a genius? was he [fill in the blank with your prejudicial label of choice]? At least Kingwell doesn’t claim he can provide these conclusive answers. Or rather, Kingwell claims he isn’t going to be able to provide these conclusive answers. But despite his claims, he also seems to fancy himself having hit upon some chimerical grasp of Gould’s force and vitality in that very inability to capture said force and vitality.

The answer, then, is in the non-answer. The identity, in the multiple identities. The man, in the many.

Kingwell identifies a question in the first “take” of his little recording session with himself: “What did Gould anticipate in his own transitional moment, which we may now, or soon, take for granted? I will endeavour to answer that question in this book.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the closest we get to a mission statement, a thesis, a raison d’être.

But can he do it? Does he answer the question? I think the answer may lie, not in the actual body text of the book, all just-shy-of-200-pages of it, but in the section that truly ends the book, spanning a whole nine pages, from 229 to 237: the Chronology.

It is a chronology of Gould’s life, that thing which Kingwell sneeringly refused to follow in his biography, despite lapsing for a while in his chapter titled “Genius” into almost rote recitations of Gould’s first few public performances without any attempt at colouring in the bare record of the facts with some personal style or observations. No, chronological looks at someone’s life, particularly when trying to place them in history, or in a turning point of historical development, doesn’t seem useful to making your point at all. (I really hope the irony is coming through.)

So, is it ironic that the point of Kingwell’s answer to what Gould anticipated in his transitional moment is most clearly articulated not in Kingwell’s own explanation of the topic, but in the bare-facts-chronology of events placed after the book’s notes and acknowledgements? Because it is there, I think, that I found the point to this whole winding tale of fancies and philosophizing.

After several pages of the expected items, birth, concerts, significant events, etc., the last couple of entries run thus:

1982: On October 4… Glenn Gould is pronounced dead at 11 A.M. / Compact discs become commercially available in October.

1983-1984: [lists Gould’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and his being awarded several posthumous Grammys]

1989: In April, the first patent is issued for MP3 format for compression of digital audio files.

1999: Starting in February, independent record company SubPop Records is the first to distribute music tracks in MP3 format. / Apple introduces iPod portable MP3 player in November.

2007: On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gould’s birth and the twenty-fifth of his death, worldwide iPod sales top 100 million units.

If you’re anything like me, you skimmed along through the death announcement, maybe skipped over the passing reference to compact discs, followed the relevance of Gould’s receiving posthumous recognition for his work, and then found yourself tripping over the lack of logical connection to be made between Gould, his life and work, and the fixation on the development of MP3 format. You might think you are missing some context from the body of Kingwell’s book, but you’d be wrong.

This, I think is actually the sneaky justification for all of Kingwell’s maundering suppositions. He took Gould’s abandonment of live performance for recording in mid-career and put a kind of implied precognitive spin on it, buried in the subtext (or lack of text) of the closing chronology: “Look, although Gould wasn’t alive to see it and literally had nothing to do with its development or distribution, MP3s came along and disseminated recorded music in a way it could never have been before.”

That is what Gould foresaw, albeit in a smaller way, with his preemptive commitment to audio recording, that we take for granted now. This is the answer to the question we all but forgot was posited at the beginning of the book because hardly anything since then made reference to it.

Sure, Kingwell addresses ways in which performance has developed, ways in which recording is still performance, and how it has developed. Yet, in the end, it’s all rather anti-climactic because there isn’t a strong enough link carried through with Gould’s views and practice.

In the end, it doesn’t all seem worth it, somehow. If I were the philosophizing type, I might use that as a correlary from Gould’s too-short legacy, but then there would be two too many philosophers peddling their theories in this book review.

Maybe it’s me–I should lend it to my oldest sister and see what she thinks. After all, she’s taken a philosophy of music class and might have a clue what this is about. Because it certainly didn’t seem to be much about Glenn Gould.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s