Biographers of Glenn Gould face a tough subject, something like a Mozart child prodigy crossbred with mind-wrangling communications thinker Marshall McLuhan.
Also, since dying in 1982, Gould has provoked a hubbub of competing biographies, from Francois Girard’s 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould to a PhD dissertation on his facial tics.
Mark Kingwell, a young Toronto philosopher with recent books on art, war, public space and idlers, sees the problem of the Gould bio like this: because Glenn Gould retreated, Oz-like, from the public eye and only communicated through broadcasts and recordings, no one got a single, solid impression.
“Lacking one Gould,” he writes, “the public generates multiple ones, Gould-ghosts, all of them vaporous and partial.”
In case you’ve somehow dodged the Goulds—the film, books, poems, plays and CBC tributes—here’s a quick recap.
Glenn Gould, piano whiz-kid, names his goldfish Bach and Haydn, goes pro at 15 and wears a winter coat and scarf in mid-June New York to record his 1956 Goldberg Variations. With a radical sound (early classical, reworked in light of modernist composers like Schönenberg) and news of Gould’s eccentricities (his humming, his pill popping, his preperformance arm soaks), the album outsells Louis Armstrong that year and wins him concert gigs in cities from Moscow to Tel Aviv.
Anyway, that’s the Mozart angle. Gould himself said his real career, the second half, “spawned out of a radio station.”
In 1964, age 31, Gould suddenly quits giving live shows and retreats to a cottage on Lake Simcoe and an apartment a few blocks from CBC Toronto. On a 1968 LP called Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout, he says he resented “the onetimeness, the non-take-twoness” of live performance. For the next 19 years, Gould focuses on recording and, at the CBC, broadcasting a stream of TV specials, interviews, composer profiles and a set of curious radio docs known as the Solitude Trilogy.
Okay, so what was Mark Kingwell’s take on this story?
Before it came out, Kingwell told an interviewer, “It’s supposed to be a brief biography for a new series that Penguin Books is doing, but I have a secret plan to make it a meditation of the philosophy of music cleverly disguised as a biography.”
No doubt, Kingwell’s plan was super clever. He calls it a “bio-philosophical recording session”—21 short chapters about the ideas of Glenn Gould, each with a single-word title like Memory, Time, Play, Puritan and North.
At times, Kingwell nails it. He distills the philosophical nature of recording technology from a California bumper sticker that reads, “Drum Machines Have No Soul,” and the only good answer, “Neither Do Drum Kits.” A chapter called Illness takes up the frequent hints that maybe Gould had Asperger’s, and builds a compelling case for why this syndrome so fascinates our current popular culture.
But, too often, as he tries to avoid a linear repeat of the Gould life story, Kingwell rushes it, sometimes writing out Gould’s career highs in a leaden, bullet-point style.
Kingwell is a text-based creature, at his best when parsing a Greek root word, or alluding to a passage in Thomas Mann. His operating principle is supposed to be a Gould-like series of variations on a theme, but the book reads more like a philosophical dialogue.
If you’ve already read a full Gould bio, such as Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange, or are more keen on philosophy than Gould stuff, you likely won’t mind that this book is less of a take on Gould than a take-off on his ideas. Gould is, after all, a neat venue to try and understand statements like “Music is a hidden architectural activity of a mind that does not know it is counting.”
For the last word on Glenn Gould, I give it up to Marnie Stern, a pop philosopher with a finger-tapping guitar that sounds the way Gould, in another life, might have shred. Stern sums up the Gould ethic pretty well in her song “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,” where she gives a shout-out to the amazing Solitude Trilogy and sings: “I am not looking to find a pot of gold / The picture in my head is my reward / Go.”