Glenn Gould: Musical Individualist

by Peter Saint-Andre (1999)

First published in the Monadnock Review, August 1999. This is version 1.1, last updated 2011-02-13.

On the night that Glenn Gould gave his final public concert (March 28, 1964 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago), neither the audience nor the performer knew that it was to be his last. The program was typical Gould and, as always, consisted of works he personally enjoyed playing (this time some fugues from Bach's Art of Fugue, a Bach partita, a late sonata by Beethoven, and the third sonata of Ernst Krenek). But if Gould had the independence of mind to play only what he liked and the professional status to get away with it, why did he renounce the stage? One way to explain it is by saying that Gould was not primarily a pianist, but a musician. Gould's concern was the music, and he thought strongly that the crowds who flock to the spectacle of a concert detract from the deeply personal experience of creating or listening to music. As aesthetician Geoffrey Payzant wrote in his reflections on Gould (Payzant 1984):

The spectator in the arena ... is entirely separate from what is really going on: an effort by the performer to form a powerful identification with the music. A performance is not a contest but a love affair. (Payzant 1984, 60)

Over time Gould came to realize that the best way for him to pursue that "love affair" was not in the concert hall but through the medium of electronic transmission, especially recording. Throughout his career Gould looked back fondly on that moment in a broadcast studio "when I realized that the collected wisdom of my peers and elders to the effect that technology represented a compromising, dehumanizing intrusion into art was nonsense, when my love affair with the microphone began" (Gould 1984, 354). Contrary to the negative associations technology has for many artists, Gould embraced the possibilities afforded him by the recording apparatus. He believed fervently in what theologian Jean Le Moyne called "the charity of the machine", the capacity of technology to function as a "second nature" and to mediate between "the frailty of nature and the vision of the idealized accomplishment" (Gould 1984, 354). Gould writes:

Technology should not, in my view, be treated as a noncommittal, noncommitted voyeur; its capacity for dissection, for analysis -- above all, perhaps, for the idealization of an impression -- must be exploited. (Gould 1984, 355)

These two potentials that Gould finds in technology -- analysis and idealization -- are by no means at odds in Gould's thought or in his musical life. Gould's recordings have sometimes been criticized for their supposedly "sterile", overly intellectual character. Yet Gould did not think that dissection and analysis were ends in themselves. He was always concerned "to integrate rather than to isolate" (Gould 1984, 71) and he spoke of "the indivisibility of that unit formed by the artist's idea and its execution" (Gould 1984, 259). For Gould the idea was primary, and music was more mental than physical (he was, in this sense, an idealist much opposed to musical "empiricism"). While the concert stage forces performer and audience alike to focus primarily on the physical level of music, Gould thought, the art of recording frees one to focus on musical ideas because it is "a representation not so much of the known exterior world as of the idealized interior world" (Gould 1984, 99). It is this private, interior world of the inner life that Gould sought to explore in music, and he found in the technology of recording a way to realize that ambition:

By far the most important electronic contribution to the arts is the creation of a new and paradoxical condition of privacy. The great paradox about the electronic transmission of musical sound is that as it makes available to the most enormous audience, either simultaneously or in a delayed encounter, the identical musical experience, it encourages that audience to react not as captives and automatons but as individuals capable of an unprecendented spontaneity of judgment. (Gould 1984, 99)

This intimacy, what Payzant calls "an intensely shared attentiveness to the music" (Payzant 1984, 45), is deeply important to Gould. It is the presence of the music, not the presence of the performer, that matters to him. Recording enables the musician to steer clear of crowd-pleasing "perversions" and to focus on the structure of the music, making possible the presentation of the music "from a strongly biased conceptual viewpoint" (Gould 1984, 337). As Payzant notes, "for him this is a serious matter because in his way of experiencing music the structure is the essence, the peculiarly musical aspect of a piece" (Payzant 1984, 24).

The focus here on structure might concern those who think "clarity is the enemy of mystery" (Gould 1984, 337). But although Gould is a musical idealist, he is no blind rationalist. While he always sought clarity, he recognized that "music ... is a most unscientific science, a most unsubstantial substance. No one has ever really fully explained to us many of the primevally obvious things about music" (Gould 1984, 4). Indeed, for Gould -- uninterested as he was in the "empiricism" of musical color or the spontaneity of improvisation -- the magic of music simply is the structure, and it is here that judgments of musical value must find their basis. Yet our understanding of musical structure is stunted:

We have never really become equipped to adjudicate music per se. Our sense of history is captive of an analytical method which seeks out isolated moments of stylistic upheaval -- pivot points of idiomatic evolution -- and our value judgments are largely based upon the degree to which we can assure ourselves that a particular artist participated in or, better yet, anticipated the nearest upheaval. Confusing evolution with accomplishment, we become blind to those values not explicit in an analogy with stylistic metamorphosis. (Gould 1984, 342)

We can hear in Gould's recordings his efforts at understanding music on its own, structural, terms. His recordings show that he was at pains to overcome "the whole area of prejudice that has concerned itself with finding chronological justifications for artistic endeavors", driven by his recognition that those who hold such prejudices have "quite lost touch with the larger purposes of creativity" (Gould 1984, 99).

And what are the larger purposes of creativity? Gould thinks that problems of dissection and analysis "should serve as a catalyst for that exuberant and expansive effort of re-creation which is the ultimate joy that all analytical considerations and argumentative conclusions must serve" (Gould 1984, 22); for:

I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Through the ministrations of radio and the phonograph, we are rapidly and quite properly learning to appreciate the elements of aesthetic narcissism -- and I use that word in its best sense -- and are awakening to the challenge that each man contemplatively create his own divinity. (Gould 1984, 246)

The moral ambition animating this secular vision of "divinity" is a far cry indeed from a sterile intellectualism of pure mind! But Gould's conception of ecstasy is not to be confused with a raw emotionalism, because he also held that "the notion of ecstasy as the only proper quest for the artist assumes competence as an inclusive component" (Gould 1984, 254).

How can the artist cultivate an ecstatic approach to art? Not, Gould thought, through playing to the crowd or competing with his fellows. Gould reserved special disdain for artistic competitions, which he thought stifle originality. The great danger of competitive striving in music is that it is usually encouraged early in an artist's career -- "precisely at that time in his life when a muted response to the world outside and sharpest attention to the vibrations of the inner ear could most propitiously shape and characterize his art ... the menace of the competitive idea is that through its emphasis upon consensus, it extracts that mean, indisputable, readily certifiable core of competence and leaves its eager, ill-advised suppliants forever stunted, victims of a spiritual lobotomy" (Gould 1984, 254-5). Better, Gould thought, to seek solitude ("the prerequisite for ecstatic experience") than the approval of judges or peers:

When creative people ... need sympathetic understanding, I feel it's a shame; the line of productivity and creation is more direct than this.... Also, I'm fascinated with what happens to the creative output when you isolate yourself from the approval and disapproval of the people around you. (Payzant 1984, 53, quoting a magazine interview with Gould)

Although Gould never accepted students, he emphasized to those who did that "your success as teachers would very much depend upon the degree to which the singularity, the uniqueness, of the confrontation between yourselves and each one of your students is permitted to determine your approach to them" (Gould 1984, 5). He cultivated in himself "those virtues of temperamental independence which signal the genuine re-creative fire" (Gould 1984, 252), almost to the point of becoming a hermit. He longed for "a world where nobody cared what anybody else was doing -- in which the entire group-think ... syndrome utterly disappeared" (Gould 1984, 460). This ethical individualism is fully consistent with his views on the mission of the artist, which Payzant describes as follows:

According to Gould, artists have a moral mission and art has an unrealized potential for the betterment of humankind. Human improvement can occur only as the result of modification in our attitudes as solitary, private individuals, and not as some kind of collective modification of our species, voluntary or not. Each person must accept the challenge of contemplatively creating his own "divinity." "Divinity" here refers to the better part of individual human nature, which for Gould is the introspectively and ecstatically contemplative part.... (Payzant 1984, 120)

Yet this artistic mission is not moralistic, nor does it involve the kind of "preoccupation with an art that communicates easily with the masses" or "insistence upon an overt message" (Gould 1984, 174) that Gould found so repugnant in Socialist Realism. For Gould, "the purpose of art is ... to serve its own end, from which each man will derive what he chooses to derive" (Gould 1984, 170). It is this ideal that Glenn Gould pursued throughout his life, and that makes him a powerful example of both aesthetic and ethical individualism.

We like to think that every artist is an intransigent individualist, pursuing a deeply personal vision of excellence, unbeholden to the mindless conventions of society at large. We like to think this most of all, perhaps, with regard to musicians, since we think that music is the language of emotion -- and what could be more personal than emotion? How far these myths are from truth we prefer to avoid contemplating if at all possible, so we don't talk about uncomfortable topics like Socialist Realism, the conformity-inducing training of artists, and the herdlike response of aesthetic consumers to the manipulations of those who make the markets for art.

Glenn Gould talked about these matters, thought about these matters, philosophized about these matters. He was a great tonic for our intellectual honesty. He was a profound and original thinker -- on music, on art, and on life. It is Gould's thoughts that I have explored in this essay, because they shed important light on the meaning of individualism.

No one who has listened to Gould's recordings can deny that they are highly individual. Even his decision to stop giving concerts in favor of making recordings, while unprecedented, could have been merely the whimsical act of an idiosyncratic artist. As we have seen by exploring his essays, Gould had good reasons for doing what he did, and he set them out clearly and decisively. He was not only a practicing individualist, but a thinking individualist -- even, I dare say, a philosopher of individuality. May he be remembered not only for his music but also for his ideas.


Gould, G. 1984. The Glenn Gould Reader. Edited by Tim Page. New York: Vintage.

Payzant, G. 1984. Glenn Gould, Music and Mind. Revised Edition. Toronto: Key Porter Books.

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