Resits: “G” is for Glenn and Gould (and Goldberg).

A while ago there was a video going around of Glenn Gould. I shared it and, in doing so, started a fight. This was not the way one should play Bach, they told me, people have studied for lifetimes to correctly play this music, he’s a “baby” I was informed. It was decided that I was wrong to like him. The composer himself was, needless to say, not available to interject, although he doesn’t necessarily get to decide either frankly, as part of the contract with the world upon writing something is that it is no longer yours. At least that’s how I feel about it. And this was the problem.

When someone tells you it’s wrong to like something, they are commenting on something that has already irreversibly happened, that was out of your control. An outside force acts upon you, after which you carry the burden of its liking until you can shake it off. That’s not going to happen by somebody having a hissing fit on my Facebook feed.

A piece of art is not a Prime Minister. It does not function solely in its own time, and there can be more than one of them at any given moment. True, Glenn Gould may be standing as a candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party, or perhaps the Inconsistent Ornamentation League (on this, more later), but his has proven to be a powerful message and he’s found his voters.

Just a thought: imagine having countless prime ministers to choose from, and downloading your own personal PM whose rules are only applicable to you (surely it’s coming soon!).

Gould has always revealed something hidden in the music that he plays. In the Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations, which is the very last before the Aria returns, Bach evokes his family tradition of singing drinking songs in counterpoint. It’s a high art take on a dirty sing song, and it’s the final variation. Gould brings the melodies out like a drunk, they’re rough, bawdy and bashed out almost….my god it almost…. swings!!! Elsewhere, his typical breakneck speed in the lighter pieces seems to evoke a strange slowness amidst the sheer velocity of the notes themselves. Like a stereogram where, if you look at the countless dots for long enough, you start to see a big dog. No one else does that, not the way he does. It’s like a complete surrender to the music, he seems not only immersed but submerged in it, a willing hostage to the metronome. In the canons, dense webs of interlocking themes appear so simply stated as if they themselves will do the work.

The fact is, all of this is an illusion, as anyone who has attempted to emulate Gould’s style will tell you. I’m telling you now. It’s a precision job. And you’re welcome to disagree.

Some people don’t like the way he does his ornaments. It’s not how they were done in Bach’s time. I’m not getting in the ring with the Baroque Police, all that piano versus harpsichord debate. I know there are whole books on this subject, and the study of minutiae is something I would defend to the death. However, there’s plenty of “proper” Bach recordings available, trills, mordents and turns intact. One way doesn’t relegate the other, it is not voted out.

What the hell is a trill, you may be thinking? Hmmmm, let me think of the best way to explain it. Think of your face, and now imagine your left cheek has one note in it, and the right cheek another just above it. Shake your head as fast as you can as if saying no in the most assertive and neurotic way possible. That sound you are hearing is a trill, and it is used to enable notes on a harpsichord the illusion of sustaining (all notes on keyboard instruments with strings, including the piano, are dying the moment you touch them). For me the trill is a symbol of my failure as a classical pianist. I could never do them. Were there a way to control the piano from the jowls on my face (surely it’s coming soon!), then we’d be talking. Fingers, however, just won’t move like that for me, twisting themselves into a kind of rigormortis of protest before finally collapsing.

Music must, in the end, be useful. For a jazz musician, some music acquires greatness in relation to the number of ways you can play it, mess with it, and it still be the thing it was. Composing is in some ways an act of generosity. You are giving your stuff to people to work with. You owe it to them, because without their playing of it you have no music. Jerome Kern, composer of “All The Things You Are” and many other beloved songs, hated jazz musicians because they tampered with his music, and I think he was wrong to do so. Jazz musicians have kept his name in lights, promoted what I think of as a pretty syrupy ballad to a level of usefulness he could never have imagined.

I have spent twenty years hacking through the Goldberg Variations, eliminating all the trills, defacing it, taking what I can manage and leaving the rest, and it has been a massive influence on everything I do. Actually that’s a lie. Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations have been a massive influence on everything I do. He grooves, wails, whimpers and pranks his way through them, from dizzying speed to glacial creep, his counterpoint sounding like several different people playing one piece, with all the friction and argument that entails. Often, he’ll bring out some supposedly insignificant line with his infamous booming vocal, as if to say “yes, the managers are important, but what about the cleaners!” His interpretations exemplify the argument about the music itself, that of multiplicity over uniformity, many voices over one.

I could write about Gould forever, and I’m not the only one, but the fact that not everyone likes him is part of his appeal. I therefore need you, the detractors, to keep doing what you’re doing. We are all just making and listening, sculpting and digging in the big music ecosystem. The more the merrier, I reckon…mutual tolerance and diversity is, after all, big news these days.

You either mean it or you don’t.