The guild of Gould


Eternal proof – one person’s mind can change the world

Here’s one for my pal David Spencer – a fellow fan of longstanding. It also serves as a funny sidebar to my lovely Vale of Avoca walk a few days ago.

For those who don’t know him, Glenn Gould was one of a small group of brilliant recitalists who helped to give new energy and excitement to classical music in the post-war period. Van Cliburn famously did this for Tchaikovsky (basically an outright rock-star), but the genius Gould brought to his “pianism” especially for the extraordinarily mathematical works of JS Bach (who he considered first and foremost an architect), changed everything for recitalists, by adding a level of creative freedom and whole new categories of intellectual demand.

He made his 1956 recording debut (and soon after, achieved international airplay stardom) with a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations – an almost unknown piece at the time, considered too difficult by many recitalists, and too tough for audiences to appreciate, anyhow – but Gould turned it into a huge hit (over 100,000 albums sold). Naturally, this success made his performance widely considered definitive. And yet amazingly, he came back again to re-record this same exacting composition in 1981, just before his death, taking a very different but equally exciting approach throughout – (and selling more than two million copies and counting) proving his bold new statements to be doors of inspiration and possibility, rather than walls which should intimidate, let alone stop our own earnest strivings.

in 1962 he said “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.”

Recording at Columbia Studios

(and notoriously working the HVAC tech just as hard as the sound engineers, to achieve the high temperature he preferred)

Like Catherine and I, my Vale of Avoca walking pal really likes the idea of living in the old stomping grounds of Glenn Gould. She even bemoaned the demise of a modest local greasy spoon, because she had looked forward to retirement dining along Gould’s famous pattern – the same comfort food (late night breakfast) every single night, in the same cozy little window-side booth.

The venerable St Clair Fran’s where Gould ate has been gone for several years. Catherine and I ate there (in his section) all the time for decades, and we watched them make a series of shockingly bad management decisions. May not have been nepotism, but for whatever reason, unfit minds were left to steer the lovely old place into the rocks. The Fran’s at College persists, but I can’t eat there anymore after I watched someone change a diaper ON A DINING TABLE and the wait-staff didn’t bat an eyelid or say a word. Mind you, I shouldn’t have been surprised – this is the same place where decades earlier, the waiter and cook had a hilarious memorable fight – with our food! – in the wee hours one night. Seriously – as their screaming-match escalated, I actually saw my club-house sandwich sailing past ‘the pass’ and sighed, “Guess it’s going to be ANOTHER twenty minutes, huh?”

The one across from Massey Hall (currently Massey construction site) is a great restaurant, but only barely a Fran’s – opened long after their classic heyday.

Gould didn’t just refuse to cook (it was Fran’s once a day, and coffee and arrowroot biscuits, the rest of the time), he also didn’t like being touched, and preferred to communicate with people he didn’t know personally on the phone. He was always cold, even when others were very warm, and was once rousted by the police in Florida for sitting on a park bench with his characteristic hat, scarf and woollen gloves. Looked like a vagrant.

The point here is really that Gould wasn’t just brilliant and original, but also in some ways crazy (and I mean that non-pejoratively – as in neuro-diverse), and the combination of determined to the point of outright mania, and eccentric to the point of twee, remains an extremely hard to define but powerful undercurrent in Toronto culture, gentrification notwithstanding.

Memorial Plaque outside his apartment on St Clair Avenue

There is still enough of an old world tight-ass judgemental culture-tone in Toronto society (a Calvanist hangover, I often joke) to make boasting and egotistical showiness déclassé in the extreme. But balancing this deeply instilled self-repressing force, is the muscle it builds in our rebels.

It can happen, but you aren’t likely to become world famous here (and I maintain that Gould’s work would have followed a similar arc of development, albeit with tighter recording budgets, even without his spectacular concert success). You aren’t likely to become the toast of the town, either. Moneyed snobs and middle classers alike here, prefer to boast about the foreign artists they collect – we are not often or easily good to our own creators, the way we really should be.

SO – by the time you decide to be a Toronto artist you have already given up on the idea of money fame or respect as rewards, and have pared-down your needs to a list more like – bare sustenance and art supplies. The funny thing is – needing nothing makes you invulnerable to many forms of influence – this rock-bottom realism is like a super-power for the resistance of critique and market forces both. If your own maniacal determination is the only thing that powers your work – that’s what you’re going to steer-by and trust.

Of course plenty of worthy creators founder tragically in this needlessly harsh arena – and we are denied many gifts from those who give up, who would have made it, if only we could get over our lingering reserve and enthuse more openly, to celebrate and elevate our local talent.

But those determined beautiful maniacs who do still somehow forge their voice uniquely from strength of concept and force of will, are welcome to all the late night scrambled eggs there are – and reason enough on their own to inspire eternally resurgent hope, even on thin cold ground.

Glenn’s place (only back then, all those windows had perfectly curved panes).


I am always curious about what you are thinking

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