Friday, January 10, 2014

The pianist who hummed


In 1955, a slim, pale twenty-two year old Canadian pianist walked into Columbia Records studio in New York City to record some Bach variations. My uncle, Howard Scott, was going to be the producer of this record. The pianist was Glenn Gould. The record that emerged from the six days spent in the studio in mid-June was The Goldberg Variations. It was a record that upended the classical music world.

It is very difficult today to convey the impact this record had, particularly in 1950s America. Yes, there are household names in the classical music world today. Yo Yo Ma comes to mind. But no one that I know off has astonished and awakened the listening world like Glenn Gould did with his first LP. The shock tremors, though distant now, are still being experienced.
                                                                       
Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations, June, 1955

I don't remember when I first started to listen to Howard's stories about that mythical recording session and the quirky, perfectionist Gould. Probably after I was in college and learned a little something about music. Howard was amused and fascinated by Gould, and put up with his Madonna-like demands. Gould sat extremely low at the piano, for example. If the chair wasn't low enough to suit him, he had the legs cut down to size. He hummed while he playedloudly. You can hear him on the record. There's nothing technology could ever do to quell that. (My uncle once gave him a gas mask to wear as a gag to muffle the humming.) He played Back at Mach 3 speed, the notes emerging with the rapidity of a bag of marbles emptied onto the floor.
                                                                           
Glenn Gould and my uncle, Howard Scott

Some musicians found Glenn Gould's interpretations of music not only eccentric but exasperating. Still, there was so much wonder in his playing, he earned their respect. The great conductor George Szell said of Gould, "That nut's a genius." Later, Gould stopped performing in public and retreated to his Toronto home. He would only record. He loved radio, and he would often give late night interviews on the air from a studio he had in his home. He died young, at 50. I know that Howard was proud of being part of Glenn Gould's momentous recording debut, as well he should have been. In turn, I was proud that Howard was my uncle. Sometimes, for pure effect, I'd bring it up, say, at a party. "You know Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations? Well, my Uncle Howard produced that record." From those who knew the record, I got what I was looking for: wide eyes, a step backward and, "Really?"
                                                                     
Glenn and Howard

Listening as a young man about to try to have a go at it as a writer, I was intimately aware, for the first time in my life, of what a living artist could do. He could walk into a studio and change the way people thought about music. Or at least about a composer. And people did think about Bach differently after Glenn Gould's recording of The Goldberg Variations. In the 1950s in America, artists were not role models, believe me. But when my uncle spun his stories, and when I listened to the record and to the peregrine falcon flight of Gould's hands across the keys, I felt what one single person could do with, as Stephen Sondheim (a fan of Gould's) put it, "skill in the service of passion." Gould was like a god. In six days in the studio in New York, he created a heaven and an earth, gorgeous and substantial. That he was slightly strange ("He showed up in the studio on a broiling hot summer day in an overcoat and gloves," Howard said to me once, laughing) made it all the more appealing.

Glenn Gould indoors, preparing.

I would not, I was pretty certain, ever reach the equivalent heights of a Glenn Gould as a writer. But I was damn sure going to try.

            
The original album cover for The Goldberg Variations. Photos of Glenn Gould and my uncle.


6 comments:

  1. Terrific post, Richard! I do remember stepping back, wide-eyed, and exclaiming "Really?" myself...

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  2. "I was intimately aware, for the first time in my life, of what a living artist could do. He could walk into a studio and change the way people thought about music. Or at least about a composer. And people did think about Bach differently after Glenn Gould's recording of The Goldberg Variations." Thanks for the inspiration for my writing day, Richard. Your essays are like snapshots. Sometimes they're very detailed, sometimes slightly grainy.

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  3. Thanks very much. I feel that way about my thinking. Sometimes detailed, often grainy. I'm glad this was inspiring. We all need that, don't we?

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  4. Great story. In the early '80's I worked at the A&E Network. The head of programming was Curtis Davis, a wonderful man, and he talked about Gould calling him at 3 am in the morning and playing a few bars of a piece and demanding Curtis identify it.

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  5. Patty,
    Thanks for the note! How's your book doing? What can I do to help? Amazon review? Goodreads? Yes, Gould was a night owl. I never met him, but my uncle had some great tales. Richard

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