Thursday, April 2, 2015


Looking through my late husband's effects for something to read, I came upon The Glenn Gould Reader, a 1984 collection of record jacket notes, articles for music and audio magazines, and other writings from the 1960s and 1970s by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982).  Gould said that if he hadn't been a musician he would have been a writer.  He wrote on music, recording and related subjects, cleverly and sometimes brilliantly; but his style, described in the introduction by Tim Page, is often "self-indulgent, puckish, and overly allusive."  He was publishable because he was Glenn Gould.  I'm not sure how far he'd have gotten on his writing alone.

Gould's many eccentricities are the stuff of legend, to the point where they could obscure his merits as a musician.  He loathed performing.  He stopped giving concerts early in his career, predicting "that the public concert as we know it today [will] no longer exist a century hence, that its functions [will] have been entirely taken over by electronic media."  He gives an intriguing account of the extent to which recordings of concert music are doctored and patched, cobbled together out of many takes, to produce the kind of musical experience that performers and listeners have come to expect.

In The Prospects of Recording (1966) he explains how, as recording and editing skill and equipment become more widespread and sophisticated, listeners will be able to produce their own definitive recordings:  "Let us say, for example, that you enjoy Bruno Walter's performance of the exposition and recapitulation from the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony but incline toward Klemperer's handling of the development section. . . . You could snip out these measures from the Klemperer edition and splice them into the Walter performance."

Prophecy is a risky business.  Presumably, music-loving audiophiles now have the equipment and the know-how to make the kind of edited recordings that Gould describes; but I have trouble picturing who would bother.  I would think that hobbyists with that level of editing savvy would be more interested in generating projects of their own -- like Eduardo Antonello, who posts videos on YouTube of himself in quadruplicate playing sixteenth century dances on krummhorns.  Gould's scheme reminds me of the story where H.G.Wells has people of the future reading by lying on their backs and watching a stream of words go by on the ceiling. We could do that; but we don't.

The evolution of harmony has been central to Western music since we began to invent polyphony around the turn of the tenth century.  Gould describes how harmonic  development culminated in the work of such turn-of-the-century post-romantics as Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): chromaticism and dissonance, he says, have expanded to the point where key orientation is no longer workable.  While Strauss stuck to tonality, Schoenberg and the other atonalists, as Gould sees it, pointed the way to further development of music by avoiding tonality and "liberating" dissonance.

This development has been greeted with a certain lack of enthusiasm in musical circles.  In a mid-1970s conversation with a recorder player who worked in a music store, I mentioned a question from a musically naive individual who asked if "classical" music -- symphonies, string quartets, and the like -- was still being composed.  "Oh, yeah," the recorder player said, "but hardly anybody likes it."

Gould acknowledges with some reluctance that the "fundamental effect [of Schoenberg's works and ideas] has been to separate audience and composer. . . , shattering irreparably the compact between audience and composer, . . . separating their common bond of reference and creating between them a profound antagonism."  In other words, hardly anybody likes atonalism.

At one time I tried to figure out what all the post-tonality shouting was about and could find nothing attractive or interesting about that music.  I would love to have an atonality aficionado explain to me, YouTube link in hand, just what one is supposed to hear in that mass of dissonance and strained, screaming sound.  In the meantime, I stick to my suspicion that that particular emperor really isn't wearing any clothes.

It is often assumed that innovators are ahead of their time and the public will eventually catch up; but the professor with whom I studied theory at DeAnza college in the mid-1970s - like Gould, a great admirer of Schoenberg -- pointed out that it had been nearly seventy years since Schoenberg's 1908 venture into atonality, and that if something is going to catch on it happens faster than that.  I also heard in music school that radio stations know to a nicety for how many minutes their audience will sit still for an atonal piece (the number was in the single digits, as I remember) before changing the station.  From 1908 through the 1960s and 1970s to the present time, the music-listening public hasn't taken to atonality.

Gould, in a 1967 essay, was still waiting, expecting atonal music, you might say, to sneak in the back door:  "If you really stop to listen to the music accompanying most of the grade-B horror movies that are coming out of Hollywood these days, or perhaps a TV show on space travel for children, you will be absolutely amazed at the amount of integration which the various idioms of atonality have undergone in these media."  I've noticed that, actually.  Gould goes on to express an expectation that scary movie music will accustom the public to the sound of atonality.  Maybe -- but in the decades since Gould wrote, I haven't noticed any such effect.

These two preoccupations -- the inevitability and rightness of atonality and the imminent replacement of concert performance with recordings -- intersect in ways that Gould seems not to have considered.  He takes for granted the continued forward march of Western concert music; it seems not to have occurred to him that the listening public might respond to all that discordant shrieking by walking away altogether from the kind of music often called (erroneously) "classical."

Neuroscience researcher Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music) claims that concert or "classical" music hasn't been written since about 1950.  His book emphasizes the psychology of rhythm and tone color (or timbre) and barely mentions harmony at all.  I have known other rockers -- often with a defensive edge -- to refer to "classical" music as passe.  The decline in concert attendance that Gould takes as evidence of the obsolescence of public performance applies to electronic music reproduction as well: the "classical" section of CD stores has 
shrunk steadily since Gould's time, and radio stations playing that kind of music are now few and far between.  Meanwhile, rock concerts continue unabated.  Something other than preference for recordings over live performance must be going on.

Photography hasn't replaced painting but has become an art form in its own right.  Film hasn't replaced stage drama.  Similarly, electronic sound reproduction hasn't replaced acoustic public performance so much as spun off another kind of  music  altogether.  I have been saying since the late 1960s (when anyone would listen, which has been seldom) that the possibilities of harmonic development seem to be played out; that the experimenters who have been trying to create electronic music for as long as electronics have been around have developed sounds and techniques that are interesting but not clearly music; and that the first efforts to come to my attention that are electronic and also undeniably music, would be the Beatles and others like them. (Paul McCartney was a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an electronic music pioneer.)  The Beatles weren't the first or the only ones to combine conventional sounds and techniques with electronic ones, but they must be the mostly widely-heard.

My favorite Beatles song is Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966), with its steady, insistent percussion (not produced electronically, as it probably would be now, but left to Ringo Starr's impeccable rhythmic sense) supporting what might be described as a collage of electronically generated sounds. Tomorrow Never Knows is studio music that in the 1960s couldn't be performed live, although Paul McCartney has said in an interview that it could be now.

None of the above is at all what Gould had in mind.  In a piece on Petula Clark (whom he detested), he takes a sideswipe at the Beatles, calling them "amateurish" and faulting their voice leading.  I'm sure he would have been horrified at the suggestion that their productions were comparable to what he was doing with his own recordings.  And the Beatles' studio pieces were far more innovative than Gould's endless picking over of historical works that were never meant to be handled that way.  As little enthusiasm as I have for the decline of Western concert music, it rather amuses me to reflect while reading Gould's sarcastic putdown that the Beatles won: they beat Gould at his own game, and arguably the future of music rests more with them than with him.