Like the Beatles, Canadian piano virtuoso Glenn Gould gave up live performance in the mid-1960s and focused his creative energies on recording. “At live concerts,” he told an interviewer, “I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian.” Gould ruffled quite a few feathers in the classical music establishment when he publicly embraced the practice of splicing together pieces of tape from different recordings to create a new performance. In effect, he provoked a re-evaluation of the word “performance.” In this short 1969 documentary from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Telescope series, Gould talks about the reasons for his dislike of playing concerts and his philosophy of art in the age of electronic recording. In the prologue, he more or less predicts today’s mash-up culture:
I have a feeling that the end result of all our labors in the recording studio is not going to become some kind of autocratic finished product such as we turn out now with relative ease, with the help of splice-making which we do or which engineers do for us, but is going to be a rather more democratic assemblage. I think we’re going to make kits, and I think we’re going to send out these kits to listeners, perhaps to viewers also, as videotape cartridge gets into the act, as I think it will, and we’re going to say, Do it yourself. Take the assembled components and make of those components something that you genuinely appreciate. If you don’t like the result as you put together the first time, put it together a second time. Be in fact your own editor. Be, in a sense, your own performer.
Variations on Glenn Gould offers a fascinating take–or, as the title suggests, several different takes–on Gould’s world-view. There is a short musical interlude, in which he plays an excerpt from the first movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major. And within the 24-minute time frame, the filmmakers allow Gould to develop his idiosyncratic thoughts on several subjects, including his “contrapuntal radio documentaries’ and his sense of isolation from society. “I absolutely enjoy being surrounded by a sort of electronic wallpaper, having music everywhere about me,” says Gould. “I think that it gives a certain shelter, and sets you apart. And I think that the only value I have as an artist–the only value most artists have, whether they realize it or not– is their particular isolation from the world about which they write, and to which they hope to contribute.”