Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary, The Idea of North (1967)

If genius is an infi­nite capac­i­ty for tak­ing pains, Glenn Gould mer­its each and every one of the many appli­ca­tions of the word “genius” to his name. The world knows that name pri­mar­i­ly as one of a genius of the piano, of course, espe­cial­ly when inter­pret­ing the genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, but he also made an impres­sion in his home­land of Cana­da as a genius of the radio edit­ing suite. Hav­ing record­ed for the Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion’s clas­si­cal-and-jazz record label CBC Records placed him well to real­ize his ideas on the CBC’s air­waves, most mem­o­rably in the form of The Idea of North, an hour­long med­i­ta­tion on the vast, cold expanse that con­sti­tutes the top third of the coun­try, which first aired on Decem­ber 28, 1967.

The broad­cast’s fifti­eth anniver­sary has prompt­ed Cana­di­ans and non-Cana­di­ans alike to have anoth­er lis­ten to Gould’s best-known radio project, back then shock­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal and still bold­ly uncon­ven­tion­al today. “The pianist used a tech­nique he called ‘con­tra­pun­tal radio,’ lay­er­ing speak­ing voic­es on top of each oth­er to cre­ate a unique son­ic envi­ron­ment sit­u­at­ed in the space between con­ver­sa­tion and music,” says the site of CBC’s Ideas, which recent­ly aired a new episode about the mak­ing of The Idea of North called Return to North.

The page quotes Gould biog­ra­ph­er Geof­frey Payzant as describ­ing it and Gould’s sub­se­quent doc­u­men­taries as “hybrids of music, dra­ma, and sev­er­al oth­er strains, includ­ing essay, jour­nal­ism, anthro­pol­o­gy, ethics, social com­men­tary, [and] con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry.”

One might might well com­pare The Idea of North’s form to that of a fugue, the type of com­plex con­tra­pun­tal com­po­si­tion so close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Bach and thus with Gould as well. But the form also serves the sub­stance, “that incred­i­ble tapes­try of tun­dra and taiga which con­sti­tutes the Arc­tic and sub-Arc­tic of our coun­try,” as Gould him­self puts it in the broad­cast’s intro­duc­tion. “I’ve read about it, writ­ten about it, and even pulled up my par­ka once and gone there,” he con­tin­ues, but like most Cana­di­ans remained ever “an out­sider” to the North, “and the North has remained for me, a con­ve­nient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

The North also offered Gould a pow­er­ful sym­bol of soli­tude, a con­di­tion which he sought through­out his life, espe­cial­ly after quit­ting live per­for­mance to focus exclu­sive­ly on the stu­dio short­ly before mak­ing The Idea of North. In the decade there­after he made two more for­mal­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar doc­u­men­taries, one on coastal New­found­lan­ders and anoth­er on Men­non­ites in Man­i­to­ba, and the three togeth­er make up his “Soli­tude Tril­o­gy.” A tele­vi­sion film of The Idea of North, co-pro­duced by the CBC and PBS, appeared in 1970, lay­er­ing images of the North atop of the words about the North Gould had col­lect­ed. It cer­tain­ly adds a dimen­sion to Gould’s painstak­ing­ly con­struct­ed audio col­lage, but some­how pure radio, the old “the­ater of the mind,” still suits it best: the images of the North he want­ed to evoke, one sens­es just as well now as half a cen­tu­ry ago, exist only in the mind.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Glenn Gould: Off and On the Record: Two Short Films About the Life & Music of the Eccen­tric Musi­cian

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach (1962)

Glenn Gould Offers a Strik­ing­ly Uncon­ven­tion­al Inter­pre­ta­tion of 1806 Beethoven Com­po­si­tion

Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musi­cal Genius on Dis­play (1959)

Glenn Gould Gives Us a Tour of Toron­to, His Beloved Home­town (1979)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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