Hear Glenn Gould Channel Marshall McLuhan and Create an Experimental Radio Documentary Analyzing the Pop Music of Petula Clark (1967)

Glenn Gould, that intel­lec­tu­al­ly intense, aes­thet­i­cal­ly aus­tere inter­preter of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, had lit­tle time for pop music. He had espe­cial­ly lit­tle time for the Bea­t­les: “Theirs is a hap­py, cocky, bel­liger­ent­ly resource­less brand of har­mon­ic prim­i­tivism,” he wrote in High Fideli­ty in 1967, when the Fab Four had reached the top of the zeit­geist. “The indul­gent ama­teur­ish­ness of the musi­cal mate­r­i­al, though close­ly rivaled by the indif­fer­ence of the per­form­ing style, is actu­al­ly sur­passed only by the inep­ti­tude of the stu­dio pro­duc­tion method,” he declares, liken­ing “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er” to “a moun­tain wed­ding between Clau­dio Mon­tever­di and a jug band.”

But the Bea­t­le-bash­ing was inci­den­tal to the pur­pose of the arti­cle, a paean to Eng­lish singer Petu­la Clark. At first lis­ten, her four sin­gles on which Gould focus­es his analy­sis — 1964’s “Down­town,” 1956’s “My Love,” and 1966’s “A Sign of the Times” and “Who Am I?” — sound like noth­ing more than ado­les­cent-ori­ent­ed pop hard­ly touched by any of that decade’s musi­cal (or indeed social) rev­o­lu­tions. But “this quar­tet of hits,” in Gould’s view, “was designed to con­vey the idea that, bound as she might be by lim­i­ta­tions of tim­bre and range, she would not accept any cor­re­spond­ing restric­tions of theme and sen­ti­ment,” with the result that she came to com­mand an audi­ence “large, con­stant, and pos­sessed of an enthu­si­asm which tran­scends the gen­er­a­tions.”

Gould says all this in The Search for Petu­la Clark, a 23-minute radio doc­u­men­tary that aired on the CBC on Decem­ber 11, 1967, less than three weeks before his much bet­ter-known exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary The Idea of North. He sit­u­ates his analy­sis of the singer he calls “Pet Clark,” which gets into not just her songs’ themes and lyrics but their tech­ni­cal qual­i­ties as music, in the con­text of a solo road trip around Lake Supe­ri­or when “Who Am I?” first hit the air­waves. So com­pelled did he find him­self that he timed his dri­ve to get with­in range of one of the radio sta­tions scat­tered across the vast­ness of his home­land at the top of each hour in order to hear the song over and over again, after 700 miles he got to “know it if not bet­ter than the soloist, at least as well, per­haps, as most of the side­men.”

Though born with­in two months of each oth­er in 1932 and there­after liv­ing lives ded­i­cat­ed to music, Gould and Clark would seem to have lit­tle else in com­mon. While Gould died at 50, Clark, at the age of 85, con­tin­ues to both record and per­form. Gould, as J.D. Con­nor writes in an essay on The Search for Petu­la Clark, “stopped per­form­ing for live audi­ences in 1964. Freed from the rig­ors of the con­cert cir­cuit, he dove into radio and tele­vi­sion at just the moment when he and Cana­di­an state media could par­lay his immense musi­cal pop­u­lar­i­ty into some­thing more.”  This and the more intri­cate radio pro­duc­tions that would fol­low both sprang from and allowed Gould to con­struct “a media the­o­ry of his own. In print, on tele­vi­sion, and, most impor­tant, on radio, Gould became the great com­ple­ment to Mar­shall McLuhan.” And like McLuhan, when Gould obsess­es over some­thing that nev­er seemed to mer­it seri­ous atten­tion, we’d do well to heed the insights he draws from it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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 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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