The cultural law that we must indulge, or at least tolerate, the quirks of genius has much less force these days than it once did. Notoriously perfectionistic Stanley Kubrick’s fabled fits of verbal abuse, for example, might skirt a line with actors and audiences now, though it’s hard to argue with the results of his process. Many other examples of artists’ bad behavior need no further mention, they are now so well-known and rightly reviled. When it comes to another legendarily demanding auteur, Glenn Gould was as devoted to his art, and as doggedly idiosyncratic, as it gets.
But the case of Gould presents us with a very different picture than that of the artist who lashes out at or abuses those around him. His eccentricities consisted mainly of hermetic habits, odd attachments, and a tendency to hum and sing loudly while he played Bach, Mozart, Schoenberg, or any number of other classical composers whose work he re-interpreted. While Leonard Bernstein praised Gould as a “thinking performer” (one with whom Bernstein sharply disagreed), he was also a particularly noisy performer, a fact that bedeviled recording engineers.
As music critic Tim Page says in the interview clip at the top, the habit of humming also troubled Gould, who saw it as a liability but could not play at his best without doing it. “I would say that Glenn was in sort of an ecstatic transport,” during a lot of his performances. “When you look at him, he’s almost auto-erotic…. He is clearly having a major and profound reaction to it as he is also making it happen.” The trait manifested “from the beginning” of Gould’s life, his father Bert once said. “When you’d expect a child to cry, Glenn would always hum.” (He may or may not have had Asperger’s syndrome.)
“On the warm summer day of the first recording session” of his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, writes Edward Rothstein at The New York Times:
He arrived at the recording studio wearing a winter coat, a beret, a muffler and gloves. He carried a batch of towels, bottles of spring water, several varieties of pills and a 14-inch high piano chair to sit on. He soaked his arms in hot water for 20 minutes, took several medications, adjusted each leg of his chair, and proceeded to play, loudly humming and singing along. After a week, he had produced one of the most remarkable performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on record.
See a young Gould further up play J.S. Bach’s Partita #2, loudly humming and singing expressively as though it were an opera. Another of Gould’s incurable quirks also threatened to be a detriment to his performances, especially after he renounced performing live and retreated permanently to the studio. Gould insisted on performing for over 21 years on a “chair that has become an object of reverence for Gould devotees,” explains the podcast Ludwig van Toronto. Gould was “obsessed” with the chair and “wouldn’t perform on anything else.”
In the video above, you can see Gould defend the diminutive chair—built by his father for his childhood practice—telling a TV presenter, “I’ve never given any concert in anything else.” The chair, he says, is “a member of the family! It is a boon companion, without which I do not function, I cannot operate.”
Along with his exactly specified height for the piano, over which he hovered with his chin just inches from the middle C, a rug under his feet, and a very warm studio, which he often sat in wearing winter clothes, Gould’s chair is one of the most distinctive of his oddities. The chair is “one of the most famous musical objects in the history of classical music,” Kate Shapero writes at Gould interview site Unheard Notes. But it caused considerable consternation in the studio.
Now residing in a glass case at the National Library of Canada, Gould’s chair is so dilapidated that “the only thing that kept it from falling apart,” says Ludwig van Toronto, “is some duct tape, screws, and piano wire.” Even before it acquired the noisy hardware of the metal brackets holding up its two front legs, Gould’s animated playing made the chair rock and creak in distracting ways. But while Gould’s unintentional accompaniments turn some people off, his true fans, and they are multitude, either find his vocalizations charming or completely tune them out. (They disappear when he begins performing above.)
Gould’s “singing authenticates and humanizes his performances,” composer Luke Dahn argues. “It reveals a performer so entirely absorbed in the music’s moment and reminds us that this is a performance, even if within the confines of the studio.” His unusual qualities “distinguish his recordings from those of countless note-perfect recordings available today that take on a fabricated, sterile, and even robotic quality. (Is perfection ever very interesting?)” Like the greatest musical innovators—John Coltrane especially comes to mind—Gould has wide appeal both inside his genre circles and far outside them.
“I can put him on for hours,” says noted Gould devotee John Waters, “he’s like nobody else. He was the ultimate original—a real outsider. And he had a great style, the hats and the gloves and so on.” Whatever the origins of Gould’s quirks, and whatever his misgivings about them, Gould lovers perceive them not as flaws to be overlooked or tolerated but essential qualities of his passion and utterly unique personal style. See him “say something original” about Beethoven above, then deliver a tremendous performance, mostly hum free but totally enthralling, of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor—a piece whose nickname captures Gould’s musical effect: “The Tempest.”
Glenn Gould Plays Bach on His U.S. TV Debut … After Leonard Bernstein Explains What Makes His Playing So Great (1960)
Hear the Famously Controversial Concert Where Leonard Bernstein Introduces Glenn Gould & His Idiosyncratic Performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (1962)
Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary, The Idea of North (1967)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I think you wanted to say “he was also a particularly NOISY performer, a fact that bedeviled recording engineers” (rather than ‘noisome’ as in ‘having an extremely offensive smell’).
Though certainly as eccentric as portrayed, Gould was hardly alone in singing along – if Erroll Garner and Andre Watts aren’t equally notorious as vocalizers, they should be. What is more interesting is the high regard given his interpretations in the present day. When I was an undergrad in music school (’70s), he was considered more a curiosity, albeit a virtuosic one.
And the sonorous tones of a young Alex Trebek in the final clip, if my ears don’t deceive me.