How Glenn Gould’s Eccentricities Became Essential to His Playing & Personal Style: From Humming Aloud While Playing to Performing with His Childhood Piano Chair

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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  • SylvanBeach6 says:

    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’).

  • chazzan says:

    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.

  • some lurker says:

    And the sonorous tones of a young Alex Tre­bek in the final clip, if my ears don’t deceive me.

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