Glenn Gould made his name as a pianist with his stark, idiosyncratic interpretations of the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and especially Bach. He left behind not just a highly respected body of work in the form of recorded performances, but also a host of strong opinions about music itself and all that culturally and commercially surrounded it. His enthusiasms weren’t always predictable: in 1967 he went on CBC radio to lavish praise on the pop singer Petula Clark, and the next year he returned to the airwaves to make a hearty endorsement of a record for which not everyone in the classical music world would admit to an appreciation: Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach.
After voicing his distaste for compilation albums, comparing them to Reader’s Digest condensed literature, Gould informs his listeners that “the record of the year — no, let’s go all the way, the decade — is an unembarrassed compote of Bach’s greatest hits.” The whole record, he claims, “is one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation, certainly one of the great feats in the history of keyboard performance,” and “the surest evidence, if evidence be needed, that live music never was best.” Gould had retired from the “anachronistic” practice of live performance four years earlier, seeking his own kind of musical perfection within the technologically enhanced confines of the recording studio.
On that level, it makes sense that a meticulously, painstakingly crafted recording — not to mention one impossible, at the time, to reproduce live — like Switched-On Bach would appeal to Gould. He also takes the opportunity on this broadcast to introduce the Moog synthesizer, which Carlos used to produce every note on the record. “Theoretically, the Moog can be encouraged to imitate virtually any instrumental sound known to man, and there are moments on this disc which sound very like an organ, a double bass or a clavichord,” Gould says, “but its most conspicuous felicity is that, except when casting gentle aspersions on more familiar baroque instrumental archetypes, the performer shuns this kind of electronic exhibitionism” — a sure way of scoring points with the restraint-loving Gould.
The broadcast includes not just Gould’s thoughts on Switched On-Bach and the Moog but two interviews, one with poet and essayist Jean Le Moyne on “the human fact of automation, its sociological and theological implications,” and one with Carlos herself. Asked about the choice of Bach, Carlos frames it as a test of how the new technology of the synthesizer would fare when used to play not avant-garde music, as it then usually was, but music with the most impeccable aesthetic credentials possible. “We’re just a baby,” Carlos says of the enterprise of synthesizer-driven electronic music. “Although now we can see that the child is going to grow into a rather exciting adult, we’ve still got to take one step at a time. It will become assimilated. The gimmick value — thank god — is going to be lost, and true musical expression, and that alone, will result.”
Hear Glenn Gould Channel Marshall McLuhan and Create an Experimental Radio Documentary Analyzing the Pop Music of Petula Clark (1967)
Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musical Genius on Display (1959)
Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary, The Idea of North (1967)
Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach (1962)
Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach Turns 50 This Month: Learn How the Classical Synth Record Introduced the World to the Moog
Leonard Bernstein Introduces the Moog Synthesizer to the World in 1969, Playing an Electrified Version of Bach’s “Little Fugue in G”
How the Moog Synthesizer Changed the Sound of Music
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
Actually, “Switched on Bach” was performed by Walter Carlos. Walter did not become Wendy until 1972.
In his heart he knew he was Wendy. Peace bro! Love the recording.
Don’t disagree about the recording. It had more to do with giving me an appreciation for classical music than any up to that time (and long after).
What is amazing; this is a segment from a Sunday morning CBC radio program. Not only is the tone and intent of Gould a masterful attentiveness to the intelligence of the masses. But his erudition a marker of what public radio and media was, and in general could be. Lo and behold where the profit mongers have led us.
Those Sunday mornings were sublime.