Friday, July 11, 2008

The Rigid Swing

Last night at the old watering hole I got a response from my pal, Brian, on the Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder cd I fitted him with a few weeks back. From sitting next to the guy so many nights on the stools I picked up on a songwriter's empiricism--it's not so different than the crossword puzzler's variety actually. As such I pegged him a good fit for Gould--especially as other discussions revealed that, despite a seasoned education in music theory and a life in bands, he didn't have a lot interest in listening to classical music, rightly observing that much of it is boring.

Naturally I found the challenge appealing, seeing that few metaphysical concerns arise which Gould's recording cannot not assuage. Only mildly would I say that last is an overstatement, by which I mean it is a complete lie I believe with spiritual certainty. Not that you asked. That first recording of The Goldberg Variations in particular (1955; A State of Wonder also includes his 1981 recording of the same pieces) is made of such sturdy, confident strokes; in the pianists world, the Odd Couple might well have been a young, fastidious Gould, and a sweat-streaked piano-poking trickster, Thelonious Monk.

But back to Brian. I anticipated him making some incredible connections between Gould and the baser world the rest of us occupy, and he did not disappoint. He remarked that, played back to back with Van Halen's (eh) Fair Warning, Gould held up fine. It wasn't a "Devil Went Down to Georgia" showdown of chops and virtuosity; the guys in the guitar shop where he works, and where this listening took place, just figured there wasn't enough of a seam in the energies of the abutting forces (Gould vs Van Halen) to shift away from either. Brian was pleased that Gould's music produced hooks, just like in pop music. It's kind of a funny way of thinking about it, when you consider the conspicuous air of discipline and exactitude (not that pop music cannot have both as well). He's right, the idiosyncratic qualities of Gould's playing are unmistakable and magnetic.

Kevin Bazzana's excellent biography of Gould, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2005), commences with a litany of peculiar affections the Canadian pianist and producer garnered, the like of many of which might make the reader feel Bazzana had strayed into the life of John Lennon or Jimmy Page. He had groupies and nutjobs professing fear-striking love, the rapt attention of academics, headshrinkers, and fellow artists. His biographies and homages are virtually impossible to count. Once, after a few too many whiskeys I recounted the story of some Russian chess players demanding that Gould's playing chair be dismantled, and searched (while they watched) to prove no secreted devices were piping him in the incredulous answers he revealed. Suddenly I realized I was talking about the late chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Maybe it was that they were both reclusive genius Jews with rabid followings. Maybe it was the whiskey. I like to think it's that what made Gould so mystifying was, and is, the very sort of thing that would madden Russian chess players, maybe thereby elating the rest of us. A kind of laid bare impishness. It is cool and impossible to be that way.

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