Glenn Gould laughing as engineers let him hear how his singing spoiled his recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations after which he offered to wear a gas mask to muffle his songs, at a Columbia recordling studio.
Glenn Gould laughing as engineers let him hear how his singing spoiled his recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations after which he offered to wear a gas mask to muffle his songs, at a Columbia recordling studio. © Getty  /  Gordon Parks

Glenn Gould and radio, a love story like no other

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould set himself apart throughout the world through his legendary concerts and recordings. However, he harboured an even stronger passion for radio and new technology.

It all started with Glenn Gould, his (only) childhood friend Bob Fulford, and a microphone. The two friends wished to communicate with one another remotely, and started using electronic devices. It was love at first sight for the Canadian pianist, increasingly fascinated throughout his career by the latest technologies before finally discovering the perfect medium: radio.

In the 1950s, Gould recorded live for the first time a concert for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Thus began a long love story, so intense that from 1964 onwards, he put an end to his concert career in order to focus exclusively upon his radio and television recordings. His fear of the stage, the audience, the irreparable mistake, undoubtedly contributed to this decision, but it was in particular his attraction to editing, the recording process, the microphone and the machines that ultimately convinced Glenn Gould to stop performing on stage. 

Everything under control

The pianist liked being in control, of his body above all else (he always dressed warmly so as not to catch cold and often took medication at the first sign of the slightest symptom), but also of the music. He always took great care in choosing the piano for a performance and, during recording sessions, would re-record passages with which he was not happy. Gould was capable of recording the same passage twenty times, spending hours with the sound technicians in order to obtain the interpretation he imagined. For Gould, this obsession was not necessarily "cheating" but rather a way for him of attaining perfection.  

The musician did not stop at strictly musical recordings. From the 1960s, he appeared on various television shows as a pianist but also as a guest, a presenter, and even a music specialist. Whenever he performed on stage he would appear in a dozen television and radio shows, surrounded by various musicians. When he finally put an end to his concert career in 1964, he dedicated a vast majority of his time to such television and radio shows, and even began producing documentaries about some of music's greatest figures: Pablo Casals, Yehudi Menuhin, Leopold Stokowski… 

At the time, many criticised Gould's largely inaccessible manner of discussing music. He accepted these criticisms and simplified his content, to the point of even controlling the answers of his guests: he began using a prompter, writing not only the questions but also the answers of those part of the conversation! In his book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, Peter F. Ostwald tells the story of violinist Yehudi Menuhin who decided, when invited by Glenn Gould, to stray completely from the prepared text and answer freely. Somewhat rattled, the pianist tried to return to the scheduled conversation whilst avoiding any verbal conflict, displeased by the lack of control...

From the show to the documentary

Incidents were far more frequent on the television than on the radio. The technical constraint of the image prevented Glenn Gould from fully controlling everything. Thus his preference by far for sound and radio broadcasting, capable of controlling everything from A to Z in his shows, almost becoming an experienced technician himself. One meeting in particular introduced Gould to the world of radio production: Franz Kraemer in the late fifties. Director, he created two documentaries on Glenn Gould, which in turn made the pianist curious to try such an endeavour himself. 

His first large-scale radio experience was called The idea of North, commissioned by the CBC. A documentary exploring loneliness as seen through portraits of northern Canadians. Gould travelled and met four people whom he recorded and interviewed at length. Upon his return, he planned on creating a work comprised of six portraits and a prologue. Deemed too long, the production was to be shortened but the pianist refused that the interviews be cut. He chose therefore to superimpose the voices above the music: thus was born a unique documentary conceived much like a musical work, broadcast in 1967. 

Following this, the Canadian radio suggested that he produce a sequel. Based upon the same principle, he produced The Latecomers, in which he interviews 13 inhabitants of Newfoundland, then The Quiet in the Land, which required hundreds of hours of editing... 

In the 1970s, so passionate about radio was Gould that he decided to set up his own editing studio in his apartment. He spent whole nights (Gould was often awake at night) recording, cutting, and editing various projects for the CBC, until the corporation eventually severed ties with the pianist following conflicts with the technicians. Unsurprisingly, Gould's demanding and perfectionist nature often resulted in tensions in the studio... 

It was Bruno Monsaingeon that got Gould back on the horse, though this time he was back in front of the camera. The French violinist wanted to make a documentary about the Canadian pianist. He met Gould between January and February 1974, an encounter from which was eventually produced a film sharing Gould's views on music, the composers of his time, his relationship with the media etc. But above all else, a film that examined Gould himself, as an artist and as a man.

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