Monday, December 27, 2010

Glenn Gould: Queerly Normal

Glenn Gould was the wizard of my adolescent years.

His playing first blazed into my imagination through a rebroadcast on CBC's "Sunday Arts Entertainment" of his performance from the 60s of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata, which I was then learning, which he played without notes and so crisply, cleanly, and inexorably that I grabbed a VHS tape and got about 2/3rds of the first movement and the rest of the second and third. On the same program, perhaps, or soon after, his performance of Beethoven's Op. 69 Cello and Piano Sonata in A major with Leonard Rose was aired, again with him playing from memory, somewhat involved in theatrics, and playing with a deep passion that seemed to reach beyond the music. This reaching has inspired in me a life-long search for what it was he saw, what any true artist sees, just beyond the edge of our perception, yet firmly grounded in our abilities and capacities as humans.

I don't know at which point Gould crossed the line in my life from a performer to something akin to a soulmate, a personality preserved in film and recording and written and spoken words, which seemed more alive to me than some people who actually were alive.

In his projection of alienation there was intimacy, an intimacy of the kind that I was denied through the social convention that said boys had to date girls and vice-versa that was prevalent when and where I grew up. Gould transcended the need for such relationships by bringing you so close to the center of music that it was like opening a beating heart and seeing a level of reality that was astonishing, ugly yet enticingly beautiful, different from conventional representation, and life-changing in its realization.

The artificiality of his playing was yet honest, deeply probing, and provoking in a way that merely another lovely, let alone a so-called "correct," performance could never have been. Music lived for him and through him in a way that bewitched some, enraged others, and cheered still many more.

The ecstasy of his playing, so clear in even his latest recordings, seems to rise to a new, reaching level just as his star was eclipsing (listen to the Brahms Ballades Op. 10, recorded in February of his last year, 1982, especially the middle section of Op. 10 #3).

And yet his personality was paramount for me.


Perhaps for years I figured that Glenn Gould was gay too. There was little evidence to the contrary, and those who knew him best guarded his privacy like good friends would, denying any such rumors that he was gay. The reality of Gould's relationships came out to the broader public only very recently, in the last few years, and most recently in a recent broadcast of a fairly new documentary about him, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.

I first saw this documentary in a theater a few months ago, and many things were revelatory, such as his relationship with Cornelia Foss, not something that was part of the broadcasts on Sunday Arts Entertainment years ago.

Yet the reality of Gould's sexuality does not detract from his fundamental queerness, or his fundamental normality--he was a man whose eccentricities got the better of some of his relationships, and yet was one who, surprise!, craved human connection despite his growing need for electronic space.

Yet see, nearly 30 years after his death, just how much electronic space has come to define our relationships? This medium of self-publishing random thoughts to random people, the connection to social media that was never even a glint in Glenn's eye during his lifetime, yet would have served his lifestyle well, have become the norm. Electronic space, via computer platforms, social media, Skype and other modern versions of telephony, gives each of our lives a distance and an intimacy that now defines a new, perhaps queer, normality.

Perhaps our whole era has attained a level of eccentricity through all of these new means of communication and social organization that makes each of us queerly normal in relation to those who have gone before.


Another element of Gould's personality was the power of it to bring me through what easily could have been a time of extended despondency in those dark and frustrating teenage years; this seems to be something that he also unwittingly did for many. During my sophomore year of high school, when I was most frightened about people in my class, home, and elsewhere finding out that I was gay, and most frustrated that nobody else seemed to be like me, I listened to Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations nearly every night, it offering me 50 minutes of peace and structure in a life that felt chaotic and uncertain, the Variations beginning, growing, changing, and coming back to home base at the end.

Anyone who knew me in those years would recall my obsession with Gould, which I had hoped at the time might play out into a biography, as there was only one available in those years, Otto Friedeich's "Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations," which, though extensive, still left me wanting to know more. I voraciously ingested every fact, anecdote, or even reference to Glenn Gould that I could get my hands on. The biography never materialized, but others followed, both biographies and more creative works based on Gould and his personality and musical life.

During my senior year of high school, I used the proximity of Christmas and my birthday, as well as my graduation from high school, to wrangle a trip to Toronto in September 1992 as a "student delegate" to the Glenn Gould Conference, one of the most amazing weeks of those years and one of the more memorable weeks of my life. Not only was it my first time all on my own in a city, but it also put me in contact with dozens of people who knew, worked with, studied with, and even were related to Gould.

His assistant, Ray Roberts, was there, along with some of his fellow piano students from the Toronto Conservatory, some musicians with whom he'd made music, and, perhaps most poignantly, his father Herbert, then 90 years old. I will never forget, in particular, the day that we all went to Glenn's grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. I had the opportunity there to pay my respects to Mr. Gould, and he graciously accepted my condolences on the death of his son 10 years earlier.

Later that year, I submitted a series of questions to Mr. Gould through Ray Roberts & Glenn Gould's lawyer, Stephen Posen, which related to Gould's childhood and experience in school. I've never shared these answers with anyone, not out of a sense of privacy, but because I never thought they would particularly interest anyone. If they might interest you, please let me know.


I don't know if Glenn Gould was conservative or liberal when it came to sexuality. One story related by one of his friends remembers some random stranger showing him porn in a restaurant once, and Glenn being quite undone by the experience. Who knows. I can imagine that his confidants, who denied that he was gay long before this recent documentary came out, might not want him to be labeled "queer," even though, in a very extended way, he was.

But at the same time, he was not quite in the same way "normal" as society still somewhat expects people to be. He could not become legal brothers with a close co-worker and collaborator. Yet why not, but for social convention not reaching that point of realizing that we're all cousins at some distant point in the past, and if cousins, why not brothers and sisters?

Perhaps "queerly normal" goes as far towards describing Glenn Gould as can be done. He didn't have to be eccentric, or distant, or isolated, or ecstatic to be who he was, yet all of those things contributed to who he was and became even as his problems with things that he did not want to state were problems grew in his last decade. Some have said, notably the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, that if he had married like most people do, and taken some of the energy he put into music and thought into a family, he might have lived longer. Who's to say?

I'm still turned on by Gould's playing, by the personality that made it what it was, which still in its strange way makes for a feeling of home.