Beside Himself: Glenn Gould and the Prospects of Performance

Beside Himself: Glenn Gould and the Prospects of Performance

Steven Connor

What follows is the text of a talk broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 4 November 1999 as part of an evening exploring the life and work of Glenn Gould. It was produced by Tim Dee.

Amid the clinker of this century of technology, a century in which we have all of us learned to live beside ourselves, through photographs, homepages, video, telephone and recorded sound, we may also glimpse the fact that this has also been emphatically the century of performance. It is as though the facility with which we can create facsimile existences fuels an intense longing for the flaring up of here-and-now being that is embodied in what we have got into the habit of calling live performance: a brittle tautology which implies that most of the time, most of us are somehow not quite alive enough. Performance is the hot antidote to the chill delirium of the information age.

Since the early nineteenth century, the cult of the performer (Liszt, Pagannini) has taken the place of the adoration of the artist, as the image of the maker of his own soul. Our fascination with the lives of artists shows clearly enough that we expect our artists not only to come up with works of art, but more importantly to perform the exemplary act of being an artist. In this sense, maybe all art since the early nineteenth century has been a kind of performance art. In the work of Jackson Pollock, the originator of what came to be called action painting, the performance of the act of painting was the whole point of the exercise, and the resulting canvases valuable principally for the traces they preserved of the pouring out of art into enactment. Nowadays, no artist or performer, no matter how they may fear or disdain public appearance, can wholly escape this demand, not least because of the powerful counter-myth of the reclusive genius that is bundled up with it. Glenn Gould inhabited both these extremes of public performance and highly-publicised solitude.

The association of genius and madness is an ancient one, from Plato and Shakespeare onwards, as is the association of performance and evil in the figure of the demonic virtuoso. But a distinctively modern feature of the idea of performing genius is the expectation that it will be accompanied by physical or mental deficiency. We relish the contrast between the defective, addicted or decaying body and the perfecting of the work that is accomplished through it: in the self-mutilating madness of Van Gogh, the epic drunkenness of Dylan Thomas, the performative self-lacerations of Antonin Artaud. This tradition of athleticism in infirmity is knowingly summed up, and sent up too, in the deaf-dumb-and-blind kid of Pete Townsend’s Tommy.

Glenn Gould was the very epitome of the maimed, eccentric genius. His posture and manner were extraordinary. Seated on a specially-constructed low wicker chair, with his piano raised up on wooden blocks, so that the keyboard was almost level with his chest and his wrists could be kept absolutely flat, it was as though the infant prodigy did not dare let himself grow any taller. As he played, he would croon and hum and click along with the music; he would sway and lurch over the keys; one leg might be crossed over the other in incongruous languor. He was morbidly sensitive to cold, and would plunge his hands into scalding water to prepare for a performance. He was irreligious but deeply superstitious, sometimes having to write out a cheque four or five times before he felt happy with the result. He was an expert hypochondriac, who was deeply uneasy in particular about being touched, and once initiated a $300,000 lawsuit against somebody who had clapped his hand on his shoulder too vigorously. His fear of flying prevented him travelling by plane, though as a car-driver he skidded and slithered recklessly over the snowy roads of his native Canada. He was addicted to Valium for most of his life and might have been called anorexic had he not been so plain forgetful about the tedious business of eating.

Everybody who saw and admired Gould insisted that what mattered most was not his extravagant tics and twitches, but the music itself and, of course, in a sense, they were, and are, right. But at this distance, we might be able to see that what really mattered, more than anything, was the definitive (yet somehow always inconclusive) acting out of the fact that what mattered most of all was the music. The word performance, after all means both action and the simulation of action. Perhaps, indeed, Gould, who was a lover of role-play and imposture, was himself playing out this tradition of performance, acting it out, in order to see it off.

The irrelevance of his performance was essential, just as it is essential to the victim of possession or religious ecstasy, whose bodily transformations are designed to give material evidence of the immateriality of the body succumbing to the power of spirit. For, if we have come to expect our performers to be geniuses, then we don’t want them to be fully in charge of the process. We want them to be the vehicles of a higher, more impersonal power than their own. We would prefer them, when most themselves, in performance, to be beside themselves, and not quite in their right minds. There is a curious tangle here of traditional notions of male self-possession and female susceptibility.

Performers are there to prove that surrendered, spontaneously-combustible being is possible. Glenn Gould belongs after all to the age of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. What we want from our performers is dependable abandon. But if they live long and watchfully enough, performers discover that unruliness has become an absolute injunction, an inflexible routine. Not surprisingly, performers burn to escape the demand to burst into flames before our eyes. The demonically possessed performer is a highly-desirable commodity. In our era, performance has become overlaid with all the different senses of possession. As Beineix’s film Diva dramatises clearly enough, the uncapturable intensity of performance propagates the ache to own the life, or in this case the voice, of the performer.

Gould began as a Romantic, expressive performer, but seems to have wanted to reconstruct himself in terms of a cooler aesthetic of distance and disaggregation. The principle that governs Glenn Gould’s work, both as performer and as sound artist, is not that of expression, the surging up of feeling from the inside to the outside, but rather that of composition, understood in its etymological sense, as the setting of things alongside each other. This became Gould’s preferred way of being beside himself. When they listened rather than looked, audiences were struck most of all not so much by the expressiveness of Gould’s playing, as by its clarity and precision, and his astonishing ability to maintain the autonomy of separate contrapuntal lines. If his playing had passion, it was a structural and not expressive passion. It is not for nothing that he remains identified with the Bach of the Goldberg Variations, rather than with the Beethoven or Brahms that he also loved. The dread of the blurring, smearing or unwilled admixture of things expressed itself in his intense hypochondria:

[Deathridge 14.24 – 16.03]

According to Melanie Klein, the fear of ambivalence, the copresence of conflicting feelings and values, manifests itself in a tendency to split apart the absolutely good from the irredeemably bad, which in extreme cases leads to a fierce intolerance of any and every form of linkage or connection. Glenn Gould’s life seems to have been governed by such a drive to take or keep things apart. It even manifested itself in the kind of self-division he enacted when playing certain music, like that of Mozart, which he disliked, or wished to travesty. Interfering with the tempo of a piece of music was Gould’s preferred way of tampering with it while leaving it completely intact. A similar self-division is perhaps to be seen in Gould’s attempts to distance himself from his own competitiveness. It is as though Gould were taking some complex revenge on the act of performance itself. Recording himself, selecting, modifying, remixing, enhancing, he reversed the order of precedence of composition and performance. Where performance usually falls short of and follows in the wake of composition, Gould made composition something that occurred subsequent to performance.

But Gould’s liking for clean separations manifested itself in paradoxical ways. He preferred to learn new pieces with radios blaring loudly around him. When preparing Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, he had to unlearn all the other parts which repeated listening had imprinted in his mind, before he could play the piano part. The man who would allegedly slam down the phone if the person at the other end sneezed, enjoyed crowded restaurants because they allowed him to exercise his talent for tuning in to several different conversations at once. The effort of overcoming ambient noise seemed to stimulate his extraordinary powers of parallel processing. Like Nicholas Roeg’s Man Who Fell To Earth, Gould seems to have been possessed of that new, distinctively modern thing, a multitrack consciousness.

The most extraordinary performative gesture of Gould’s life was his withdrawal from performance. He retreated from the demand to be himself, retreated from the too-importunate demands of his own extraordinary presence. And yet, in the end, Gould’s turn to recording involved not so much a gloved quarantine from human contact, so much as a heightening of touch into the special kind of manipulation, the touching and retouching (we might nowadays want to call it hypertouching), that still clings to the arts of editing – if only in the ghostly fingering attested to in the word `digital’. Although Gould’s life overlapped with the beginning of digital technology, much of the last ten years of his life was spent with the kind of hands-on cutting and splicing that the analogue editing of tape still involved until very recently. Gould, always obsessively concerned with the condition of his hands, was able to lay hands on himself in recreating himself as a recording and recorded phenomenon. In recording, he was able to scissor and stitch the bundle of tics and idiosyncrasies, actual and imaginary ailments, that was his own physical being, into a new kind of body, a cooler version of the perfected body dreamed of by certain religious ecstatics; uploading himself into technological well-being. On the one hand, this is a retreat from performance. On the other, it effects a reparation for its own assault on performance.

In this, Gould anticipated the new style of virtual performance that has extended everywhere in modern music-making and modern culture. Kids who formerly longed for the incandescence of life on stage now aspire to the bedroom celebrity they can gain from the arts of sampling, mixing and remixing. In fact, it looks as though Gould may have been wrong to anticipate the demise of performance in favour of recording; for what characterises our era seems to be the intermingling of performance and recording, in phenomena like turntabling, DJing, and the ever more complex participations effected between live and recorded sound in performance. Just as the scene of performance is no longer the stage but the studio, so we want to see the act of composition on the stage; this then produces its own defections, as when a composer-performer like John Wall performs his elaborate electronic collages in complete darkness.

As a performer, Gould was already dissatisfied with the demand to catch fire in the here and now that performance exemplifies. Throughout his life, he hungered obscurely for omnipresence. As a performer, he had the remarkable habit of conducting one hand with the other: editing enabled him to actualise this self-multiplication, as when in 1982, he recorded Beethoven’s Second Concerto with a stand-in pianist, so that he could conduct the orchestra, and supply his own piano part later. Performance means the demand to be there; composition allows one to be everywhere. The effect of rerecording his signature work, the Goldberg Variations at the end of his life, was not to delete the earlier version, but rather to draw the two performances together in a single loop. It was his attempt to evade what he called the interdiction on `taketwoness’. Gould does not distil himself into the hard, gemlike flame of a unique performance, snatched from transience: but rather assembles or composes himself in the complex adjacency of the two performances. His variations on the Variations (his Gouldberg Variations, to borrow his own joke), allowed him to keep his candle burning at both ends.