Sunday, 4 May 2008

In which I quite sensibly leave the words to someone more intelligent than myself.

From Chapter 1 of The World, The Text and The Critic by Edward Said:

Since he deserted the concert stage during the 60's the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has confined his work to records, television, and radio. There is some disagreement amongst critics as to whether Gould is always, or only sometimes, a convincing interpreter of one or another piano piece, but there is scarcely a doubt that each of his performances now is at least special. One example of how Gould has been operating recently seems rather suited for discussion here. A few years back, Gould issued a record of his performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the Liszt piano transcription. Quite aside from the surprise one felt because the piece was so eccentric a choice even for the arch-eccentric Gould, who had always been associated with classical music, there were a number of other oddities about this particular release. The piece was not only of the nineteenth century, but of its most discredited aspect, pianistically speaking: the aspect that did not content itself with transforming the concert experience into a feast for the virtuoso's self-exhibition, but also raided the literature of other instruments, making of their music a flamboyant occasion for the pianist's skill. Most transcriptions tend on the whole to sound thick or muddy, since frequently the piano is attempting to copy the texture of an orchestral or organ sound. Liszt's Fifth Symphony was less offensive than most transcriptions, mainly because it was brilliantly reduced for the piano, but even at its most clear the sound was an unusual one for Gould to be producing. His sound previously had been the clearest and most unadorned of all pianists', which was why he had the uncanny ability to turn Bach's counterpoint into almost a visual experience. The Liszt transcription, in short, was an entirely different idiom, yet Gould was very successful in it. He sounded as Lisztian now as he had sounded Bachian in the past.
Nor was this all. Accompanying the main disc was another one, a longish, informal interview between Gould, and as I recall, a record company executive. During the interview Gould told his interlocutor that one reason for his escape from "live" performance was the development of a bad habit in his pianism. On his tours of the Soviet Union, for example, he would notice that the large halls in which he was performing caused him perforce to distort the phrases in a Bach Partita-here he demonstrated by playing the distorted phrases-so that he could more effectively
"catch" and address his listeners in the eighth balcony. He then played the same phrases to illustrate how much more correctly, and less seductively, he was performing music, now that there was no audience actually present.
It may seem a little heavy-handed to draw out some of the little ironies from this situation-transcription, interview, and illustrated performance styles all included. But it serves my main point about Gould and the Fifth Symphony: that any occasion involving the aesthetic document or experience on the one hand, and the critic's role and his "worldliness" on the other, cannot be a simple one. Indeed Gould's strategy is something of a parody of all the directions we might take in trying to get at what occurs between the world and the aesthetic object. Here was a pianist who had once represented the ascetic performer in the service of the music, transformed now into unashamed virtuoso, whose principal aesthetic position is supposed to be little better than that of a musical whore. And this from a man who leaves the rectial stage for having caused him to solicit his audience's attention by altering his playing; and this from a man who markets his record as a "first" and then adds to it, not more music, but the kind of attention-getting, and immediacy, gained in a personal interview. And finally all this fixed on a mechanically repeatable object, which controlled the most obvious signs of immediacy (Gould's voice, the peacock-like style of the Liszt transcription, the brash informality of an interview packed along with a disembodied performance) beneath, or inside (or was it outside?) a dumb, anonymous, and disposable disc of black plastic.
If one thinks about Gould and his record, parallels will emerge out of the circumstances of written performance. First of all, there is the reproducible material existence of a text. Both a recording and a printed object are subject to similar legal, political, economic and social constraints, so far as their sustained production and distribution are concerned; why and how they are distributed are different matters, and those need not occupy us here. The main thing is that a written text of the sort we care about is originally the result of some immediate contact between author and medium. Thereafter it can be reproduced for the benefit of the world; however much the author demurs at the publicity he receives, once he lets the text go into more than one copy his work is in the world. Second, a written and musical performance are both instances on some level at least of style, in the simplest and least honorific sense of that very complex phenomenon. Once again I must arbitrarily exclude all the more interesting complexities that go into making up the very question of style, in order to insist on style as, from the standpoint of producer and receiver, the recognizeable, repeatable, preservable sign of an author who reckons with an audience. Even if the audience is as restricted as his self and as wide as the whole world, the author's style is partially a phenomenon of repetition and reception. But what makes style receivable as the signature of its author's manner is a collection of features variously called idiolect, voice, or more firmly, irreducible individuality. The paradox is that something as impersonal as a text, or a record, can nevertheless deliver an imprint or a trace of something as lively, immediate and transitory as a "voice." Glenn Gould's interview simply makes brutally explicit the frequent need for recognition that a text carries even in its most pristine, enshrined form; a text needs to show how it bears a personality, for which a common analogy is a talking voice addressing someone. Considered as I have been considering it, style neutralizes, if it does not cancel, the worldlessness, the silent, seemingly uncircumstanced existence of a solitary text. It is not only that any text, if it is not immediately destroyed, is a network of often colliding forces, but also that a text in its being a text is a being in the world; it addresses anyone who reads as Gould does throughout the very same record that is supposed to represent both his withdrawal from the world and his "new" silent style of playing without a live audience.

mp3: Glenn Gould - Symphony No 5 C Minor, op 67 - Allegro con brio
(from Glenn Gould, Vol 30 - Beethoven - Symphony No 5 (trans Liszt))

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