Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is just that, views of the Canadian pianist. He was one of music's few complete originals, a keyboard player of unquestionable genius and profoundly sensitive and insightful as a musician and creative thinker. He was also beyond any doubt an insecure, obsessive-compulsive neurotic of the first water. But this last was merely a fact of nature, rather than some defect, for the only person who could be said to have been injured by his manias was the man himself, and for all we know his death from a stroke at age 50 was simply his personal hourglass running out.
Gould was (and is) certainly far better known from his many recordings than from memories of live concerts. (He played here in 1959, a recital I attended and was impressed by in both positive and negative ways). In 1964 he gave up public performance forever, devoting the remainder of his days to recording sessions, regular radio and rare television broadcasts, living a reclusive life in northern Ontario, chattering away endlessly on the phone at all hours, and from any ordinary point of view being quite eccentric.
The film runs an hour and a half, but as I was unable to read the credits at the end, I can't tell you who had a hand in it, other than recognizing such famous musicians as Yehudi Menuhin. A first-rate actor played Gould and spoke lines from Gould's many writings. Visually, the film is fairly painful to watch (I saw a bad video dubbing), though there are some wonderfully touching and lyrical moments, above all in scenes showing Gould listening to music and conducting in gestures the Gould-actor conveyed with extraordinary grace and fluidity. This looked quite like Gould himself, who always directed with whichever hand was free when he played. The film is nevertheless beautiful and delicate, and well worth seeing. As you might expect, the musical soundtrack is with one exception (Wagner's Tristan overture) Gould's piano recordings of various composers or Gould the composer (his String Quartet, Op. 1).
Glenn Gould's first and last recordings were of Bach's Goldberg Variations, I think the only pianist ever to make really great musical sense on the piano of this definitive harpsichord work -- not once, but twice, for the two performances are very different from one another. To know what the film is actually about, I think one should hear, if not own, both discs. No one would remember Gould now, were it not for his fabulous and unique musical gifts.
The film follows the chronolgy of the pianist's life. He grew up in a protected atmosphere, being taught to play by his mother, and soon manifesting his most unusual musical talent, his great wit, his wide-ranging intellect, and his even more unusual personal quirks. The series of vignettes shields us from nothing, I would say, about the man's strange personality or about any number of completely idiotic interviewers he had to put up with. After retiring from concerts at age 32, his total self-absorption, intense hypochondria and incredible consumption of powerful medicines worked their way slowly to the foreground of his in some ways tragic story.
But there is a kind of cosmic permanence to the story of Glenn Gould, too, for the Voyager I and II spacecraft carried his recording of the first Prelude of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier out of our solar system in 1987 and 1989, respectively, as part of a small collection of documents attesting that there has been intelligent life on planet Earth. He was that, certainly.
Isthmus, July, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson