Glenn Gould: Pilot of the Airwaves

Up until May 7 of this year, I had never heard of the song, Pilot of the Airwaves. Released in 1979 by the English singer-songwriter, Charlie Dore, I heard it for the first time as part of a radio countdown of the top twenty hits from that day in Toronto, May 7, 1980.

Hearing together the words, “Toronto” and “1980” I naturally thought of Glenn Gould who, despite his many road trips north, remained a lifelong resident of the city. Pondering Glenn’s 1981 re-release of the Goldberg Variations and other timely projects, it occurred to me that if the song had been one of the top twenty hits, then it’s possible Glenn himself heard it on his car radio while driving home late at night from a recording session at the CBC and, that perhaps he might even have been delighted by the title.

Pilot of the Airwaves is a song about radio, a medium which, dare I say, might even have been closer to Glenn’s heart than his own instrument, the piano. What attracted Glenn to radio, a medium he once referred to as a sort of “electronic wallpaper,” was the fact that it allowed for distancing between himself (i.e. the artist) and the listener. This sheltering of the listener sitting at home or in the car rather than en masse in a concert hall, held for Glenn, great moral value:

“Technology is a distance,” he said, “something that places itself between the audience and the point of origin – the artist, the work, or both.  That placement is not only moral in a biological sense, but it also affects the final product by the fact that, if properly handled, it can change and improve it, and introduce new elements that otherwise might not be introduced.” (From “The Glenn Gould Contrapuntal Radio Show,” by Robert Hurwitz, published in The New York Times, January 5, 1975.)

Radio documentaries produced by Glenn bear almost no resemblance to the standard fare compilations of hit songs such as the kind I heard on May 7, the kind that are interspersed with the phrase, “and now back to you” for news, weather, sports and traffic, etc. Glenn termed such radio programming as “linear” and preferred creating programs based on musical structures and contrapuntal techniques. The element of filmmaking also combines in his work, Glenn having remarked in an unreleased video documentary from 1975 entitled, Radio as Music, that “There is a strong visual component in radio.” (Click here to read transcript)

The question of whether or not Pilot of the Airwaves hung as “electronic wallpaper” in Glenn’s own isolated surroundings remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there does exist in the song, an acknowledgement of that fundamental quality unique to radio, that being the idea of the disembodied voice. In Pilot of the Airwaves and, similarly for Glenn only on a much deeper level, radio provides, by way of its distancing, a disembodied friend.

And…if this pop song lyric isn’t Gould-friendly, then I don’t know what is:

I’ve been listening to your show on the radio,
And you seem like a friend to me.

A Bach fugue or a set of variations by Webern Pilot of the Airwaves is not and yet, in its own way, this compact, catchy little tune speaks to some of Glenn’s most cherished beliefs. With that, I say to Glenn, “I’ve been listening to your work through the airwaves, and you seem like a friend to me.”

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