Social Distancing & Glenn Gould

Much as I turn to the work of Glenn Gould for wisdom and guidance, the reality is that the crisis of the current global pandemic (COVID-19) is something with which he was unfamiliar. Rising death tolls, closed borders, states of emergency, empty store shelves, plunging stock markets, lost jobs and recommendations from public health officials on how to self-isolate and practice social distancing in an effort to “flatten the curve” have become the new norm. People now work from home as much as possible and internet service providers have even waived extra usage fees for residential customers. It’s all part of a plight to contain people within their homes, in order that we might get under control, the spread of a deadly virus.

Amidst all of this change, I keep thinking of Glenn and finding little connections between how he lived and how we are adapting to present conditions. Admittedly, like Glenn, musicians today have had to give up performing in public, albeit for very different reasons. Whereas musicians today have been forced out of performing in public in order to prevent the spread of disease, Glenn chose to do so in that he might have a more direct and intimate connection with his listeners.

Given the vast amount of casual, online performances given by musicians in their living rooms (lately, my daily Facebook feed has been full of them) I think what is more obvious is not so much that, regardless of one’s artistic voice we all depend upon technology to distribute our work, but rather, that most musicians are simply a lot more social than was Glenn. This is why it’s called social media.

For many of these people, performing – even if only online – is as much about the social connection as it is about the music. For Glenn however, it was entirely about the music and it’s preposterous to think that, were he alive today he would be propping up his cell phone at the side of his piano, in order that he might video record and share with the world a few minute’s worth of his playing from the comforts of home and in his stocking feet.

At the end of the day, I think that in order for a person to want to share this type of performance, one has to be quite social, a person who thrives on social interactions with others and Glenn just was not that type of person. Glenn enjoyed his own company and, for those of us in the same boat, the forced social distancing imposed by government officials essentially requires little sacrifice from the lifestyles to which we are already accustomed.

This brings us back to self-isolation and social distancing. For a hypochondriac like Glenn, the fear of getting sick, even at the best of times was a concern. We practice social distancing by calling friends and family rather than visiting them in person. For Glenn, this could only have amplified an already alarming notion, the idea that just talking to a friend on the telephone when that friend has even just a cold, was enough to send him reeling and needing to quickly hang up.

As Kevin Bazzana wrote in Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, Glenn’s fear of getting sick never went away. “In fact, his hypochondria only worsened with age, and he never stopped imagining that his body was perennially under siege and claiming medical problems for which the evidence was questionable.”

Even from childhood, Glenn feared germs. “He feared germs in tap water,” writes Bazzana, “in groups of people, in hospitals – even when greatly concerned about a sick friend he could not bring himself to visit a hospital and would instead keep in contact by phone. He had cans of Lysol disinfectant spray around his apartment and packed disinfectants whenever he travelled. He avoided the company of anyone who seemed the slightest bit ill; he would not even enter a room or car or elevator a sick person had recently occupied.”

Glenn’s own voluntary social distancing, though not required at the time, bears a striking resemblance to the lifestyles we are currently being forced to embrace. That being said, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation shared a story earlier this week about nursing homes and the elderly people who, due to the susceptibility of their being at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, have not been permitted to have any in-person contact with loved ones, it reminded me of how, when Glenn’s beloved mother, Florence Gould was in the hospital. Bazzana writes that Glenn’s grief “was exacerbated by guilt, for despite his fear and concern after his mother suffered her stroke he could not, as he told [Lorne] Tulk, overcome his anxiety and visit her in the hospital, a failure that haunted him.”

How dear it would have been, if Glenn could have visited with his mother from behind a window and seated next to a hand sanitizer, in the same manner that families today are connecting with loved ones at retirement homes.

From CBC News, March 17, 2020: Caption reads “Dykeland Lodge in Windsor, N.S., has set up a meeting window where its residents can meet with family members without being exposed to COVID-19. (Submitted by Krista Beeler)”
From CBC News, March 17, 2020: Caption reads “Dykeland Lodge in Windsor, N.S., has set up a meeting window where its residents can meet with family members without being exposed to COVID-19. (Submitted by Krista Beeler)”

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, social distancing means “keeping a distance of at least 2 arms lengths (approximately 2 metres) from others, as much as possible.” Listening to Glenn’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach, one immediately notices a deliberate spaciousness of tempo in the pianist’s late years and, given the fears of a global pandemic, I cannot help thinking that the notes themselves – nearly a minute longer than in the 1955 recording – have partnered in a musical manifestation of social distancing. While listening in this way does nothing to curb the spread of the virus, it does bring me comfort in knowing that we are all in this together, that our actions make a difference and most of all, that art has the power to take us, if only by our thoughts and imagination, beyond this point in time to a place of deep comfort and security.

Glenn Gould performs the Aria from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1955).
Glenn Gould performs the Aria from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981).

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.