An Ideal Audience

In a letter dated September 3, 1971, Glenn Gould wrote to a Miss Helen Whitney of NBC News, New York, describing how four hundred studio hours were budgeted for the editing and mixing of his 1977 radio documentary, The Quiet in the Land. Four hundred hours is the equivalent of sixteen days!

In return for this level of detailed craftsmanship (who knows how many more hours were spent interviewing the subjects and formulating the overall concept of the show) Glenn hoped for an equivalent level of attention from his listeners. “According to his colleagues at the CBC,” wrote Matthew McFarlane in an article entitled, Glenn Gould, Jean Le Moyne, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Common Visionaries, published by The Glenn Gould Foundation in their Fall 2002 edition of Glenn Gould Magazine, “Gould thought of his radio documentaries as permanent products that would survive to be replayed and studied long after their initial broadcast; in other words, he apparently conceived them for an ideal audience, not for the usual target audience of a radio broadcast, the one-time listener.”

The care that went into Glenn’s work – both in and out of the studio – suggests that he had for each of his projects, a long-term vision. In the aforementioned letter to Miss Whitney, Glenn laments the “disposability” of television. Glenn had nothing against television as a medium (quite the contrary) but rather, the idea of “instant access” upon which he cast a dim view, having referred to it as an “easy way out.”

As John Peter Lee Roberts and Ghyslaine Guertin write in a footnote to Glenn’s letter: “Long before the video cassette became a commonly used technology, Gould foresaw that video recordings in one form or another would emerge.” Glenn wanted desperately to reach listeners of the future in deep and meaningful ways and, to that end, he framed his approach not around an “easy way out” but rather, the complete opposite. His attention to detail (as witnessed by the four hundred plus hours of studio time devoted to The Quiet in the Land) his devotion to creating permanent, lasting works of art that explore, experiment and trust in the “charity of the machine,” to quote Jean Le Moyne, whose book, Convergence (1966) Glenn owned and admired, serve as beacons of hope for countless creators and consumers. Indeed, drinking Sanka may well have been the closest Glenn ever got to “instant access.”

Yet, instant access could easily be said to account for the popularity and widespread use of many of our online sources of information and entertainment, including how we consume Glenn’s own work. From social media, to online this, that and the other, all of which combine to form a kind of “now this!” society, where every moment something is new, makes for a challenge in the way of knowing how to curate one’s own agenda and those sources rich in meaningful content. Today, instant access is practically everywhere and where it doesn’t exist, we’ve come to expect it and grow impatient by its absence. It reminds me of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). All of this gives one reason to pause and reflect on how we go forward interpreting Glenn’s body of work.

“I’m reasonably certain, for instance,” Glenn goes on to say in the letter to Miss Whitney, “that if I had occasion to work full-time in the magazine field, I’d come to resent the term ‘periodical’ and attempt to contrive something which might deserve to be called a ‘permanent’; in television, accordingly, I’m reluctant to accept the one-shot status of ‘specials’ and I feel that we should endeavour to invent something which can be constantly renewed not only by repeats on T.V. but through video cartridge or whatever. All of this may see [sic] self-evident, but I’ve got to get it off my chest first so that I can proceed to talk about more specialized techniques which simply take this process of ‘permanence’ for granted.”

Likely, Glenn would have loved the fact that his recordings can now be experienced repeatedly, on command as it were. Being able to pull up The Quiet in the Land whenever ones wishes, pausing and playing back parts here and there to uncover the Gouldian themes at work exemplifies Glenn’s trust in using technology “to help create what he could not otherwise achieve,” writes McFarlane “and thereby to transcend the boundaries of reality.”

I wonder about the scope of Glenn’s “ideal audience” today. Judging by the comment threads of many Glenn Gould-related posts, it’s apparent that what interests a lot of people is not the deep understanding of his philosophies, but rather, the details of his personal life. I know that I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of Glenn’s work and I am comforted by the fact that Glenn was an optimist at heart, one who had an innate trust in his listeners. “You are influencing not only many [more] people numerically than you could perhaps in a concert,” he once remarked to fellow pianist, Artur Rubinstein regarding the making of recordings, you are “influencing them forever.”

Glenn did not take lightly the word, forever and I think it’s why certain phrases in his radio documentaries stand out more than others. In The Quiet in the Land, for example, the following phrase comes to mind: “Oh, I think the concept of afterlife is the most exciting concept there is.” In a way, this is Glenn speaking to us from the control booth as it were, for as he once remarked of his radio documentaries: “They are as close to an autobiographical statement as I tend to get.” (In a future blog post, I hope to share some more of the poignant phrases that stood out in my recent listening analysis of The Quiet in the Land.)

It’s difficult to think beyond the now. Perhaps one way to go about it is to separate. Of course, we often think of Glenn separating by going North, by being solitary. Indeed, much has been written about his love for solitude, that “prerequisite for ecstatic experiences,” as he once remarked. The more I think about Glenn’s ideas, however and the more I hear the word solitude battered about in a negative light (especially during our current pandemic), the more it becomes clear to me that not solitude, but innerness is perhaps what best describes where Glenn wanted us to venture. This might even help to make Glenn’s work accessible to those who may have found themselves untapped by the whole solitude thing.

In this, our twenty-first century, amidst a pandemic no less, solitude may well be a difficult sell. If Glenn’s ideas are to evolve as we evolve, then perhaps innerness will become the new Gouldian north, a place where we can reboot our spirits and rethink our modes of hyperpersonal communicaton. Struggle as we might, seeking to find more time for experimentation and a space in which to test ideas “without related production deadlines,” (quoting Roberts and Guertin once more in a footnote to Glenn’s letter) we should not feel doomed, but rather hopeful for, as Matthew McFarlane reminds us, “Gould was always supremely confident in his ideal audience.” That audience is us.

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