Glenn and Corduroy

Corduroy

The funny thing about being profoundly influenced by someone you’ve never met, is that whether you realize it or not, they’re almost always on your mind.  Just when I think I’ve parcelled away my Gouldian ideas for the night – ideas about voicing in the music of Bach, or about the similarities between Art of Fugue and Walden  a seemingly unrelated yet strikingly appropriate connection comes to mind.

One such moment happened when, after opening the drawer to my nightstand, I found the cover of one of my favourite story books, Corduroy by Don Freeman.  I am comforted by the sweet and innocent cover of this 1968 classic, it’s no wonder I keep it where I can see it before bedtime instead of hidden away on the top shelf of my bookcase.

While I’ve no way of knowing whether or not Glenn ever read Corduroy, I’ve a hunch that he’d have found in it, a simple depiction of some of his deepest values.  If you aren’t familiar with Corduroy, then I highly recommend checking out a copy from your local library (you’ll find it under “X FREE” in the Junior Paperback Picture Book section).

Corduroy is the story of a wee stuffed bear, living amongst fancier toys in a department store.  While out shopping with her mother one day, a young girl named Lisa, passes by and walks up to the bear.  Longingly, she looks at Corduory and pleads with her mother that this is the bear she has always wanted.  Lisa’s practical mother has no time for the bear, remarking that they’ve already spent a great deal of money and furthermore, the bear has lost a button to one of his shoulder straps.  Exit mother and daughter.

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Thinking that if he could only find a button for his overalls then the pleasant little girl would come back for him, Corduroy sets out in search of a button.  After store hours, when all is quiet and the lights are off, Corduroy travels from department to department, up and down the escalator where, after seeing a mattress button, attempts to pull it off only to have an accident in which he knocks over a lamp.

The adventure ends when, after hiding under the comforter of one of the beds, the night watchman shines his flashlight on two little ears poking out from under the covers.  Dutifully, the watchman carries Corduroy back to the toy department and places him next to the other, mainstream stuffed animals.  Poor Corduroy, his plan to find the missing button in the hopes that he would no longer be neglected, had failed.  He would forever remain shabby and therefore unloved.  Or so he thought…

Having emptied her piggy bank, Lisa returned to the store the next morning to buy the bear.  Refusing a gift box, she carried the buttonless little friend in her arms back home, where she gave him a new home and a button, too.  “I like you the way you are,” she said.

On the one hand, this is a story about the simple life, about helping others and being a good and generous person.  These notions are very Glenn, however, what I want to point out is the way this story relates to Glenn’s penchant for turning to neglected creatures and things, as if opening the door for many little ecstatic experiences and meaningful communication.

Glenn’s choice of repertoire, for example, favoured the works of neglected composers such as Orlando Gibbons, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg.  As for the music of J. S. Bach, let’s be clear that it was not crowd-pleasing works such as the Italian Concerto or the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue which Glenn admired, but rather, the composer’s thorny, old-fashioned and unconventional final work, Art of Fugue.

Let us not forget how as a boy, Glenn would bring home every stray pet in the neighbourhood, including a skunk.  Glenn’s obsession with solitude and neglected northern landscapes and remote highways, is not unlike Corduroy and his trip through the abandoned department store.  We might even go so far as to say that Glenn’s preference for polyphonic music symbolized a desire to give all voices equal attention, to undo them from the neglect that results from homophonic textures and their dominant solo part or melody.

This aspect of Glenn having given his attention to the neglected, can also be seen in the spirit of his compassion for those less fortunate than himself.  That is to say that he left his entire estate to two charities, the Toronto Humane Society and the Salvation Army. Since Glenn’s death, many neglected people and animals have benefitted from his generous spirit.

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As intellectually stimulating as Glenn’s recordings, radio documentaries and philosophical writings are, his human side – made evident by these seemingly random, unmusical connections to things like children’s storybooks and 1970’s television shows (see blog post #2 “Why Glenn Gould Loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) – is an aspect that we might do well to contemplate.  Whether your artistic role model is Glenn Gould, Pablo Picasso or Tina Turner, look for the unexpected connections that bring these people close to us.  All of the great minds that have come and gone have much to tell us in their own unique and unconventional ways.  Like a finely tuned radio (I know, another Glenn reference) we ought from time to time, to tune into the human frequency, adjusting our receivers accordingly and picking up some truly meaningful connections.

 

 

 

Taking Care of Glenn’s Chair

Glenn's Other Chair

One of my dear friends is Lorne Tulk.  A distinguished CBC Radio technician, Lorne was also a close friend of Glenn Gould, the two having worked together on many recordings and radio documentaries.  Lorne is a soft-spoken and deeply compassionate individual who honours with great care and thoughtfulness, the national treasure that was Glenn.

In almost all of our email correspondences and visits, Glenn’s name comes up and it is as though he never left.  We talk about a game Glenn liked to play, we play a few rounds, Lorne shares anecdotes from the past, we play some more and then have a good laugh.  In our conversations, it is never “Gould” and always “Glenn.”

Though artists of my generation have come to know Glenn posthumously, I have always felt a closeness to this deeply moral and brilliant musical thinker.  Every note I play at the piano, every word I write, every new idea that I have is usually, in some way or another, influenced by him.  To do things differently and in a meaningful way that is full of goodness – this is what I have learned from Glenn.

By no means have I heard every one of his recordings, nor have I read the many books (eighty-five is it?) about Glenn.  Rather, I find Glenn in the notes of Bach, in the writings of Thoreau, Mann, Innis and McLuhan, in episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in solitude, animals and of course, with Lorne.

Lorne & Penny

When it came time to prepare my opening remarks for “Glenn Gould 905”, a Canada 150 event that I coordinated a few months ago for The Chamber Music Society of Mississauga, I asked Lorne for permission to borrow a very special object that was given to him by Glenn.  The chair that creaks and sways in Glenn’s recordings is well known to listeners around the world.  This chair currently resides in Ottawa.  There were in fact, two chairs.  As it was told to me by Lorne, here is the real story behind Glenn’s chairs.

When Glenn was relatively young, he came to the conclusion that he wanted a lower chair for playing the piano.  Now, quite often, his parents had guests over to play cards and so they had a specific Card Table Set.  Glenn liked these chairs and decided to take one.  Likely, it was in his father, Bert’s workshop where Glenn proceeded to saw off the bottom of one of the legs of the chair.  Having happened to pass by, Bert could see what his son was up to and with great care and understanding, helped his son by cutting the rest of the legs.  Glenn was thrilled with what they’d achieved and, from that time on, took his famous “Good Luck” charm with him always, whenever and wherever he played, including at home.

Needless to say, after many years, many miles and many performances, Glenn came to the realization that this beloved “member of the family” could not continue taking a beating.  Glenn mentioned the concern to his father who proceeded to have another chair built to the exact, same specifications.  For several years, Glenn insisted on carrying around with him both chairs.  Eventually, he decided to keep the second chair for use at his apartment.  I should add that when I picked up the chair from Lorne, it was still in Glenn’s very same carrying case…a green garbage bag!

Glenn's chair

Having had Glenn’s chair at home with me for those two weeks in September was a rare and unexpected privilege.  The nicks on the wood, the adjustable black rubber stops on the ends of the legs, the missing black button in the upper left hand corner of the backrest and finally, the “Do Not Remove” tag at the bottom of the chair…Each of these traits launches a thousand thoughts, and I would be hard pressed to find any experience that can top having sat on Glenn’s chair while practicing Bach, just fourteen inches from the ground, in my home, alone, just me.  Solitude was, after all, the primary ingredient in all of Glenn’s work.