Cat Dedications, Al Martino & A Penchant For Radio

cat at radio

I listen to a lot of AM radio and I find that the lower bandwidth creates a more pleasing sound than FM.  I also prefer the sound of long playing records to digital CDs.  It’s the analog versus digital thing, I guess and from what I can tell, I’m not alone.

The analog sound, so full of warmth and roundness, is one that I find particularly useful as a model for tone production at the piano.  That is to say, that when I am practicing, I try to create as golden a tone as possible and boy did those pianists from the early days of recording (Ignacy Paderewski, Alfred Cortot, Moriz Rosenthal and the lovably eccentric Vladimir de Pachmann to name a few) know how to make a beautiful tone!  Piano playing aside, this is a post about another side of radio and the sweet, little Gouldian moment that the AM dial gave me on a cold, snowy winter evening.

About a month ago, I was driving home listening to one of those caller request programs that always seem to be wafting over the airwaves on Friday nights.  You know the scene, you’re alone, listening and picturing those folks “out there” who are busy shopping, clubbing, dining, hanging with friends or, in other words, not listening to the radio, at least not willingly.  But I love solitude and I love these little experiences that only radio can give.  I’ve always found there to be something secure and safe about the airwaves.

So, on this particular evening, a number of people called in for this song, for that song.  One man asked for Bad Timing by Blue Rodeo.  I had heard the song, but didn’t know the title or the artist and so had one of those little radio moments where you say to yourself, “oh, so that’s the song!”  The caller had wanted to connect the song to lost loved ones.

Suddenly, a cheerful female voice called in to the program.  “Yes, hello, I’d like to request Al Martino’s I Love You Because.  It’s for my cat.”  And cue:

Admittedly, I don’t know the life story of Al Martino however, I’m fairly certain that the music of Webern, Gibbons, Bach and Sweelinck were not on his list of future recording projects.  Still, this caller’s request is so very Glenn because it illustrates precisely (and sweetly) the reasons for which Glenn preferred the medium of radio above others.

Now let’s be clear, Glenn detested the McLuhanesque type of “linear” radio (yes, both AM and FM are notorious for this).  Speaking in 1971 with John Jessop about “Radio as Music,” Glenn said that these types of programs came out sounding “‘over to you, now back to our host, and here for the wrap-up is’ – in a word, predictable.”

Glenn loved radio.  As a boy, he would listen to theatrical radio programs of the 1940s, commenting that, “a lot of that kind of ostensibly theatrical radio was also, in a very real sense, documentary making of a rather high order.  At any rate, the distinctions between drama and documentary were quite often, it seemed to me, happily and successfully set aside…I was fascinated with radio theatre because it seemed to me somehow more pure, more abstract, and, in a certain sense, it had a reality for me that, later on, when I became familiar with conventional theatre, that kind of theatre always seemed to lack.”

I know that had Glenn lived beyond the age of fifty, his plan was to ease up on piano playing and devote the bulk of his time and energy into making radio documentaries.  I think why I like the cat dedication story so much, is that it emphasizes the very thing Glenn loved most about electronic technology, the ability it has to create an intimate, direct-to-listener experience.

“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 article, “The Glenn Gould Contrapuntal Radio Show” by Robert Hurwitz, The New York Times, January 5, 1975.)  In other words, through the sheer fact of technology having put space between you (the listener) and the performer/creator, you have, in turn, the opportunity for a very direct and personal listening experience which, for Glenn, was the sort of acoustic environment for which no concert stage could capture.

Back to the cat dedication of I Love You Because.  The story is ever so sweet, of course, because it involves animals and we all know how Glenn adored his four legged friends.  It seems to me that if a person is to dial up a radio show to request and dedicate a song to their cat, they not only love their pet, but also, there is – though perhaps not acknowledged as such – an appreciation for the unique qualities of radio.  The direct-to-listener space that one gets through radio is surely not as easily attained on television.  Dedicating a song to your pet over a cool medium like television is rather silly.  So then, radio – even the linear type programs that were a far cry from Glenn’s densely textured contrapuntal radio documentaries – is still a trusty vehicle for delivering personal and moral listening experiences.  And as Glenn’s best friend, Lorne Tulk (a retired CBC Radio technician) told me, radio is a much simpler medium than television.  You don’t have lighting, sets, camera angles, etc.  It’s just sound.

Glenn worked very hard at being a good person.  It’s something that I’ve touched upon in nearly all of my posts, in particular Glenn and Corduroy and Why Glenn Gould Loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  It also served as the point of departure for 1982 Times Two, a post about Glenn’s humanitarian efforts and his having left his estate to the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society.  Glenn used to say that he got along much better with animals than with humans.  And so it is, that the world famous pianist who, during his historic 1957 Russian tour, sent his dog, Banquo a charming post card – and who would, later on, be criticised for having abandoned the concert stage in favour of working in front of a microphone – could very well have penned, as a letter to his own four legged friend, the lyrics from our radio cat lover:

I love you because you understand, dear
Every single thing I try to do.
You’re always there to lend a helping hand, dear
I love you most of all because you’re you.
No matter what the world may say about me
I know your love will always see me through.
I love you for the way you never doubt me
But most of all I love you ’cause you’re you.
I love you because my heart is lighter
Every time I’m walking by your side.
I love you because the future’s brighter
The door to happiness, you open wide.
No matter what the world may say about me
I know your love will always see me through.
I love you for a hundred thousand reasons
But most of all I love you ’cause you’re you.
(Song by Leon Payne, 1949).
I think that, apart from perhaps Lorne, nobody truly understood Glenn as well as did his animal friends.  In many ways, I Love You Because is a perfect song for Glenn.  Now, look at this next photo and tell me the shoe doesn’t fit.  (P.S. Thank you to The Glenn Gould Foundation for sharing this and other photos of Glenn and kitty.)
To the lady who called in to request a song for her cat, I say thank you for giving me an idea for a blog post.  To the fellow who called in the Blue Rodeo song, thank you for just plain picking a good song!




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.

Harnessing Gouldian Thought in a Distracted Age

Autumn in Ontario

In my first post, I explore ways in which twenty-first century artists might use Glenn Gould as a career role model.  The moral fibre of Glenn’s creative output, his pursuit of solitude as a means for ecstatic experiences and his efforts to remove himself from the centre of a society in order to see it more clearly, serve as the backdrop to this audio essay.

Listen here: