Glenn Gould thought that it is not possible to deliver music in its purest form in a one-time-only concert setting. Moreover, he thought that the heated excitement in a theater distorted the cool nature of musical structures. As a result, he abandoned concert activities altogether after his last concert in 1964 and began to concentrate on outputting music made in the studio via electronic media.
To be precise, it is not completely certain whether Gould was dismissive of concerts from the very beginning. For example, there was the legendary concert of 1957 in which Gould was the first musician from the west to visit the Soviet Union and to shock the audience there by playing Bach as well as contemporary music that had been banned under Stalin. This must have been an unforgettable experience for Gould himself as much as it was for the audience. However, a year after Gould was effectively used to pave the way, American musician Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The uplifted feelings that Gould may have had could have cooled considerably after seeing Cliburn touted as a hero, as if he had just won in the Cold War of music.
The choice Gould took was to avoid the noise of society and retreat into the electric womb to deliver music directly to the listeners through electric media channels. It is a very interesting coincidence that Gould had a close relationship with Marshall McLuhan who was a fellow Canadian and a leading figure in a new wave of media theory. Though, it should be noted that the two differed greatly in their media-theoretical visions.
In the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” that McLuhan coined, individuals internalize what they silently read through printed media or movable type and then expel what they contemplate into the public sphere, as their own subjective messages. This in turn was supposed to lead to deliberation through cross-checking and mutual critiquing.
On the other hand, in his post-Gutenberg era (or electronic age), in which a multimedia net covers over the “global village,” it can be said that he does not depict a modern city, but rather a post-modern return of the premodern village. In this “village,” information including sound and image fly about and cover over the earth and soak all of humanity in a sea of information regardless of private and public spheres.
However, unlike McLuhan’s prediction, the net in the “Post-Gutenberg Galaxy” we live in does not cover a single “global village” but instead has split into a myriad of insular and localized villages (both in terms of geography and interest).
What is recently becoming increasingly problematic is the transformation of these individual villages into “echo chambers.” A current example is the tendency to continuously amplify the loud chatter (tweets) of people such as Donald Trump. Here, each village possesses their own facts or “alternative facts” and truths or “post-truth” ideas. Of course, the expansion and evolution of databases and search engines have created a stockpile of information flow and cross-checking has become possible almost in real-time. Nevertheless, in reality, this has not been very effective and seems to have resulted in a call to further divide the “elitist media” or the “cities” from the “masses” or “villages” who do not trust the former as “fake news.” The spread of populism which has become increasingly rife in the 21st century has only been possible through such transformations in media.
What becomes noteworthy in this light are Gould’s vision and practice that stand opposite to McLuhan’s. For Gould, electronic media allowed him to refine pure music in the solitude of a closed studio room whilst still allowing him to maintain communication with his listeners. Rather, the medium was merely a way for him to further deepen communication. It is good to remember here that McLuhan was Catholic whilst Gould had puritanical tendencies in many ways and Bach who was his most important figure was a Protestant composer (though he did compose for Catholic masses too).
It goes without saying that Gould was first and foremost a musician and so his legacy should be appreciated and listened to purely as music. However, by listening to his music that is infinitely far from populist simplifications and infantilizations that in turn enable heated excitement to occur, we may yield clues to exploring ways of using the multimedia net as “cool media” in the truest sense. This, perhaps is another reason to revisit Gould’s music today.
Translated by Aiko Masubuchi