Glenn Gould’s 3-D House of Pancakes

Phil Ford

OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve been kind of phoning it in on the blog for the last little bit. It’s lame to blog about how you’re too busy to blog (something I’ve called “the Teachout method”), but you get to do it once a year, I reckon, so I’m doing it now. You might have noticed that the number of “cool” postings has increased in proportion to “hot” ones, which basically means, more posting to other people’s funny/smart/imaginative doings and more posting of Youtube clips.

This isn’t going to change anytime soon. I’ve still got a lot of stuff to do before the semester ends, and all discretionary brain power (i.e., whatever’s left over after teaching) is being used to write about angry hippies with guns.

Another sure-fire way to get hits ‘n’ links without trying very hard is to write something — anything — about Glenn Gould. So here we go. The other day in my sound and performance studies seminar I talked a little about Gould’s approach to recording. Gould thought of a recording as a crafted audio composition in itself rather than a transparent rendering of a performance — or, in Thedore Gracyk’s terms, it is an autographic artwork. Gracyk’s excellent book Rhythm and Noise rejects what he calls realism in favor of a notion in which a recording — rock recordings especially, though hiphop does it too — tiles together sounds assembled in the recording studio to create virtual performances, which is to say, performances that never existed in real time or a real place.

Anyway, the culture of classical music almost never challenges the realist ideal of recording. Even after 4+ decades of rock musicians and their audiences taking studio-based composition for granted, classical heads still get in arguments over the morality of splicing. Glenn Gould is an interesting historical figure (quite apart from the interest his piano playing as such might hold) because he is such an unusual figure within classical music, arguing what is basically a rock position on recording in a classical culture to which such a position is almost totally alien. A good article about all this may be found here. Its author makes the point that Gould’s own studio practice is actually rather conservative in his piano recordings. Gould really only broke out into something more innovative in his “Solitude Trilogy” of CBC documentaries. There’s a rather beautiful representation of his this in Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould:

In my seminar the other day, I played one of the recordings that Gould made late in life, when he had begun to experiment with what he called “acoustic choreography.” This idea was basically that since studio recording allows one to create various acoustic “perspectives” on the piano, one could change from one perspective to another within the same piece, in effect creating the musical analog of a cinematic zoom. So, for example, in Sibelius’s Kyllikki op. 41 no. 3,* Gould set up four microphones at varying distances from the piano, and in the first section, where he wanted a dry, analytical sound, he faded the distant mikes and boosted the close ones, eliminating most of the room sound and drawing close into the piano. In the more lyrical middle section, he “zooms” way back, boosting the room sound and giving the recording a “wet,” bathroom-like acoustic ambiance. It sounds as if the microphone is mounted on a cart that has just been pulled away from the piano. Compared to the very sophisticated pseudo-spatial effects in an album like, say, Kid A, this is a rather obvious effect, even a bit absurd, like SCTV’s classic skit, “Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes”:

Still, you gotta love Gould for trying. And I think it’s the fact that he did try, and in the face of considerable hostility and incomprehension from the classical music establishment, that has made him the unlikely hero of such musicians like Buckethead and Uri Caine.

*This example is drawn from Kevin Bazzana’s extremely awesome scholarly monograph on Gould, Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work, the last chapter of which contains a fine detailed investigation of Gould’s “acoustic choreography,” including photo reproductions of the scores Gould marked up to reflect his planned zooms and pans.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Glenn Gould’s 3-D House of Pancakes

  1. I’ll have to get Gracyk’s book; it might inform some work I’m doing on Frank Zappa. Thanks for the tip off.

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    I have one “claim to fame” with Glenn Gould, since he died about six years before I got to the CBC : back in 1980, he almost ran me down in his Cadillac. And we was totally oblivious to that fact (I worked in a record store in his old neighbourhood)

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Did you work at Sam’s on Yonge street, by any chance?

  4. David Cavlovic says:

    No, though I knew Sam’s very well, and got permanent discounts since I was six! OH I SOOOO MISS SAM’s, and A & A’s. As a teenager, and in my years at U of T Fac. of Music, I lived in those two stores and dumped tens of thousands of dollars on deletes. Ah the good ol’ days….
    No, I worked at The BookCellar/Classical Record Store, mostly at Deslisle Court (Yonge north of St. Clair. Deslisle was the street that Glenn Gould’s apartment building had its garage). I worked at the Yorkville location form time to time as well, and also at just the BookCellar Yorkville when a friend of mine bought it off the original owner.

  5. Mark says:

    I see the lesson here as the need to find a balance, to take advantage of what a studio can offer, but without losing the spontaneity of playing in real time, and interacting with other musicians…. Jazz guys often take the classical line and won’t even think about overdubbing, although they’re not hesitant to compress and process the sound…. The other lesson would be to be wary of labels and whole taxonomies of music. Charlie Parker et al are serious when they say they’re simply looking for the sweet notes. The entry makes me think of Les Paul, a jazz guitarist whose axe is the archetypal rock guitar. For one thing, he has a goofy sense of humor, not unlike that of Glenn Gould (although more extroverted). For another, one of his major contributions was as a studio geek, overdubbing guitar parts, speeding them up and slowing them down. But at the same time he has chops and can sit and pick with Chet Atkins. I also think of Raymond Scott, who gave up playing with his quintet to tinker in the studio….I think hip-hop is more of a sound collage than rock, just sayin’ . It’s just that the instrument that they play is a vast archive of recorded music.

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