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Glenn Gould and the artist’s new tools

(This article was originally published in the Swedish magazine Ikoner in 2006. I translated it into English especially for an American web magazine, which later gave a new meaning to the phrase editorial decorum by suddenly backing out. So, why waste the translation? Here it is.)

The pianist Glenn Gould was well-known not only for his brilliant but anachronistic interpretations of Bach, where he went so to speak in the opposite direction compared with those who aimed at authentic interpretations played on historical instruments. He was also known for his perfectionism, which manifested itself in grammophone recordings resulting from a meticulous cutting and pasting. Gould actually foreboded the working ways of the digital era.

Glenn Gould was a meteor fallen down on earth. Through him and his recordings, we get a glimpse of something quite unknown, which still is a part of our culture. Glenn Gould lifted Bach from the well of his own time up to a sort of timeless flow. Bach played on the piano is, of course, an anomaly. One can hear how Gould struggles against certain idiosyncrasies of the fortepiano, while making use of some of its others. All of a sudden, Bach becomes modern music. Or music for any epoch.

This is in accordance with Gould’s view on recorded concerts. They turn into sounding chronicles, nailed firmly to their places in history. The studio recording, on the other hand, edited together from several sessions from different points in time – and maybe even from different geographical places, free themselves from time, and thus from the anecdotal.

Gould realized that the recording studio is a monastery cell. In a similar way as the programmer’s study is. A cerebral sanctuary, where time ceases and space is curved inwards. The record producer Steve Berkowitz said that Gould ”played this music the way he wanted to, he didn’t go on tour, and he was very unusual in the way that he dealt with the public and the press. He basically answered to no one but himself and his own pursuit of the creation of art.”1)

At the beginning, the musical establishment was critical to Gould’s method. This is hardly surprising. Already in the 1950’s there was a scandal when it was revealed that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf had helped filling in two high C’s in the Furtwängler version from 1952 of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, when the soprano Kirsten Flagstad not quite could produce those notes. Today, one hardly raises an eyebrow when one gets to know that pop singer Britney Spears secretly was assisted in certain passages in her recordings by the Swede Emma Nilsdotter.2)

Gould ceased to give concerts in 1964 and became increasingly delighted with the recording studio’s possibilities of perfection, unlike the unpredictable capriciousness of the concert hall. There a pianissimo chord could be drowned entirely ”by an outbreak of bronchitis from the floor”, as Gould wrote 1966 in a well-known article, ”The Prospects of Recording”.3) In the studio one could re-edit a recording so that maybe the sixteenth take of a certain passage would precede the first take of another. Music was freed from sequentiality, at least the one emerging from the performer. Music had approached film:

[…] it would be impossible for the listener to establish at which point the authority of the performer gave way to that of the producer and the tape editor, just as even the most observant cinema-goer cannot ever be sure whether a particular sequence of shots derives from circumstances occasioned by the actor’s performance, from the exigencies of the cutting-room, or from the director’s a priori scheme.3)

When the possibilities to record music on wax rolls came about, and above all, when the methods had refined into high fidelity on vinyl, we had achieved a new way to preserve music. Unlike notation, which ever since the Middle ages only had been an approximate value guiding the performer’s execution, the sound recording was both preservation and interpretation at the same time.

Glenn Gould foreboded the digital era, where everything is broken down atomistically, in order to once again be possible to re-combine ad libitum. Through the computer we achieved ”empowerment of the individual”, which was a popular phrase a few years ago. The idea then was primarily that anyone could make print magazines with the aid of desktop publishing or that CEO’s could type their own letters without the help of a secretary (the outcome of this was not entirely successful, as we all know). Since then, the fluid formats and the completely free editing possibilities have permeated more and more areas, not to the least extent within the cultural domains. ”By fragmenting the field of perception and information into static bits, we have accomplished wonders”, wrote Glenn Gould’s fellow country man Marshall McLuhan – and he did not aim at computer bits, although the quotation concords well with both Gutenberg’s loose types and the computer’s small units of information.4)

Within education, the illusion has grown strong that we no longer need a knowledge of our own, we only need to know how to find the knowledge of others – for instance in various databases on the web. This is, of course, also a kind of knowledge individuals may have, but unfortunately difficult to utilize well without possessing at least to a certain extent the old type of knowledge as well – as a basis for evaluation and overview.

One often distinguishes between two knowledge types, “to know that” and “to know how”. But within the arts (and of course also within handicrafts of all kinds) there exists since thousands of years also a skill parameter (“can how”). In for instance music, art and dance this is often a question of pure muscular excercise in relation to a visual, tactile or auditive model. With the computers’ programs for image processing and music creation this has changed radically. A substantial part of these skills now dwells in embedded form within the tools themselves. With the appropriate filter at hand in Photoshop one might not need to be that good at croqui. With various digital music programs one might not need to be able to play a certain instrument particularly well; the program can even out the 1/32 notes for you in a run, and you can – to a still higher degree than Glenn Gould – change and control each and every note afterwards. Music has been liberated from gymnastics.

Of course, it can be debated whether this development is good or not. What it finally comes down to is that in a similar way as the web in many respects has erased the boundaries between producer and consumer, or between writer and reader, the new tools tend to turn the artist into a critic and vice versa. One of several signs indicating this is perhaps a record that was recently made by some musicians who composed songs according to instructions from a handful of critics.5)

If a musician or artist today has a good ear or eye respectively, one can, in some sense of the word, create good art, although one neither has older times’ ability to handle a brush or steer a carbon piece over a paper nor the musical cadenzas sitting in one’s knuckles. One can do a thousand errors and at last – when the critics within have had their say – choose the 1001’st version. And find that it is good.

I am not certain whether Glenn Gould would have followed his own line of progress that far. After all he was a virtuoso. He probably regarded technology as an amplification of his skill rather than as a substitute for it. Each time has had its conservatism as well as its instrument-idiomatic exaggerations. In the 1800s Heinrich Heine said that the pianoforte, which at the time was fairly new, constituted ”the victory of the machine-being over the spirit”, and he announced from Paris with a certain awe that ”the precision of an automaton, the identification with the stringed wood, man’s transformation into a sounding instrument, is now praised and celebrated as the highest.”6)

Somewhat along Heine’s lines, Marshall McLuhan noted in 1960 that ”the artist will now merge with the media rather than staying outside as ironic spectator and commentator.”7)

There has long existed a conflict – perhaps especially in music – between too much virtuosity and purity on one hand, which in a way make us forget that it is a human being playing (”Clapton is God”, as the writing said on the walls of London in the mid-60’s), and on the other hand that which is genuine. At the same time, however, much music pretends to rise above human errors and deficiencies, which ought to reserve a place here for the seemingly effortless equilibrist. Still, that which is technically too brilliant is often considered mechanical and lacking heart and soul.

The problem permanently re-emerges, since each time finds new ways of defining virtuosity and skill. In computer produced music, one sometimes inserts rhythmic irregularities in order to make the music seem less mechanical and machine-like. At the same time, of course, there arises a new type of dexterity in how well one can handle all these new tricks.

Among hifi enthusiasts similar discussions have been pursued about whether the sound on compact discs is too clean compared with the sound on vinyl records. In the 60’s and 70’s, there were discussions about whether old tube amplifiers had a warmer (and more humane) sound than more modern transistor devices. (Heine, by the way, considered the violin more humane than the piano, not as one might think because the tone is produced in direct contact with the string, but because the violin is held near the heart.)

Marshall McLuhan developed his thoughts about art further in an article from 1973, where he claimed that ”the new art form of our time is the media themselves, not painting, not movies, not drama, but the media themselves have become the new art forms.” 8 Glenn Gould had almost the same view, although he approached the phenomenon from another angle:

”In the electronic age”, Gould wrote according to the Canadian writer B.W. Powe, ”the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly.”9)

Today it is obvious that Gould was right, now when almost everybody is walking the streets, listening to music from earphones. There is even a popular band that call themselves ”The Soundtrack of Our Lives”.

Something just about to change in our digital era is the concept of originality. In earlier times it might have been the taste at the royal courts or what might have commercial potential that decided the extent of an artist’s compromise with himself, but now perhaps the possibilities of the artistic tool itself will increasingly become the challenge. Would one dare to work against the tool or only with it? And does one possess the new type of skill needed to work against the tool? When it comes down to it, not even Bach wrote counterpoint entirely according to the book. It is an old truth that if you wish to break the rules, you must be familiar with them first.

Our time is, however, also a time of eclecticism. The collage and the sample (and also so-called cover versions in popular music) are examples of how technical media make tradition. The individual expression does not lie in an interpretation of old material but in re-interpretation, a new context but also reverence and cultural name dropping. One may ponder what Gould would have said about today’s sampling technique or pirate copying. In the article ”The Prospects of Recording” Gould philosophizes a great deal about the well-known forger of Vermeer paintings, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). He says that van Meegeren is ”high on my list of private heroes” and concludes the article thus:

The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization.3)

Kirsten Flagstad’s loan of a pair of high C’s from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was no cheating, according to Glenn Gold, only two artists collaborating in order to make the best out of Wagner’s music.

Gould saw a clear contradiction between recording in concert halls or ”live in studio” on the one hand and on the other studio recordings that were being cut to perfection. What he perhaps did not anticipate was that the conditions of the studio and those of the concert hall were about to merge eventually. For decades playback and singback has been common, and the music at discotheques might perhaps be regarded as an early hybrid form. Today, many musical bands play computer files containing various backgrounds and loops on their laptops, which they add their live performances to. One might also, like the British band Hot Chip, play already published songs in versions that are remixed live on stage. The roles of the sound engineer, the disc jockey, the composer and the musician are more and more sliding into each other.

Then there is only the listener left. But in this era of interactivity it would surely be remarkable if the audience would not participate too.

In 2005 the band Nine Inch Nails released a tune, ”The Hand That Feeds”, in the form of a computer file from the musical program Garageband. The tune is thereby a sort of semi-manufactured article, which one may remix and change in every possible way: ”Change the tempo. Add new loops. Chop up the vocals. Turn me into a woman. Replay the guitar. Anything you’d like”, wrote Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nailes.10)

For a long time, it has been permitted to interpret art freely. This has been one of the modern project’s clearest messages (in certain cases perhaps the only message!). Now art can also more and more be re-created freely. In a certain sense, this a step back to forms of creativity that existed before the rise of the romantic artist role and the notion of copyright. Not only file sharing challenges deep-rooted conventions. The almost infinite possibilities to shape and re-shape a digital artistic (or scientific) product dissolve the boundaries between original, copy and derivative. Thereby not only copyright is being questioned, but our entire attitude toward knowledge, know-how – and art.

© Karl-Erik Tallmo 2007

1. Smith, S., ”The young Glenn Gould”, post to the Zorn mailing list, August 12, 2002, originally a Billboard article by the same author, published ”a few weeks” earlier. See http://mailman.xmission.com/pipermail/zorn-list/2002-August/001561.html

2. According to the program “Musikministeriet” [The Music Ministry] , Swedish Television, August 21, 2006.

3. Glenn G., ”The Prospects of Recording”, High Fidelity, Vol. 16, no. 4, 1966.

4. McLuhan M., “The Agenbite of Outwit”, Location, ed. Thomas B. Hess, Harold Rosenberg, 1963, also in McLuhan Studies, no 2, 1996.

5. The record is called ”Damned Critics”. See http://www.nons.se/javlakritiker/.

6. Heine, H., ”Musikalische Saison in Paris. Virtuosentum”, 1843 (see Zeitungsberichte über Musik und Malerei, ed. Michael Mann, Frankfurt am Main, 1964).

7. Report on Project in Understanding Media, US Office of Education, 1960.

8. McLuhan M., Forces Magazine, Hydro-Quebec, no. 22, 1973.

9. Quoted by the Canadian author B.W. Powe in ”Noise of Time”,

10. See http://nin.com/.

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