GENIUS WITHIN : THE INNER LIFE OF GLENN GOULD
directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont (Canada, 2009)
His dashing looks added to his appeal; one contributor even likened him to James Dean. These, together with his public eccentricities make him a gift for documentary makers. The fact that he died so young also means that most friends, ex-lovers and collaborators are still alive to record their memories.
All acknowledge that Gould was difficult, moody, intensely private and slightly nuts yet each also unhesitatingly describe him as a genius. After seeing and hearing the footage of his virtuoso piano technique, which includes rare private home recordings, I would not disagree with this assessment. It is thrilling to see a man playing with such intensity; he seems to be in a trance, never reading notes but humming or singing along as he plays.
Gould knew the importance (and sound business sense) of cultivating a striking yet enigmatic image but though some of his habits were odd they were also entirely logical. He protected his fingers by wearing gloves, soaked them in hot water and issued a directive telling people not to shake his hand as a form of greeting.
Because his technique entailed pulling down on, rather than striking the keys from above, he needed a low seating position. This is why he always used a primitive-looking chair made by his father which could be adjusted to his preferred height.
Gould himself was aware that classical recitals could often be dull and predictable. He hated the idea that performers should merely reproduce works as if the music was carved in stone.
This does not mean that his own interpretations were in any way gimmicky. The film shows that he was, above all, a man who lived and breathed music and as a perfectionist, the idea of doing anything casually or half-heartedly was anathema to him. His performances and recordings were ,without exception, the fruit of a full and detailed immersion in the source material.
Gould got a reputation for cancelling shows because he would only perform when he felt in the right frame of mind. Eventually he grew to hate public recitals completely. He played his final concert in 1984 when he was just 31 and in one interview said unambiguously “I detest audiences”.
Thereafter, he focused on making albums and was fortunate that this decision coincided with many innovations in recording methods. He used the resources available to the full and was ahead of his time in that he foresaw the present day situation in which musicians can edit their own work on computers.
He described music as his “shelter from the world” and it is no surprise that someone with such a mercurial talent found living a ‘normal’ life to be a major challenge.
Gould was a hypochondriac and a pessimist by nature believing that “behind every silver lining there’s a cloud”.
He died in 1982 after suffering a series of strokes, aged 50.
I don’t listen to much classical music but this documentary was a revelation to me and makes me want to rush out to beg, borrow or steal some of his recordings immediately.