Pianist Glenn Gould was thoroughly idiosyncratic. Bundled up even in warm weather and fussing endlessly during rehearsals with his piano stool, he had a reputation as a difficult performer prone to cancellation. He hated flying, competitions, honors, even food. He retired early, however, not because of these quirks, or even a fluke shoulder injury, but to pursue the total artistic control only possible in isolation.
Whether insecure or extremely self-assured, or both, he believed artists must rely only on their own guidance. In his letters he stresses the analysis of a work’s structure, but his obsession with organic unity combined with a need for spontaneous self-expression resulted in live performances that scandalized listeners with their unorthodox tempi.
More ironically, but fitting for a man who scripted both sides of his interviews, Gould’s obsession with the spontaneous led him to prefer recorded music to live. His reputation today, in fact, rests to a large extent on his being an early champion of technology. He followed this interest into TV and radio, creating documentaries that interweave conflicting points of view in a polyphony analogous to the Bach compositions he adored.
Naturally, his letters deal extensively with the technical issues that obsessed him. However, even with these dry matters, his tone is always engaging. In letters to fans and friends, he is polite, concerned, often funny—even silly. The very opinionated Gould can be painfully patient in explaining why things have to be done his way, not to mention defensive and high-handed when deflecting criticism, but he is never mean-spirited.
The book contains illustrations, a full chronology, and many helpful notes, but those not familiar with Gould may find little in these chatty, personable letters to explain the artist’s still growing fame. When Gould says of Marshall McLuhan that he’s “an extra-ordinary mixture of wackiness with brilliant perceptions,” he hints at his own appeal to those fans for whom he is something of an artistic saint. Judged only by these letters, however, Gould may just as fairly be considered an overgrown child blessed by a over-sized talent that allowed him the luxury of playing forever among his precious, precious toys.