After retiring from the concert stage in 1964, the pianist Glenn Gould embarked on a variety of new careers, including one as a radio documentary maker. One of the earliest and best of his documentaries was a study of the Canadian Arctic called The Idea of the North. Characteristically, it did not focus on facts or figures or topical issues but instead presented a collage of interviews to create a sense of the North and its isolated nature.
In Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, Kevin Bazzana has done something similar. Instead of presenting a conventional, linear account, tracing Gould's life in strict chronological order, he has created a swirling, time-shifting study which seeks to give a sense of the famous Canadian pianist and his isolated nature.
Gould was born in Toronto in 1932 and lived his whole life there, leaving only for concert tours, New York recording sessions, and holidays in northern Ontario. Another of Bazzana's departures from convention is to emphasize this Canadian background in an attempt to show that Gould did not spring out of nowhere. One result of this is his solid portrayal of the proper middle-class Toronto neighborhood where Gould grew up.
Bazzana shows that Gould's Toronto was very British and Protestant, conservative and puritanical, and suggests that Gould's own puritanism stemmed from this background. Perhaps it did, but at times Bazzana seems to push too hard for his theory of the importance of Canadian influence on Gould. A comparison of Gould's austere piano style with the barren Canadian Arctic seems unconvincing, as does the suggestion that Gould's interest in communications theory was particularly Canadian.
It is, though, very Gouldian of Bazzana to press so hard for a somewhat unusual theory; Gould was notorious for his controversial views, for instance dismissing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a bad composer who lived too long. On the other hand, Bazzana may be on to something in finding Gould's humor to be very Canadian. Gould liked to dress up as comical imaginary characters on his television shows, for example as a pompous German musicologist studying the importance of silence, especially German silence as opposed to French silence.
Bazzana notes that Gould was a fan of the Canadian comedian Rich Little and was familiar with the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. He might also have mentioned the Canadian comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, who were noted for skits in which they impersonated mad professors and other outlandish characters. Gould is known much more for his brilliant and eccentric piano performances than for dressing up as bizarre characters, and it is hard to see anything specifically Canadian in that brilliance and eccentricity.
Another unconventional idea of Bazzana is to emphasize the importance of Gould's piano teacher, Alberto Guerrero. Bazzana seems on firmer ground here, for he is able to note the many ways in which Gould's playing resembled that of his teacher, from his unconventional hunched posture at the keyboard to his choice of repertoire to his tempos and phrasing. In this view he is arguing against none other than Gould himself, who sometimes suggested that he had been largely self-taught and who emphasized his disagreements with his teacher.
Characteristically, just when Bazzana seems to have won the argument against Gould and made the reader begin to wonder why Guerrero is not as widely known as Gould is, the author backtracks and says that, of course, Gould was not a clone of Guerrero. Gould did depart from his teacher's ideas in an increasing number of ways, Bazzana says, and there were disagreements between them.
Bazzana takes a similar back-and-forth approach in discussing Gould's personality late in the biography. It is characteristic of Bazzana's method that he saves most of his information on Gould's temperament and idiosyncrasies for one long chapter called “A Portrait of the Artist.” In this portrait, Bazzana at first makes the reader think that Gould must have suffered from a personality disorder, if not several. He describes him as obsessional, narcissistic, anxious, depressed, and even paranoid. And then he more or less retracts all these suggestions through a series of paragraphs that each begin by saying “Yes …but,” including “Yes, he had melancholic traits…. But he cannot be considered chronically, clinically depressed” and “Yes, he had obsessional traits, but not to the extent that one should question his sanity.”
This system of assertion...
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