Glenn Gould and the Electronic Future

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

"One of the certain effects of the electronic age," said idiosyncratic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould at the outset of a 1964 essay on Richard Strauss, "is that it will forever change the values that we attach to art."{1} That statement is even more valid today than it was three decades ago--especially since, at the time of Gould's death in 1982, the electronic age was accelerating its transformation into the computer age. If in the sixties Gould marvelled at the "multiple-authorship responsibility" generated by a recording studio's electronic tape editing and the volume controls on a listener's "hi-fi,"{2} what would he think of the increasing ability given by today's computers to control every aspect of musical performance?

1974gould.jpgNot only is the day of the reel-to-reel master "white with splicing tape"{3} long gone thanks to digital tape editing. Through MIDI ("Musical Instrument Digital Interface"), a performance on an electronic synthesizer in, say, Chicago can be stored as computer data, transmitted via the Internet, and picked up by someone in Tokyo. The Tokyo user can have a private recital by someone he will probably never meet by playing the Chicago file through his own synthesizer.

And why stop there? Given the right software and a musical mind of his own, the Tokyo user can even interpolate into the Chicago product anything from a neglected sharp or flat to a new interpretation. Perhaps the Chicagoan eschews exposition repeats in sonata form, while the Tokyo user insists on them? Perhaps the Chicago artist's score is corrupted, while the Japanese gentleman has access to the latest scholarly "complete works" edition? Maybe an "allegro" suited to the Midwestern United States is too fast or too slow for tastes across the Pacific Ocean? With MIDI manipulation, the end-user can truly season a musical performance to his own taste. One can only wonder if the ghost of Glenn Gould, Jacob Marley-like, is rattling chains in protest at this turn of events!

The non-traditional Gould

But probably not. Gould, in fact, would perhaps have had more sympathy with non-traditional views than some, if only because his own were so iconoclastic. In Tim Page's anthology The Glenn Gould Reader, we find that Gould found the live arts "immoral" because "one should not voyeuristically watch one's fellow human beings in testing situations that do not pragmatically need to be tested."{4} That condemnation included concerts and concertos ("I happen to believe that competition rather than money is the root of all evil, and in the concerto we have a perfect musical analogy of the competitive spirit"{5}), and in fact, as is well known, Gould turned his back on the concert hall forever, beginning in 1964--the year of his Strauss essay--, and devoted himself to recordings.{6} He also felt that art was "potentially destructive" and that technology would foster a "spiritual good that ultimately will serve to banish art itself."{7} And his notorious comments about Mozart (who "died too late rather than too soon"{8}), and half-facetious "growing doubts" about Beethoven{9}, marked Gould as a rogue priest in the temple of classical music, challenging hitherto safe orthodoxies. Doubtless the only thing Gould's contemporaries found predictable about his opinions was their utter unpredictability.

One wonders how the man who once performed a test to determine whether or not listeners could detect tape splices in selected performances (to debunk the notion that "live" recordings were more artistically credible than edited ones){10} would respond to MIDI. Of course the possibilities for a second hand to exhibit questionable musical taste in modifying a MIDI piece are legion. The Tokyo gentleman in our example above may have a difference of opinion with the Chicagoan regarding whether a trill should begin on the main note or upper auxiliary, or whether or not the downbeat arpeggio is always proper.{11} He may exercise veto power over a correct decision by the Chicagoan on ornamentation or the proper reading of the musical text. (Or he may, if more musical than the Chicago artist, correct several excesses and misinterpretations in the original file--though, as with most things in life, the improvements the man from Tokyo makes will completely satisfy few besides himself!)

Gould and today's technology

What could technology like this have done to Gould's own recordings, had he lived in a day when it was available? For one thing, the notorious humming that marks some of them would not be a problem. (Gould would occasionally--apparently without realizing it--hum along while playing, a trait that was easily picked up by studio microphones.) Furthermore, a MIDI file of his Bach, for instance, played on the piano could be altered with the click of a mouse by someone who insisted that Baroque composers must be played on the harpsichord, or an instrument of similar vintage. In addition, some of Gould's more eccentric tempos, such as his flagrant disregard for several tempo indications in the Mozart piano sonatas,{12} could be modified--perhaps even "spot-edited" to smooth over a radical switch from Gould's tempo choice (a reworked trill, for example, where a switch from slow to fast, or vice versa, would otherwise create an unnatural sound).

One can see already that we are getting into some extremely problematic areas of taste. Not that these were not already anticipated well before the lightnings said "Here we are" through the first electronic computer.{13} J.S. Bach tinkered with several works of Vivaldi, most notably in his (Bach's) Concerto for Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065.{14} Handel's reworking of other composers' music is well documented.{15} Mozart, at Baron van Swieten's behest, revamped four of Handel's oratorios; of these, the Mozart adaptation of Messiah, due to the source work's preeminence in Handel's output, has been soundly criticized by later generations.{16} Brahms made several changes in his editing of Schubert's symphonies that seem to go beyond the bounds of legitimate editorial work--especially the omission and interpolation of measures that Schubert never wrote.{17} Even Gould himself freely admitted adulterating a Herbert von Karajan recording of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, in order to make it suitable as a background for a spot in Gould's radio documentary "The Idea of North."{18}

Musical taste

But one should never take any of these precedents as a sanction for an "anything goes" approach to music, or an invitation to total anarchy. Taste, whether comfortingly present or glaringly conspicuous by its absence, remains the arbiter for all execution of music.

Glenn Gould never lacked taste. Even his most outrageous opinions, one senses, had at their center a deeply-thought-out set of musical convictions. When he states, for instance, that much of the first movement of Mozart's c-minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, fails to live up to the promise of its orchestral exposition, and that Mozart would have done better to hand over his themes to Haydn and let the latter's "boundless developmental capacities" loose on them,{19} Gould betrays a singular lack of perception. Likening Mozart and Haydn, while chronologically apt, fails on a deeper level because what H.C. Robbins Landon has called "the optimistic self-enclosed comfort of Haydn" is very different from the emotional subjectivity of Mozart.{20} One might as well suggest that Emily Dickinson should have handed over one of her more manic-depressive stanzas to Longfellow for fleshing out!

But the critical lapse on Gould's part is not a lack of taste on his own part, but the failure to recognize the profound judgment and taste of Mozart's decisions. The same might be said of Gould's treatment of Beethoven, whose works are singled out for their alleged absence of "[a]lmost every criterion that I expect to encounter in great music--harmonic and rhythmic variety, contrapuntal invention . . . ."{21} The mention of counterpoint inevitably brings J.S. Bach to mind, and certainly if Sebastian Bach's music is to be, even in a very loose sense, the template for all music, a great deal of composing in the last two-and-a-half centuries inevitably falls short (particularly, one imagines, that of Bach's sons Johann Christian and Philipp Emanuel). However, I think that the essential point here is not the particular dislikes Gould had, but the fact that he was willing to express them. Gould lived music, far more profoundly than an orchestral sideman who walks through the accompaniment of the "Emperor" Concerto for yet another concert season. And Gould dared to tell the world which music did not work for him. His willingness to proclaim his idiosyncratic artistic judgments--Orlando Gibbons over Mozart, Petula Clark over Chopin--commands more respect than the "yes man" acquiescence of many performers and listeners to what they have been told is "great music."

Gould's enduring legacy

And this, for me, is the most enduring part of Gould's legacy. Gould strove mightily to prevent the art that he loved from being nothing more than a routine scraping of bows against strings, or than an excuse for matrons in the audience to surpress their coughing until a break between movements. It may sound paradoxical to affirm that he stood for putting life back into making music; after all, he did give up live concerts in favor of recordings, and professed to Arthur Rubinstein that he never felt a "personal impact" from having an audience. (" . . . I certainly wasn't stimulated by their presence as such. Matter of fact, I always played less well because of it."){22} But Gould did treat music-making as an activity that engages the life of the mind. He remained deeply intrigued by all periods of musical activity, writing copiously and with a wealth of knowledge about them. Even his more provocative pronouncements are grounded in the ability of an intelligent mind to ask "why?" Music was not something to be accepted passively, but was to be a participant in the well-rounded life, to be intellectually debated and challenged--an aural form of philosophy. How else can one take Gould's implication that a "contemplative climate" aided by technology is a desideratum for music listening?{23}

This being so, it seems likely that Gould would have, by and large, embraced MIDI as a furtherance of this "contemplative climate." Certainly the powers allowed by this technology can be abused by undiscerning minds--not excluding the original performer who creates a MIDI file.{24} But the ability of the individual to exercise his or her mind in the pursuit of the musical ideal is paramount. Whether or not the majority agrees with his or her judgments is not necessarily of importance, as long as an intelligent case can be made for the individual's decisions.

At this writing, as far as I am aware, MIDI is extensively used in recording and performance of popular music, but is much less accepted in the classical music world. Understandably, there is some resistance due to a fear that live musicians will be supplanted by synthesized instrumentation, and some suspicion of the "mechanical" nature of MIDI. However, the electronic future beckons in directions which have implications probably unimaginable at present. From Tokyo to Chicago and beyond, many of the values we attach to art will be transformed by new technology, as Glenn Gould pointed out back in the days of the "hi-fi." But the values of musical taste and judgment exemplified in Gould's life will always be important.

(November 1996)


{1} "Strauss and the Electronic Future," in Tim Page, ed., The Glenn Gould Reader. NY: Vintage, 1990, p. 92. Subsequent citations will be identified with the abbreviation "GGR."

{2} Ibid., pp. 92-3.

{3} Cf. "The Record of the Decade," GGR, p. 432.

{4} "Glenn Gould in Conversation with Tim Page," GGR, p. 452.

{5} "Of Mozart and Related Matters," GGR, p. 41. The biblical misquote (1 Tim. 6:10 actually reads "the love of money is the root of all evil") is so widespread that it is almost a commonplace itself.

{6} GGR, pp. xii-xiv.

{7} "A Biography of Glenn Gould," GGR, p. 447.

{8} "Of Mozart . . .", GGR, p. 32.

{9} "Glenn Gould Interviews Himself About Beethoven," GGR, p. 43ff..

{10} "The Grass Is Always Greener in the Outtakes," GGR, pp. 357ff..

{11} Cf. Frederick Neumann, Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986, pp. 113-35; 165-75.

{12} "Of Mozart . . .," GGR, pp. 38, 40-1.

{13} Cf. Job 38:35 ("Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?").

{14} Christoph Wolff et. al., The New Grove Bach Family. NY: Norton, 1983, pp. 146, 149, 158.

{15} Winton Dean, The New Grove Handel. NY: Norton, 1982, pp. 80-1.

{16} David Humphreys, "Arrangements and Additions," in H.C. Robbins Landon, ed., The Mozart Compendium. NY: Schirmer, 1990, pp. 337-8.

{17} Claudio Abbado, "On the Musical Texts," liner notes to his recording of Franz Schubert's Symphony no. 8 and Grand Duo, Deutsche Grammophon 423 655-2.

{18} "Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould," GGR, p. 320.

{19} "Piano Concertos by Mozart and Schoenberg," GGR, p. 129-30.

{20} H.C. Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart's Last Year. NY: Schirmer, 1988, p. 10.

{21} "Glenn Gould in Conversation with Tim Page," GGR, p. 458.

{22} "Rubinstein," GGR, p. 285.

{23} "Glenn Gould in Conversation with Tim Page," GGR, p. 452.

{24} Such is even acknowledged in the following terms on one of the most interesting MIDI Web sites: "I am pleased and regret to say that some of these sequences are quite beautiful while others are rather atrocious . . . ." [[TH note, 10/26/08: Quite understandably, that “interesting MIDI Web site” no longer carries this disclaimer from 12 years ago, though you can still see it here courtesy of Meanwhile, the MIDI site has evolved into “The Classical Archives.”]]

Picture Credit (above): Glenn Gould in Toronto, 1974—public domain image from

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