Glenn Gould on Bach
Almost everything that gains traction on YouTube—except for the seemingly endless parade of puppies and kittens—is some form of tightrope walking, people doing outrageous, often obnoxious, and inevitably trivial things in an attempt to give their vast audience a cheap thrill before it moves on to the next act in the perpetual online freakshow. You get the sense of an entire culture—an entire race—just looking for a way to kill some time. But, like Thoreau said, you can’t kill time without injuring eternity.
But in the midst of that vast, silly, and pointless circus, you can sometimes find acts of real dexterity, intelligence, creativity, and courage. This one might not seem to fit that bill, but, believe me, it does—and in spades.
Glenn Gould was undeniably a genius—he was also undeniably insane. This 1962 program was made before his madness began to get the upper hand. And if you’re willing to appreciate it not by the current standards of brutality, masochism, and degradation but on its own terms, it is, in its seemingly modest way, an astonishing piece of work.
This is a bad recording of pretty primitive TV. Grainy image, awkward camera work, maddeningly bad sound. But everything Gould tries to convey manages to break free of those constraints and take you to someplace beyond the limitations of any medium anywhere, anytime, no matter how advanced.
In a mere half hour, he delivers a blistering attack on the Western fetishization of reason, uses Bach to reaffirm the essentially conservative nature of art, and conducts and performs a sublime performance of the Cantata 54 that exists only on this beyond abysmal form of playback.
But here’s the tightrope part: Watch the monologue he delivers at the beginning—an 8-minute, one camera, no cue cards, no edits soliloquy, both highly intellectual and deeply felt, a quirky but spot-on chiding and evisceration of the culture, delivered in the affected cadences of a preening, supercilious prep-school lad. I’m sure it feels like fingernails on a chalkboard to most of the people who watch it. But for the few who can look past the program’s and Gould’s limitations, it’s truly astonishing. And all too rare. And now all but extinct.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and