by Margie Borschke

"The really Important things in any biography are what someone thinks and feels and not what he has done."
—Glenn Gould

Ours is a culture of celebrity.


Sure, it's easy enough to shun, ignore, and rise above, but celebrity culture is infectious. It informs more than our awareness of the supermodel and the rock star, the politician and the pundit. Increasingly, we look at history with the same starstruck eyes.

At age 31, Glenn Gould, one of the 20th century's greatest pianists, retired from the concert stage at the height of his career. He spent the rest of his musical career in the recording studio. He is best known for his debut recording, The Goldberg Variations by Bach. From the age of 23 until his death he recorded over 80 records, wrote articles and produced radio and television programs. He was an early champion of electronic media. He died of a stroke just days after his 50th birthday. He had beautiful hair as a young man. He wore ridiculous amounts of outerwear. He talked incessantly on the telephone.

Starstruck eyes are unable to focus exclusively on deeds or output. Starstruck eyes gaze upon the details of the private aspects of public personae: their vulnerabilities, their eccentricities, their hair. Rendering the human superlatives typical, our voyeurism allows us to substantiate our humanity and to understand ourselves. Or something.

To obsess over Gould's musical genius, be it his technique, his unconventional interpretations, his recordings or his musicology would be what he would have wanted. But while I find these things fascinating, in casual conversation I find myself bringing up his hair and his telephone use.

Yes, his telephone use. (You didn't really think I was going to write an appreciation of his hair, did you? It was, however, quite lovely when he was young.)

While he spurned the label, Gould was without a doubt an eccentric. It's a pretty safe classification for a man who wore heavy coats, scarves and gloves in the middle of summer, who concocted symptoms for obscure illnesses and who once sued a Steinway technician for a friendly tap on the shoulder (he claimed it caused him injury and forced him to cancel the balance of his concerts that year). It bewildered him that people focused on such trivia instead of his work as a pianist, composer, writer and documentary maker. I admire him for this disdain, but find myself drawn to these private quirks all the same.

After his hair, the discovery of his obsession with late-night phone calls marks the real beginning of my fascination with Gould. I first learned about them the way many people my age did, from the 1992 film "32 Short Films about Glenn Gould" by Francois Girard and Don McKeller. Gould's dependence on technology as a mode of expression and communication extended beyond the recording studio—the phone was a lifeline of sorts for the reclusive Gould. He would talk for hours on end, often late at night and no matter the cost. (In Otto Fredrich's wonderful biography, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (Vintage 1989), he reports that Gould's phone bills were often hundreds of dollars each month.) The phone allowed Gould to carry on relationships with his friends all over the world without leaving his apartment in Toronto.

He did more than talk. He sang; he played games; he collaborated with other musicians; he rehearsed; he read manuscripts to publishers and asked them to accept them on the spot; he conducted media interviews; he talked. Usually those on the receiving end were exactly that—Gould did most of the talking. He also preferred to place calls and not the other way around. (He was an early screener of calls, via an answering service.) His telephone audience was not always as captive as Gould would have liked: reports Fredrich, "Occasionally, at two or there in the morning, one of his listeners would drift off to sleep, and then wake to the sound of Gould sharply asking, "Hello? Hello? Are you there?" That an anti-performer needed only an audience in his personal relationships is an intriguing irony.

The phone affords intimacy and the phone maintains distance. This duality was not lost on Gould, who refused the media personal interviews, choosing instead to conduct all interviews over the phone. Sometimes he even required the questions to be submitted in advance. This impulse to control and to guard his privacy also manifested itself in self-interviews like "Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould". In these "interviews" he would, at times, evade his own line of questioning. As much as the phone provided Gould with intimacy and immediacy, it was also a tool he could use to ensure distance and control. Solitude, Gould knew, required all these things.

Solitude was something Gould believed in. Solitude was something he practiced. But with solitude comes the occasional bout of loneliness, particularly for a talkative sort such as Gould. Some of the stranger projects Gould mounted in his life were three so-called sound documentaries, radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (where Gould pretty much had carte blanche) about solitude and loneliness, set in isolated communities in Canada. One of his collaborators on "The Idea of the North"(1967) said to Gould's biographer Fredrich that the documentary should have been called "The Idea of Glenn Gould."

We like to say of musicians, particularly those we call eccentric, that they communicate and express themselves through their music. While this is true in part, it seems clear that Gould needed other people in his life in a way that he did not need them for his music. He needed that telephone. He needed to hear those voices, even if the conversations were dominated by his own. Among his papers was a personal ad that he wrote, a personal ad that above all sought a voice.   </end>

Glenn Gould photo AP/Wide World Photos
Western Electric #302 telephone image courtesy of the Miracle Mile Mall.
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