Hyperrhiz 23

Glenn Gould
(Piano * Classical)

James Beasley
University of North Florida

Citation: Beasley, James. “Glenn Gould.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r03

Abstract: In James Beasley’s work, he utilizes Glenn Gould’s self-interviews to demonstrate how Gould’s contrapuntal strategies have many similarities with the density of Kenneth Burke’s "countergridlock" style. Through the interview process, Beasley also demonstrates how Gould’s mixing and splicing in the recording studio allowed Gould to imagine the role of technology in ethical performance practices.

Keywords: Piano, Glenn Gould, Bahktin, Appassionata, Counterpunctal.


Glenn Gould (03:34)



“To be means to communicate dialogically. When the dialogue is finished, all is finished. One voice alone concludes nothing and decides nothing. Two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence” (Bakhtin, 1984 213).

It’s the humming, right? That infernal humming in the ’81 Goldberg Variations. Why don’t you just shut up and play? Why do you have to interrupt? That, however, is the one thing that Glenn Gould could not ever do, stop talking about his playing. Or with his playing. It is what separates him from every other performer, the talking. Or, as Gould might himself say, it’s not talking but voicing. His preoccupation with fugue and counterpoint is why he could not not hum. There always had to be another voice in the dialogue. When there were no other voices, he created them, as when he interviewed himself in “Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould,” or “Glenn Gould Interviews Himself About Beethoven,” and of course, there is still that infernal humming in the ’81 Goldbergs.

There are many reasons why I think Gould is a good choice for the Rocktalog, but I’ll touch on the ones most important to me. I was not allowed to listen to rock growing up, only sacred or classical music. Ironically, even though we listened to classical music, Van Cliburn was always the pianist of choice in our household, never Gould. Gould is obviously not a rock performer. However, if rock is associated with rebellion and cultural change, then he certainly fits this category. His abandonment of concert performances for the recording studio not only sent shock waves throughout the classical community, but it also cemented his resolve against the classical culture of competitive performance.

I’ve already hinted at what I think are Gould’s connections to Bahktin here, and if Bakhtin is involved, then to me, Kenneth Burke cannot be far behind. I’m reminded of what James Kastely and Angus Fletcher wrote about Burke, “Surely, all this [the authorial intrusions, summarizing sections, comments, and inclusions of his poems] shows a wild refusal to be verbally economical” (2003, 516). For me, reading Burke is very similar to listening to Gould, especially as Gould responds back to his own playing as he is playing. Just as there is a “countergridlock” to reading Burke, there is a kind of “countergridlock” listening to Gould. When I’m listening to Gould, he just gives me so many things to do. Another important connection here that I’ll examine more fully a bit later is both Burke and Gould’s obsession with form. If “form determines attitudes,” then perhaps Gould is the consummate Burkean. Critic Kevin Bazzana writes of this as Gould’s “desire to make musical processes explicit” (1997, 90), and that he sought “an X-ray view of music in performance, of revealing the skeleton of a piece” (1997, 90). What Burke and Gould have in common is this attenuation to form and its effects not just on the listener but how it should shape the listener’s attitude regarding the entire performance.

If attitudes of performance are made explicit, then it makes sense that an ethics of performance and listening aren’t far behind then, either, and in this way, there are more connections to Burke through Wayne Booth. Gould wasn’t afraid to create a purposively poor performance for a piece he felt was morally objectionable, such as his 1967 recording of Beethovan’s Appassionata Sonata, a piece that “disturbed him because of the nature of its rhetoric” (Bazzana 119). Gould wasn’t afraid of taking the controls in the recording studio, to turn the sound down on a composer’s nationalist rhetoric or turn the sound up on a composer’s musicial processes. It is for these rechordings that I am glad to present his work in this Rocktalog.

Glenn Gould’s Rockatalog Opening Statement

Oh, good, you’re finally here. I wasn’t sure you could find the recording studio. You said that you preferred to meet at the university concert hall, but isn’t this much better? I hate being up there under those bright lights. It’s much cooler and darker down here, don’t you agree? You’re not too late, well, actually, you are not on time, so therefore, yes, you are late.

I don’t mind arriving at some things late, such as the recapitulation in Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 10, no. 2. But unless you were late because you were also trying to make another thematic element stand out to the listener, then I actually do mind your being late. Although the only other reason would be to intentionally reject the intentions of the author, or in this case, the interviewee, which also in this case is me. That would be an ironic twist, then, wouldn’t it? Maybe you were late because you knew that I didn’t want to meet in the university concert hall, maybe you knew that I wanted to meet downstairs here in the basement recording studio, and maybe you knew that I often thwart the intentions of the composers I play by specifically rejecting their performance instructions, such as their tempo markings, for example. If that is the case, then by Jove, your being late is right up my alley. The problem with this, however, is that I never hide my authorial intrusions. I own up to them by making my motives explicit, through either such obvious performance divergences or through my own performance criticism. If this was the case why you were late, then by God, you should have just gone to the performance hall and waited until I eventually looked there, or maybe you could have sent down a note that you were there waiting. Yes, that would have done the trick, “Dear Mr. Gould,” the note could have said, “I am waiting in the performance hall so I can hear what you have to say here in this space. I haven’t heard what you’ve had to say here for a long time.” Yes, now that would have been clever.

You must think that all I do is try to thwart the author’s intentions, or interviewers in this case, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am not, as some would say, a deconstructionist by any means. Musical performance is not a game, and I didn’t leave the performance hall for the recording studio just for sport. Although, that in fact, is precisely why I left the performance hall—the arena and performer-gladiators ready to satisfy the audience’s appetites for feats of skill. No, my intrusions on a composer’s intention are explicit points that I wish to make in spite of audience expectations. In fact, you might say I’m not interested in giving them what they want as much as I am helping them understand what they should want in the first place.

Yes, of course I want them to be better listeners. What kind of question is that? But I’m sure you and I disagree on what constitutes a better listener. Since you wanted to conduct this interview in the concert hall, I’m sure you don’t realize how the concert hall reinforces conservative, conventional expectations. But you love seeing performers make large sweeping gestures as evidence of their so-called passion? Yes, I’m sure you do, and that’s exactly why I left the stage for the studio. It is in the recording studio, here, in my cloistered, monastic womb-like laboratory that I can concentrate on the musical form, and I can bring that out for you, the listener, I can help you concentrate on that form, that texture, but only if you leave the competitive arena of the concert hall and join me in this experiment, too.

What do I want the audience to discover in this laboratory? That’s the first good question you’ve asked yet. No, I take that back, it is the first not-horrible question you’ve asked yet. The values of clinical research are similar to the values that I impose on a musical performance, not just examining the beauty of its structure, but how its structure and form are purposeful. The problem of most Romantic music for example, is that its structure and form serve the wrong purpose, in my opinion, and the concert hall only exacerbates those problems. Romantic performance is context free, many of their ideals are nationalistic and were used to reinforce hierarchical power structures, both culturally and politically. 

This is what I mean by an unethical performance, an unethical performance is context-free, and the only way to perform ethically is to give them that context, to record as many of these pieces as possible, in order to leave behind a recording of them of how they should be, not how they are. No, of course I cannot do that in the concert hall! It is only in the recording studio that a piece’s musical structure can be made transparent, and once the audience can hear, can feel, that structure, then they become open to examining its values. For example, in my 1966-67 recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata, I intentionally downplayed the opening’s bluster, and even parodied the first movement’s fortissimo chords by intentionally exaggerating their weight, an unbearable weight, in this instance.

No, not every piece I record is meant to correct an unethical performance. But I would say that I never have made a recording of any piece that I didn’t’ have something to say about it. That is the purpose for my recording over performing. In most cases, I wanted to highlight what was ethical about a piece, not change what wasn’t. So, for example, in the 1981 Goldberg Variations, I observed repeats in thirteen variations. Why? Well, I played no repeats in my 1955 recording, so I wanted to change that since the repeats draw attention to Bach’s counterpunctal structure. Why is counterpoint such an important theme of my work? Counterpoint is important to me because the form enforces ideals that are important to me—the holding together, simultaneously, of unceasing motion with consistent density. How that density holds together, despite variations in motion, is what drives the form ahead of its content. I know that must sound counterintuitive, but the fragmented nature of fugue writing means that in every phrase there lies a problem to be replied to, a call and a response. These openings are created when the density is in danger of weakening, when that happens, another voice comes in, keeping that density intact.

What do I mean? Well, take this interview, for example. When your questions are too simple, which is too often by the way, it creates the opening for me to make them more complex. While you’ve been trying to oversimplify my compositional approaches, I’m trying to keep the density of our conversation consistent despite your horrible tempos. Some have said that the principle apparent throughout all my work is my speaking about music in the process of playing it, so it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve wanted to talk about this interview in the process of giving it. If your questions had been better, though, you would have maintained the density longer. So, in some ways, this interview has been worse than trying to rerecord Mozart’s Sonata in A Major (K 331). Da-da-da-----DAAA, da-da-da-da----DAAA! The critics tore that recording apart, so we’ll see what you do with our conversation here today. No wonder you wanted to meet in the concert hall.


Bazzana, Kevin. Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work. Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gould, Glenn. The Glenn Gould Reader. Edited by Tim Page. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1984.