Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Glenn Gould

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 6, 2016 at 7:30 am

The inheritance of loss

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What celebrity death will make you cry?”

A few days ago, writing about the late pianist Glenn Gould, I expressed sadness that we won’t be able to listen to his third, hypothetical version of The Goldberg Variations, and wrote: “Although we’ll never hear it for yourselves, we can dream about it.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that Gould would have revisited his most famous work again, even if he were still alive, while the real tragedy of a death like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman is that we know exactly what we’ve lost. Hoffman was a productive actor at the top of his game, a year younger than Brando was when he made Last Tango in Paris, and there’s no question that we’ve been deprived of another thirty years of great performances. One of the sad wonders of cinema is how it forces us to confront how we all age, and Hoffman, who was utterly without vanity as a performer, might have left us a lasting essay on what it means for an actor of limitless resourcefulness to grow old on camera. As it is, we’ll never know, although we can glimpse it in the accelerated lifetime he lives in Synedoche, New York, a great movie that I’m not sure I can ever watch again.

When an artist we love and admire dies, we tend to experience one of two responses. In some cases, as with Hoffman or Heath Ledger, it’s a sense of loss at the realization of all we’re going to miss. At other times, when death arrives at the end of a long, productive career, it feels more like losing a friend or mentor we thought we’d have around forever. That’s why our strongest emotional responses tend to come with the death of someone whose work has quietly become part of the fabric of our lives, measured out in small regular increments, as in television or in a daily newspaper, rather than one who produced a handful of towering works. When I was growing up, I once found myself deeply sad in advance at the thought that Chuck Jones would die, more than fifteen years before he actually passed away, and the short list of public personalities whose deaths have affected me the most includes Charles Schulz and Roger Ebert. These may not have been the individuals who influenced my life the most—although my debts to Schulz and Ebert are incalculable—but over time, their faces and their work became part of who I was.

Francis Ford Coppola

Then there’s someone like Stanley Kubrick, who seems to unite all of the above. He was seventy when he died, and given the long stretches that elapsed between his later movies, it’s doubtful whether we would have gotten much more after Eyes Wide Shut, even if he had lived another decade. Yet it’s still shocking to see the prospect of additional masterpieces closed off by something as mundane as death. Directors can produce great work well into their seventies and beyond—just look at Altman and Kurosawa—so the loss of any major filmmaker feels premature. It’s sobering to realize that the number of new Scorsese or Spielberg films we’ll have a chance to see isn’t just finite, but can probably be counted on one hand, and that there will come a time when the ones we have are all we’re going to get. We’re lucky, at least, in the fact that the movies themselves will survive, which isn’t the case with other forms of art: I often wonder whether some of the thrill we get from live music or theater comes from the hint of mortality it carries, as we witness something that is happening right now and will never recur in quite the same way again.

But if individual movies can last forever, life itself can’t, and it’s in the passing away of an artist’s personality and possibility that we lose the most. So although there are many other worthy candidates—and I almost went with David Lynch—the person whose absence I suspect will hit me the hardest is one that takes even me by surprise: Francis Ford Coppola. It isn’t a matter of wanting him to direct another great film, since I haven’t even seen Youth Without Youth, Tetro, or Twixt, and there’s no question that his best years are behind him. Yet when Coppola is gone, it’s going to feel like the end of an era, with the departure of the one man who, more than anyone since Orson Welles, exemplifies the triumph and tragedy of a life in film. When he’s gone, I’ll remember him less for any one movie than for his commentary tracks, which are among the best I know, with the intimate, candid, generous fireside chats they afford with our Uncle Francis. It’s a voice filled with wisdom and regret, and it hints at the happiness that might still be found in wine, family, and good food after the fever of Hollywood has been left behind. And part of me hopes that he’ll live forever, like Tom Bombadil in Napa, ready to gently remind us of things we might prefer to forget.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2014 at 9:19 am

One short post about Glenn Gould

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Glenn Gould

As I write this, I’m listening to my copy of The Goldberg Variations, as recorded by Glenn Gould in 1955. It was one of the first albums I made a point of buying for my new record player, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: it occupies something of the same position in classical music that Kind of Blue does in jazz, as the one album that you’ll find in the collections of people who aren’t otherwise aficionados of that kind of music. Gould’s original recording remains one of the bestselling classical releases of all time, and it has served a source of inspiration for everyone from Richard Powers to Hannibal Lecter. Oddly enough, though, this is my first time really listening to it. I’ve always loved Gould’s second version, which he did in 1981, and it’s been a part of my life ever since college: I chose a few of the variations for the pianist to play at my wedding, and my wife and I walked down the aisle to the wonderful closing Quodlibet. For various reasons, however, mostly because it wasn’t available on compact disc for a long time, I never got around to sampling the earlier recording. And listening to it now, I can’t help but reflect a little on what it really means to grow and change as an artist.

It helps that Gould himself is such a fascinating figure. He sometimes claimed that if he hadn’t been a pianist, he might have been an author, and although the critical response to his own writings has been mixed, he had something of a novelist’s attitude toward his materials. “The piano,” Gould once said, “is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such…[but] I have played it all my life, and it is the best vehicle I have to express my ideas.” That’s how I suspect a lot of authors feel toward writing itself: I’m acutely conscious of its limitations, at least in my own hands, but at this point, I’m more or less stuck with it. For a certain kind of artist, what counts is the expression of the idea, and Gould always seemed to regard the act of performing as an obstacle between the music and our understanding of it. Hence the endless hours he spent in the studio, splicing takes into something that reflected his conception of the piece rather than any one performance, and his tendency to think of music in terms of shapes and patterns: “[Bach] was first and last an architect, a constructor of sound, and what makes him so inestimably valuable to us is that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived.”

Glenn Gould

As an unbelievably gifted prodigy and virtuoso, of course, Gould was particularly qualified to talk about the limitations of technique. It’s staggering to realize how young he was at his peak: he was only twenty-two when he recorded The Goldberg Variations for the first time, and he retired from public performance in his early thirties, after giving fewer than two hundred concerts. Much of his later career seems like a rebuke or renunciation of the early acclaim he received, and his decision to ultimately revisit his most famous recording was a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that cleverness and craft can take an artist only so far. It’s often said that there are just two kinds of prodigies, musical and mathematical, since these are the two fields of human excellence in which raw ability can triumph over inexperience. But there’s more to greatness than simple technical skill, and to listen to the two versions of the Variations is to sense an additional quarter century of experience coming through between the notes, along with the “groans and croons” of which the reviewer for The New Penguin Guide complained, as Gould quietly hummed to himself along with the music.

When I play Gould’s second recording just after the first one, the effect is something like the feeling I get from a documentary like Ballets Russes, which juxtaposes the image of a dancer at age twenty with the same man sixty years later—a combination that never fails to bring me to tears. Gould’s later Variations are slower, more contemplative, less concerned with impressing the listener than with teasing out every last drop of nuance. For someone who only dreams of such virtuosity, it’s a reminder of how much room there is for interpretation by a great performer, and how much can be added by three decades of experience. Gould died from a stroke at age fifty in 1982, shortly after recording his second version. If he’d lived, he’d be in his early eighties by now, and perhaps ready for one last run at his most famous work. It’s tempting to imagine what that final progression would have been like, using the first two recordings as a clue for the unknowable third, and although we’ll never hear it for ourselves, we can dream about it, and I’d like to think that we’ll get the answer in another life.

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2014 at 9:38 am

Quote of the Day

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Glenn Gould

The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Glenn Gould

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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