After he became heralded as one of the greatest pianists to ever play, Glenn Gould stopped performing live. Doing so just didn’t allow him to perfect the way he wanted to play like performing in a studio did, where he could go over the same measure of music again and again, capturing it on tape whenever he got it exactly right. The irony of all this was that even though he was obsessive about perfecting the way he performed, as well as how his performance would be heard, Gould would hum over his playing, a fact easy to hear on any of his stunningly beautiful recordings.
I love Gould’s humming almost as much as I love to hear him play, because, for me, it documents the exact moment he made his recordings, so even though I can play these recordings again and again, every time I listen to them it feels as if I’m hearing them for the very first time, up close and live. Listening to them, I get the very same sensation I feel when I’m listening to improvisational music being created spontaneously in a jazz or hip hop club or a street musician or poet performing in the street: That undeniable thrill of art being created in the moment, that undeniable thrill that that the artist is actually there.
Gould carried his ideas about the best way to perform and document his piano playing to another artistic medium: audio documentary making. In the early 1970s he created a series of three pieces for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about what he believed to be the essence of Canadian identity, a major topic circulating in Canadian academic, artistic and popular culture during that time. Titled The Solitude Trilogy, these documentaries were set in three places, the far North, off the coast of Newfoundland and on the Canadian prairies. Gould created them by recording ambient sounds in these places, interviewing a few of the people who lived there and then layering these sounds and interviews over one another along with pieces of found tape and other miscellaneous and often completely unrelated recordings.
Prior to making these pieces, Gould had written about hearing music in the everyday sounds and conversations he’d overhear just going about his day and in one of the stories told in the film 22 Short Films About Glenn Gould, he is shown having breakfast in a rural, road side coffee shop, listening in on all the din. But neither his writings about this topic nor this cinematic dramatization can compare to the beauty of the three documentaries he made.
In the first documentary in the series, titled The Idea of North, sounds of a train clattering are overlaid with the voices of nurses and Native people and road workers chatting as they return home from a brief visit to the nearest outpost of civilization, a one street town to the south. In the second, titled The Latecomers, the stories of two Newfoundlanders, one who was in favor of Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949 and one who was opposed, are edited together as if in conversation, their similarly accented voices separated by the sound of an enormous Atlantic Ocean crashing against the stone walls that protect their respective villages, which we learn would be close to one another geographically, if they weren’t built into the sides of two rocky sea-locked coves. The third, titled The Quiet In The Earth, fuses together a recording of a Mennonite preacher giving his Sunday morning service and a track of Janis Joplin sorrowfully singing have another little piece of my heart now baby, while church bells ring over a vast and barren prairie.
Like other documentary or sociological studies about North American communities, (such as the social ecological studies of the 1930s Chicago School of Sociology, Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown, or William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society), The Solitude Trilogy makes little distinction between the places it documents and the people who live there. However, unlike these studies, it makes no claims about its objectivity, accountability, certainty or truth. Even its authenticity is left as an ambiguous question. For as much as Gould was enamored by the idea that communities seemed to organically emerge from the world’s earthly terrain, he knew that his documentation of them were simply that, documentations, no matter how real the voices and sounds he recorded might seem.
It was a statement a kin to his decision to stop performing the piano live and like his decision an important reminder to all of us, that whether we are listeners of music or audio documentaries, (or, even readers of sociology for that matter), we have a choice as to whether or not we truly feel or believe the story the musician or documentary maker (or sociologist) tells us, that we alone hold the power to decide whether a story is the truth or a lie.
End Note: To view/listen to/read a recent community study, (“Welcome to Pine Point”, by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons), which not only captures but elevates many of the theoretical and methodological qualities of Gould’s “The Solitude Trilogy,” click here.
End Note 2: To start exploring the differences between audio documentary-making and audio ethnography, click here.