Glenn Gould's The Solitude Trilogy
Like many artists, writers, and thinkers, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) appreciated solitude as a practical necessary and a boon to his creative work. But Gould went farther than cultivating solitude as a creative tool. Soon after renouncing the public concert circuit, Gould hit upon a work that would express his interest in solitude, an audio documentary that would eventually become The Solitude Trilogy.
The stunning introduction of Gould to public life as a concert pianist began in late 1940's and ended abruptly in 1964 when he announced the end of public performing. In 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was developing programming for Canada's centennial and approached Gould for any project he might contribute. Gould already had an idea.
Gould had hit upon the idea of "North." In 1964, Gould had traveled by train, the Muskeg Express, from Winnipeg to Churchill. (While Churchill was the endpoint of his journey, it was the beginning point for nurse Marian Schroeder, who is one female voices in "The Idea of North.")
Of the trip, Gould noted in the documentary introduction of "The Idea of North":
I've been intrigued for quite a long time ... by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga country. I've read about it, written about it occasionally, and even pulled my parka once and gone there. I've remained of necessity an outsider, and the north has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about sometimes, and, in the end, avoid.
Gould's trip north to Hudson's Bay left him with "an enthusiasm for the North which may even get me through another winter of city living, which" -- he told a correspondent -- "as you know, I loathe."
Gould's fondness for the North was conceptual, even cerebral. It has been related by biographers to his cultural sensibilities as a Canadian, his musical affinities for Nordic or "northern " composers like Sibelius, Bach, and Schoenberg, and the image of his personality as an unemotional recluse.
Gould's sedentary habits also militated against outdoors, wilderness, and cold. He had been notorious for appearing at concerts with mittens, hats, and overcoats, meticulous about drafts and indoor temperatures, and for his famous habit of plunging his hands into scalding water before a concert.
Whether he suffered circulatory or metabolic problems, Gould's health grew worse over the decades, due primarily to conflicting prescriptions drugs administered by at least four doctors. Gould's early death at fifty years of age revealed his own neglect of his well-being. His solitary life of self-inflicting habits reflects the difficult path -- sometimes unconscious, sometimes deliberate --that often haunts creative individuals.
Gould's Solitude Trilogy assembled many voices reflecting on the theme of the titles: "The Idea of North" about northern Canada, "The Latecomers" about Newfoundland's physical and cultural isolation, and "Quiet in the Land," about Mennonites in Canada confronting modern society. These works were not strictly oral history or documentary by scholarly standards; it is not clear how much Gould composed versus what the people he assembled contributed, all of whom, however, are authentic in their identities. As a famous Canadian, Gould was given generous latitude to produce celebratory projects that highlighted aspects of Canada's culture and heritage.
But for Gould, the element of solitude is in each piece the object of his interest. He had no obvious critical or scholarly interest. The element of solitude was objective and sufficient for him. He once said that "isolation is the indispensable component to human happiness." An oft-quoted sentiment (succinctly captured by Bruno Monsaingeon in chapter 17 of his 32 Short Films about Glen Gould) is:
I've always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now, what that X represents I don't really know, whether it be two and seven-eighths or seven and two-eighths, but it's a substantial ratio.
Judith Pearlman, a production collaborator, remarked of Gould that
He designed his solitude to suit himself, like a pearly shell. He made it a work of art. He distanced himself from other people's emotions -- and then he was brilliant.
Gould deftly played on his reputation as reclusive. For example, he cheerfully complained in an article entitled "A Desert Island Discography," based on a discontinued Canadian radio program, "Hermit's Choice," that he had never been invited to be a guest on the program "despite a peerless reputation as the country's most experienced hermit."
And when he wrote his self-interview "Gould Interviews Gould About Gould" he refers oft-handedly to his "hermetic life-style."
The Solitude Trilogy: The Idea of North
"The Idea of North," the first part of the trilogy, was intended at the time to stand on its own, with the trilogy evolving with Gould's enthusiasm. It was described by Gould as a "radio documentary" and was based on the narratives of five individuals who had directly experienced the north of Canada. As producer Lorne Tulk noted, "The Idea of North"
represented both the real and imagined effects of geographical isolation, and it was the jumping-off point for Glenn's exploration of solitude via radio documentary. Glenn believed that isolation, which of course is synonymous with the North, though it needn't be, was the purveyor of the creative spirit. The idea that the North forced solitude upon anyone who ventured there was, at least in part, how Glenn described "The Idea of North" to me.
Gould himself tells how the north had fascinated him since childhood but that he had no more than a romanticized and metaphorical view of it. When he assembled "The Idea of North." Gould still considered it allegorical. But he was impressed by how those who had gone north had not returned "unscathed" and had become "philosophers." The work sought to "examine the effects of solitude and isolation upon those who have lived in the Arctic or sub-Arctic."
After a three minute introduction representing what Gould called "contrapuntal radio" -- wherein voices, like musical instruments, enter and fade in sequence -- Gould himself describes his purpose, and what follows are the narratives of the dramatis personae -- a female nurse representing the enthusiast, a cynical sociologist, a rugged prospector, a government bureaucrat, a scholarly anthropologist, and a surveyor Gould describes as a "disillusioned enthusiast." This latter figure Gould had met on his train adventure and imagined him to have led (as producer Janet Somerville puts it) "a hermit's life in northern Manitoba." This was Wally McLean.
Wally's folksy and reflective voice is punctuated by the sound of a moving train to recreate Gould's original impression, a conversation in a dining car. Wally plays the role of the hermit turned philosopher. He describes himself as a hermit by choice not by necessity who escaped urban society to the north.
Other voices, including that of a young geologist, weave in and out of the narrative without intersecting Wally but confirming and extending his perceptions. In passing, they mention Kafka, the myth of Sisyphus, Pirandello, Shakespeare, Einstein, William James. Wally speaks of nature as the last challenge, which in turn merges with human nature as the last challenge, and concludes that these challenges culminate in the challenge of going north.
The Solitude Trilogy: The Latecomers
The second part of the trilogy, "The Latecomers," does not present a strong narrative proposition but instead presents a tapestry of contrapuntal voices with no single voice dominating, except perhaps, that of an older man with a rich baritone, strong, lilting, and philosophic. "The Latecomers" is about Newfoundland, and its object is to present the voices of an island isolated physically, geographically, and culturally from mainland urban culture and society. The voices are majestic, lyric, and even bard-like. Their accents are Celtic in tone. Good thing, too, because they overlap regularly, but are imminently pleasant tones. Each speaker builds and descends from the common theme.
The documentary opens with ocean waters lapping at rocks and shore, immediately establishing the mood of solitude and reflection, and it always remains in the background. Early on, a voice announces that the "mad rush of this life has robbed us of solitude. ... The real value of life is solitude, meditation, quiet."
The dilemma for Newfoundlanders is that the elders stay but the young leave. The life of self-sufficient farms, the sense of community and mutual support does not compensate for the sense of isolation and difficulties. The sense of duty made the old ways seem anarchistic in comparison to modern urban life: villages needed no law or magistrate, everyone enjoyed autonomy, crime was non-existent. But young people complain of monotony, boredom, and the absence of choice. The older voices counter that the émigrés cannot abstract from their closed-in urban life and have no practical skills. Modern conveniences have eliminated communal and social projects. This back and forth of younger voices versus older ones and makes an intriguing juxtaposition and fulfills Gould's creative interest in composing a contrapuntal work.
Towards the end a conclusion seems to emerge from both sides, that the next generation will realize the shortcomings of technology and the idleness of urban living, and find new ways to combine material and spiritual life in a revived but deeper way of living. They all admit that they are victims in one way or another of technology. The last few minutes of "The Latecomers" fades into a greater number of contrapuntal voices, until only the roar of the ocean is heard.
The Solitude Trilogy: Quiet in the Land
The third part of the Solitude Trilogy, "Quiet in the Land," focuses on the Mennonite community of Red River, Manitoba. This project is more complex in weaving ambient sounds, voices, and specific narrative, departing from the clearer voices of the previous parts of the trilogy. Complexity highlights the more strident clash of cultures.
The theme of solitude and isolation emerges as the dilemma of a community facing the challenge of social change around and within it, more interwoven with Canadian life than Newfoundland, and far less individualistic than going north.
The documentary opens with a mix of church bells, speeding vehicles on a highway, and the introduction of organ music and a choir. A preacher's voice emerges to set the mood with reflections on the theme of being in the world but not of the world. In the background, Janis Joplin sings her little ditty about materialism: "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz ... "
The voices present the stark challenge to Mennonite culture, no longer an historical monolith. The Mennonites are an agricultural community, but also urban doctors, lawyers, and professionals. Their tradition is a tight-knit community, but they are increasingly scattered geographically. A female voice explains that one can no longer distinguish a Mennonite from anyone else when in an urban setting. The preacher intones the parable of the prodigal son.
Male voices reflect on Jesus as an example of how to be in the world and not of it. But the Mennonites are not so rustic and uncultured. One man explains how moved he was to reflect on Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, seeing that too many Christians wait passively to make meaning of their lives, values, and traditions, but that the world does not wait. The challenge is to consciously choose, like the Anabaptists and Mennonites of history, like the Russian Mennonite émigrés to Germany and Canada, like the conscientious objectors of twentieth-century wars.
Younger voices articulate the temptations faced by younger Mennonites. There are music, parties, alcohol, conviviality, non-Mennonite friends and acquaintances in cities. Because there is no Mennonite hierarchy or authority, there is no clear articulation of behavior norms outside of the community outside of tradition, with which the younger are less familiar.
Both sets of younger and older voices conclude that the older Mennonites will remain wary of art, science, and higher education, but that some new and genuine form of belief will emerge in the next generation. Perhaps there cannot be holiness in the midst of urban life, but the experience will form a new spirit, a calling to a new life, as the preacher puts it towards the end of the documentary. The preacher gives his blessing, we hear voices exiting the church, and church bells again as at the beginning, slowly fading out.
Solitude was a complex proposition for Glenn Gould. He yearned for a solitude that extended the practical solitude of creativity, desperately requiring cooperation from others but not their inspiration or feedback. His friendships were few but loyal, and some who came to observe him closely, like the writer and critic Margaret Pascu, believed him to be alienated and searching for understanding and empathy.
Because Gould's solitude was propelled by work, and because his musical genius exacerbated his eccentric behavior, his concept of solitude could never transcend what he had made of himself. Though his search for solitude was in part very cerebral, it was genuine.
Gould once said that the ultimate goal of art and creativity was "the gradual life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Gould's experiments in The Solitude Trilogy were modest forays into his own mind and into solitude, a bulwark or artistic counterpart that explored in a different medium what he had achieved with his music: "a state of wonder and serenity." The Solitude Trilogy is a testament to the persuasiveness of solitude in the life of a creative genius.
The Solitude Trilogy is available as a compact disc set produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Representative biographers of Gould include David Langer, Peter Ostwald, and Otto Friedrich. Web sites of interest include the CBC Archives on The Solitude Trilogy, which includes audio excerpts: http://archives.cbc.ca/IDCC-1-68-320-1709/arts_entertainment/glenn_gould/