Saturday, May 14, 2011

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
White Pine Pictures

Nearly 30 years after his death, pianist Glenn Gould remains an icon. He’s one of the few classical musicians revered by peers who also has awestruck fans without expertise in that area of music. I’m one of those. I’ve collected his recordings, read two biographies, and have listened to few pieces of music—and none of classical music—more than I have of Gould’s 1981 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

There are a number of videos about Gould that are limited, bathetic or complete rip-offs.  Also a fine fictional film based on Gould's life, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould by Francois Girard (it took me years to catch on to the fact that the number corresponds to the number of variations in "Goldberg": this film had to have been called The Glenn Gould Variations at some point.)  And a 2006 film I haven't yet seen called Hereafter by Gould confidant Bruno Monsaingeon that adds dramatizations and encounters with Gould fanatics to archival video and audio. But this film, Genius Within by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont is a satisfying biographical treatment with a fair amount of music. It's been on the festival circuit, but the DVD extra interviews really contribute.

I happened to rent this along with the docu DVD on 1970s popular singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, and they have provocative similarities. So instead of recapping the Gould story, I’ll suggest some of their commonalities as artists.

Artistic success is often a matter of being ready with the right skills at the right time and place. It also tends to be circumscribed in time, between the damage or obsessions that motivate, and the time when their effects accumulate.

Nilsson had a troubled childhood, Gould perhaps a lonely one. They both were successful in their 20s with a clear path to an artistic career, and they both violated career rules, to their benefit and at a cost. (Both notoriously avoided live performance for the recording studio.  Gould felt touring drained imagination, causing him to "grow old very quickly.  It's a dreadful life.")  Drugs (alcohol and 70s recreationals for Nilsson, prescription drugs for Gould) arguably fueled their work and arguably hastened their demise.

Both men mesmerized their friends, and demanded much of them. Both explored other creative areas but returned to culminating works—Gould especially, with his second Goldberg Variations in the last year of his life. They were both hyperactive and intuited an early death, and both died in their early 50s.

But their legends can lead to distortions. One woman on this DVD reveals a romantic relationship and implies a sexual one with the reputedly virginal Gould. Nilsson’s life also became more balanced with a happy family life in his later years.

Yet crucially they each followed internal guides, and apart from personal failings their unorthodox career decisions turned out to be artistically right.  Perhaps this sentence from Thoreau, from the journal passage quoted in the previous post, applies not only to individual works but to the arc of a career: “We must walk consciously only part way to our goal,” Thoreau wrote, “and then leap in the dark to our success.”