Bookends

This morning, after a hard weekend, I find a bit of clarity in my Sunday morning routine. Listening to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations is not generally part of the Sunday morning routine, but this morning I couldn’t have made a better choice of what to listen to as I pored over the New York Times and sipped my coffee.

It’s a bit of a secret, but I was seriously obsessed with Gould as a teenager. I owned heaps of his recordings, books about him, and watched 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould over and over. Eventually I drifted out of it, but listening to him again this morning brings to the surface sentiments that remind me of why I was so fascinated in him as an artist.

Gould formally recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice. Once at the beginning of his career, once at the end. These two recordings so neatly bookended his career that it seems natural to think of the first recording as the hello and the second as the goodbye. The style of each recording allows the sense that the two recordings poetically represented a beginning and an end to deepen: 1955 is impetuous, full of life, bursting with energy; 1981 is sombre, slow, meditative.

Recalling these two very different recordings of the same music by the same artist, with such a span of time and experience in between, caused me to rethink what I may have written or said before about repetition and its role in an artist’s practice as a place to determine what perfection is. My notion of it initially was that the attempts at perfection are made by determining what the perfect movement/interpretation/image is, and then trying to repeat this as closely as possible, over and over. I thought this made some sense, particularly when applied to a performative context, because there is a script to be followed, and some measure of precision that performers demand of their bodies and voices. I thought this made particular sense, applied to my own work, which involves a human-computer relationship. Precision and clarity of purpose is important when attempting to bend a machine to your will.

When listening to Gould’s two versions of the Goldbergs, the obvious became clear to me – the script is a guide. Both of these remarkable recordings originate from the same score, and yet are so different. Moreover, though many listeners have a preference for either the 1955 or 1981 recording, it would be impossible to definitively say which is the superior version. It becomes a matter of taste.

So it is the same music, and yet not at all the same. It now occurs to me that repetition is still useful (or else Gould would have seen no need to re-record the Goldbergs at all), but that narrow avenues of definition, constricted conduits of purpose, are useful for refining very precise creative articulations. It’s as though it took Gould his whole career to return to this initial thought, and create resonances in the spaces of difference between the 1955 recording and the 1981 recording. Gould is a powerful example of just how much space for creativity exists, even when an area of focus is so tightly defined.