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The cult of Gould

Twenty-one years after his death, the eccentric pianist inspires diverse devotees.

August 10, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

It began, unpromisingly, with music written to put you to sleep. But when the dashing 22-year-old Glenn Gould recorded a little-known piece Bach had come up with to soothe an aristocratic insomniac, the pianist's ecstatic, ferocious playing kick-started popular interest in the composer. Few had heard him performed this way: as a living, almost modern, force.

Just as important, Gould's 1955 recording of "The Goldberg Variations" ignited a career that would make him one of classical music's last culture heroes. Gould would become not a New York insider like Leonard Bernstein, nor a middlebrow regular-guy like Van Cliburn (or later, Yo-Yo Ma), but a rebel angel from the Canadian wilds who drew both disdain and comparisons to James Dean and Jimi Hendrix. Like theirs, his reputation seems only to have grown since his death.

During his life, Gould revolutionized the way we hear 18th century music. Now, more than 20 years after a stroke felled him in 1982 at just 50, he has one of the decade's best-selling serious piano records. Last fall's three-CD set "A State of Wonder," which collects two versions of "Goldberg Variations" with a disc of interviews and outtakes, has sold nearly 60,000 copies since its release. Those numbers are astronomical for a classical release -- the set dwarfs the sales of any single CD by Rubinstein or Horowitz, including Rubinstein's legendary version of Chopin's "Nocturnes." (Scores of Gould albums remain available, and a collection of him playing Romantic music, called " ... And Serenity," is due this fall.)

He's also the rare classical figure who appeals to rock musicians, Gen-Xers, jazz pianists and Net-heads, as well as artists, writers and folks with little interest in other classical music. It's no surprise he's inspired a play, a film and at least one novel. For some, Gould's records are the first of many classical purchases.

His disparate devotees include maverick filmmaker John Waters ("Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray"), the actress who played the wisecracking Flo on the sitcom "Alice," even a young guitarist who tours with the Allman Brothers.

"I can put him on for hours -- he's like nobody else," says Waters, who owns 10 books on Gould, hunts for anecdotes on him and gives his CDs as gifts. "He was the ultimate original -- a real outsider. And he had a great style, the hats and the gloves and so on."

Much of Gould's support, of course, comes from the classical cognoscenti. But Gould has unparalleled powers to reach outside them. In some ways, he's a man of the 1950s and '60s -- perhaps the last era when an undiluted high culture figure could become a media star. But in a broader sense, the idiosyncratic Canadian, who disdained fashion and called himself "the last Puritan," has become -- with his interest in publicity, technology and pop culture -- a man for our time.

Touchstone film

Sometimes, it starts with the movie. Jason Moran was a high school kid in Houston when he took a date to see "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," an unconventional 1993 picture by Francois Girard that focused on the pianist's eccentricity.

Electrified by the film and by Gould's intense dedication and stunning technique, Moran couldn't help notice that his 16-year-old companion was sinking into her seat. "That never happened again, me and her," says Moran, now 27 and a leading New York-based jazz pianist signed to Blue Note. "If you can't deal with Gould, then maybe you're not my type."

Moran became a serious Gould fan, reading about him, seeking out his music, watching the film again and again. He saw Gould as a parallel to his hero Thelonious Monk, both eccentrics -- jazz great Monk was as famous for his wild hats as Gould was for wearing overcoats in August -- who approached music with a "reckless abandon."

Born middle class in Toronto to a furrier and an amateur musician, Gould became a prodigy who at 14 played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Toronto Symphony, but he neither entered nor won the contests that have since announced the emergence of a virtuoso. After his first American recital, in 1955 in New York, an executive from Columbia Records heard Gould and signed him immediately.

His playing was marked by its clarity, its accuracy and -- often and controversially -- its speed. In his Bach, he avoided the pedals, so the notes aren't sustained or shaded as they can be with other interpreters: The result is a dry, clean style, each voice articulated clearly, that some listeners find lacking in emotional nuance.

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