Contrapuntal politics: Glenn Gould, Canadian Landscape, and the Cold War

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Author: Anna Sajecki
Date: Summer 2015
From: Canadian Literature(Issue 225)
Publisher: The University of British Columbia - Canadian Literature
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,100 words

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While Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy--consisting of "The Idea of North" (1967), "Latecomers" (1969), and "Quiet in the Land" (1977)--has long been celebrated for its nationalist reverberations, Gould's own political investments still appear elusive. Perhaps this evasion is logical. Is not the point of the renowned Canadian pianist and radio artist's contrapuntal technique, defined by the simultaneous expression of distinct melodic lines, the circumvention of a singular voice? More than one critic has referenced Gould's letter to Roy Vogt, dated August 3, 1971, in which Gould defines contrapuntal arrangement as the antidote to "totalitarian" musicality (Roberts 150). And yet, critics such as Kevin McNeilly and Markus Mantere have avoided the full political implications of a term such as "totalitarian" by instead using the letter to establish those now foundational claims regarding the plural identity of Gould's music and his representation of isolated spaces such as the North. But just as the North fascinated Gould, Gould's use of the term "totalitarian" fascinates me. Not only did Gould's career span the Cold War era, but--as historian Graham Carr examines in a recent article--he was the first pianist from North America to perform in the Union of Soviet and Socialist Republics (USSR). The rhetoric in Gould's letters is repeatedly political--notwithstanding his views on the "totalitarian" impulses of music, the artist also reflected on the "undemocratic" harmony in Mozart's opus (Roberts 109) and the "tyranny of stylistic collectivity" both in art and life (Roberts 176). Is it possible, then, that Gould's work was indeed motivated by a politics inseparable from post-Second World War and Cold War tensions?

This article elaborates the wider political resonances of Gould's contrapuntal technique by addressing his lesser-known radio documentary "The Search for Pet Clark" (1967) (1) in relation to his journalistic work and personal letters. The rise of Gould's contrapuntal method is inseparable from his early performance of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, wherein the multiple phrases and melodic expressions produce an overlapping, plural conversation to which Gould himself added his improvisation and humming. In the Solitude Trilogy documentaries, Gould revolutionary applied the contrapuntal method to radio by overlapping voices discussing isolated communities made up of either Northerners, outpost Newfoundlanders, or prairie Mennonites. As a political form, the contrapuntal is often associated with Edward Said's application in Culture and Imperialism, in which Said recommends reading cultural archives "not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts" (51). (2) While Said applies the contrapuntal as a methodology, for Gould the form embodies political possibility. Gould's work supports a specifically Canadian Cold War and post-Second World War perspective, refusing the simple equation of the United States with democratic pluralism and the USSR with totalitarianism, and instead presenting totalitarianism as a politics that circulated in a multitude of ways (including within the world of art and music) and that affected Canadian space through the homogenizing forces of post-Second World War American...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A457622769