Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

2 Reviews of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I’m sorry then, but you’re just not qualified to appreciate this film.

The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.

Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French-Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film. The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism. Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties. I was a film critic for the Chapel Hill News in Chapel Hill, NC from 1992 to 2000, and never did any of my reviews produce hate mail except for this one. The letter came to me on paper via the post since this was before most of us had email. In it a man suggested that I show some humility and not so casually smack around names like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were geniuses who have made permanent contributions to Western Civilization and who the bleep are you and what the bleep have you done to put yourself on the same level as them? Fortunately, the missive wasn't longer than a paragraph. It seemed the writer took as much joy in writing the letter as he did in reading my review. Well, I was flattered that someone had taken me seriously enough to actually write me a letter, but I was also dismayed and fearful. The guy certainly wasn't wrong. On the other hand, in my review I was demonstrating the same kind of snooty holier-than-thou attitude that the director did when he made the film? See? Get it? You didn't like my review? Well, join the club. I felt the same way about 32 Short Films. There. See? And some people accuse me of not being subtle. Still, this didn't make the man's points any less valid.

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It took courage for me to write what I did. But courage born from arrogance and ignorance usually isn't anything much more than stupid. Hence my dismay and fear. Well, nearly twenty years later, I guess I'm a different guy. I love classical music and write about it for WCPE the Classical Station. I've also gotten into Bach quite a bit in the last few years. And no, I am not qualified to talk about Bach except for the emotional impact some of his music has on me. A lot of Bach is still beyond me, and I don't know if I will live long enough to be able to appreciate everything he's ever done. I've also purchased a few of Glenn Gould's recordings and really like them. Why? I don't know. How does Gould compare to other Bach interpreters on the piano? Couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that I like his French Suites and I really really like his Goldberg Variations. Beyond that anything I could say would just be subjective ramblings no better or worse than anyone else's. So, I've always wanted to take another crack at 32 Short Films. I'm grown up now. I've finally got the blare of punk rock out of my brain and can view this film in a more detached manner and from a more informed perspective. So here you go…my second review of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And guess what? The film is just as dull and pretentious now as it was in 1993. I had it right all along! I stand by my original review, proudly. Well, okay, maybe putting the Velvets and Coltrane on the same level as Bach was a little foolish, and maybe I'd shy away from some of the raw attitude in the original review. But I am proud that the 24 year-old version of me, penniless, uncultured cretin that I was, was able to see this film for the ill-conceived art house experiment that it is. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is essentially a smart movie for smart people who like to congratulate themselves for being so smart. Keep in mind, this is not a knock on Gould or Bach. Nor is it a knock on Colm Feore who does a convincing job of playing Gould. It's a knock on the film and the director who made it and co-wrote it. So where was I? Oh, right. Smug. Note how people in the film appear in interviews without subtitles explaining who they are or their relation to Gould. This really would have helped the audience appreciate the relevancy of the interviews, but I guess Girard couldn’t be bothered. We're supposed to know ahead of time who these people are. And if you don't know them, too bad. Notice also how one of these subjects refers to something called 318. This was Gould's beloved piano, a pretty darn important part of Gould's artistic life. But film doesn't tell you this. You have to infer it because an earlier short film called “CD318” shows the inner workings of a piano as it plays. Actually a double inference is required of the uninitiated: You have to know ahead of time that “CD318” was the, er, name of Gould's piano. And you have to know that the “318” this one interviewee keeps mentioning indeed refers to this piano. Of course, Girard could have told us this without requiring us to jump through hoops, but, then again, he wouldn't want to dumb down his precious movie for the sake of the unwashed masses, now would he? See what I mean by smug? Also, many of Girard's pieces are have a point to them. In other words, he wants to tell us things about Gould through cinema, and often cheap cinema at that. Take the piece “Truck Stop”. Gould drives up, sits down, and orders breakfast. Pop music on the radio, people chit chatting about this and that. Normally, our ears would filter most of this out or relegate it as background noise and not pay attention. But not Gould. He has super ears, you see. He hears one conversation loudly and excludes all the others. Then he hears another even louder and over the first. Then another and another and another, until the whole truck stop is a cacophony of conversation. You see what Girard is doing here, don't you? He's telling us that Glenn Gould had really sensitive ears. That was the point of the short film. I figured that out after thirty seconds, but had to put up with the babble of people who had nothing to do with Glenn Gould for the rest of the piece. See what I mean by dull? Another 'point piece' by Girad is “Pills”. All you get is close ups of certain drugs while Gould rattles off effects and side effects of these drugs in voice over. I'm sorry, this is interesting how? Well, Glenn Gould self-medicated and took a lot of needless drugs which may have led to his untimely and tragic demise, don't you see. Oh. Ohhhhh! Boy, I felt like an idiot when I learned that after the fact in 1993. Of course, Girard could have saved me the hassle (and the discomfiture) and made this clear in his film, but I just guess he didn't think people like me were worth it. Next, there is the experimental aspect of the film. And by 'experimental' I mean the kind of dreck you would find in a really bad student film festival. And 'student' I mean attempts at high art that sink directly into tedium. Take “Variation in C Minor”. It's a visualization of a sound reel as Gould's music plays. Just abstract white globs pulsating on a black background in time to piano music. Does anyone else besides me see this as a cheap gimmick? That, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Take also “Diary of One Day”. An x-ray video of a man playing piano interspersed with mathematic equations. A baffling piece if there ever was one. Then there's “Practice” in which Gould whines about being on the road and then imagines that he playing the piano. Girard tracks the camera in circles around Gould as he plays air piano in…what? his apartment? a motel? a studio? I can't tell. He does this in “Passion According to Gould” as well. And to a lesser extent in “Opus 1” in which a camera tracks circles around a string quartet as they play an early piece by composed by Glenn Gould. Who the musicians are Girard does not deign to say until the credits roll. With these pieces Girard is gambling that since the subject matter is Glenn Gould and since the music is classical these pieces will be interesting. He loses his gamble. Music, diagetic or not, loses something when heard on film, I don't care how great it is. Unless it is a concert film, the music becomes supportive to the images. It becomes secondary. Take music videos, for example. In all cases, they are heavily edited and filled with striking images. If not, they better have something real clever or serve up to the viewer. Rarely, do you see musicians just playing with only handful of edits. Great music and a famous subject will not rescue boring visuals. And as a little thought experiment, just to test my theory here, suppose in “Practice” it were my Aunt Millie prancing around her apartment caught in a sublime Bach-inspired epiphany and not Glenn Gould. Would anybody care? There are 32 films here, so Girard does get it right some of the time. I love “The Tip”. This is the only piece that contains a beginning, middle, and end and something approaching a plot. Apparently, Gould was almost as good at playing the stock market as was playing the piano. So here you have Gould getting a tip from a Middle Eastern Sheik's bodyguard about a little-known oil company known as Sotex. Gould sells all his other oil stock in the middle of boom and doubles down on Sotex. His broker thinks he's crazy, but eats his words after a disastrous week when Gould is the only one of his clients who makes money. The piece employs irony, humor, and suspense all in appropriate doses. The performances are charming as well. Other pieces do fine. “Personal Ad” has Gould, dwarfed by hulking stacks of books, composing the ultimate personal ad, an alliterative catalog of geeky character traits he looks for in a woman (“Tristanesque trip taking and permanent flame fluttering”) only to keep mum when he calls the newspaper on the phone. “Gould Meets McClaren” is a nice bit of abstract animation, if you like that kind of thing. “Gould Meets Gould” pits pianist against pianist as they debate Gould's views on art and the artist. Gould famously quit performing by the 1960s, opting to direct his creative energies thereafter in the recording studio. The piece, fittingly I guess, ends in mid-thought. “Leaving” achieves poignancy in dealing with Gould's death. I guess my major problem with 32 Short Films, aside from pieces I didn't like outnumbering the ones I did like 3 to 1, is that it provides a poor starting point from which a person can begin to appreciate Glenn Gould. Of course, if you already love Gould, you'll probably love this film. If you already have any affection towards him, then this film will likely match that affection. The film is as quirky and unpredictable as its subject matter. And that indeed is something. But what is more than just something is the millions of people who are ready to appreciate Glenn Gould, but will be put off by the unabashed elitism of this film. And that's too bad, because in the years between my first review and this one, I finally did experience and appreciate the greatness of Glenn Gould. I can only imagine how my life could have been broadened had this happened when it should have happened, the day I first sat down to review 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Master and Commander

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, and yet is successful. I’m filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It’s great such things get published. But I can’t help thinking, “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O’Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I’d like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don’t believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, treatment and yet is successful. I'm filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It's great such things get published. But I can't help thinking, diagnosis “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, buy published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O'Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I'd like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don't believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

O'Brian's big accomplishment here is the invention of two very likable characters who are nicely placed on a warship where they are bound to amicably butt heads. They probably occupy rungs 1 and 2 of the IQ totem pole of any ship they're on. Jack is brave and clever, but not headstrong. He's always trying to second-guess the enemy, and he's always trying to capture their ships for prize money. Maybe he's a little too loose with the wine. Maybe he's a little too loose with the ladies. He likes Stephen though, and not just as a surgeon. All the bugs and twigs the man collects. The incessant questions about naval goings-on, their shared interest in music. It's a strong yet interesting friendship, and I'm sure this resonates well with O'Brian's readership.

Another accomplishment, just as big if not bigger, is the truth of it all. There is no doubt that O'Brian knew exactly what he was writing about. The history, the culture, the technical details of sailors, ships and seamanship. Contemporary reviews focused on the exact verisimilitude of the story down to the tiniest details and raved about it. Indeed, Master and Commander is a time capsule. There is little that's modern about it other than some of the prose (and even that comes across as baroque at times). O'Brian abstains it seems from inserting any modern sentiment into his writing and focuses on telling the story as it would have happened in 1801 or whenever it takes place. Although this is not the sort of thing that necessarily jazzes me, I do recognize that it is a significant literary feat (and one that is difficult to accomplish).

The last great thing O'Brian brings to the table are the stratagems, gambits, and ploys Aubrey uses to trick the enemy. They are all ingenious, they are all based on deep research, and they almost always work. Hence the Captain Kirk reference. In Master and Commander, Aubrey captains the HMS Sophie, which is little more than a sloop. Often he faces off against ships that are bigger, newer, faster, and carry more firepower. Aubrey will need his wits if he doesn't want to take his crew on a tour of Davey Jones' Locker. And remember that IQ totem pole? It applies to practically the whole ocean it seems. No one is smarter than Jack Aubrey about things naval, and when he has a suspicion about the enemy or the weather or what his ship or crew can or cannot do under certain circumstances, it is almost certain to be right.

So if you like accurate history, atomic-level nautical details, likeable characters, ingenious stratagems, and a hero you can really root for (not to mention some thrilling battle scenes), then Master and Commander is for you.

But it is not quite for me.

For one, I found about a thrid the novel to be incomprehensible. This breaks a big rule for me: make your novel comprehensible. When I'm take on a story, I would like some detail, but not so much that it seems like it's written in another language. This is what it was for me. It seems that for the first several chapters, if you do not have an intimate understanding of all kinds jibs and sails and masts and decks then you will get lost. I honestly don't know how anyone who isn't a naval scholar or lacks experience on a 18th century warship would be able to follow what goes on. Yes, I know that many can; I just don't know how.

I think I gave up trying to closely follow the story when my dictionary failed me for the 5th or 6th time. This was maybe a third of the way through the novel. That's too much work for a reader, to have to constantly consult reference material to follow the action. I started to skim over some of the more baffling passages just to keep from putting the book down (which I was tempted to do several times). I found it amusing that somewhere towards the end a character had died and I hadn't even realize it. I didn't catch on until they were sewing him into his hammock for a watery grave. And I didn't care all that much, either. I was only skimming the baffling bits just so I could follow the main arc of the story. Then I realized there wasn't one. Master and Commander has a beginning and a middle, and that's it. The story is basically about Jack Aubrey's advancement through the ranks of the British Navy as he goes from adventure to adventure with his nerdy pal Stephen Maturin. The story isn't supposed to have an ending.

This leads to my second gripe. Being a serial novel, suspense never truly develops because no matter what happens you always know that Jack and Stephen will live to see another day. So the entertainment value comes not with wondering whether Jack and Stephen will get out of their current predicament, but marveling at how they get out of their current predicament. And there's always going to be a predicament.

Remember Gilligan's Island? You know they were never going to leave the island, right? No matter what an episode promises (or threatens), you can rest assured that in the end the castaways will be in the same place they were at the beginning. This is called the Law of the Expanding Middle. It works great for comedies and soap operas and mysteries and adventure stories, but it is rarely the format for serious literature. In serious literature you usually want main characters to be in a different place when it's all over. The story has to somehow change them (and us) significantly and perhaps even permanently. That is the mark of great literature. You don't get that with Sherlock Holmes stories. You don't get that with James Bond stories. And you certainly don't get that here.

This is not to say that Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Jack Aubrey novels are without merit. Of course, not. These are first-rate genre stories that have impacted millions. People have a need for this kind of thing, and these novels have been delivering for generations. And that's lovely. It's just that I don't have a need for this kind of fiction. I consider it to be intellectual but lightweight entertainment rather than something profound.

While I am willing to concede that my first two objections to Master and Commander are at least partially my problem rather than any legitimate knock on the novel itself, I will stand by my last objection till my dying day as an honest to goodness fault in the work. The novel's ending violates what I consider to be a sacrosanct law of storytelling:

Never take the climax of the story out of the hands of the protagonist.

Master and Commander contains two really big battle scenes towards the end: One in which Jack outwits the crew of a big Spanish vessel and takes it for a prize, and the other in which the Sophie is snuck up upon by 3 French warships, and, despite a brilliant and risky escape effort engineered by Jack, is captured. The remainder of the novel consists of Jack and Stephen sitting it out as prisoners and then getting court-martialed by the British navy. The big climax happens when the admirals let Jack off the hook for being such a capital fellow.

Does anyone else see exactly how lame this is?

Here we have our brilliant and gallant leader ending his story by getting captured and then sitting there at the mercy of others. Jack does nothing to achieve his state of grace. Yes, his crew testified that Jack did all he could to save the ship, but we already know this. All this ending proves is that the navy brass are not entirely unsympathetic to justice. This is more their shining moment than Jack Aubrey's. To slog through such a dense, baffling novel only to be sold a cheap bill of goods at the end was a letdown to say the least.

Yeah, I guess we're supposed to be elated since we share in Jack Aubrey's triumphs and disasters. But I'm not. If the author couldn't be bothered to contrive a climax that keeps Jack in charge of his own fate at the very least, why should I be bothered to care all that much when Jack lucks out in the end? He could have just as easily been hanged or struck by lightning.

This is simply lazy writing, and I am dismayed that so many people don't seem to care. If an author expects a reader to dedicate many hours to his book, he'd better have a worthwhile payoff in the end. That O'Brian doesn't give one is as baffling as some of his prose. And why readers gave him a pass for it is anyone's guess.

That said, I did come away from Master and Commander with a valuable lesson: if an author knows his audience (or if his audience knows him), he can get away with breaking any rule of writing he wants. I am willing to gamble Patrick O'Brian knew his audience well, and that audience (at least in 1969) consisted of a whole generation of English speaking men who were quite knowledgeable about British naval history. If this weren't the case, no publisher would have come near such an arcane yarn as Master and Commander. As long as Patrick O'Brian kept Jack and Stephen likeable, as long as he kept his stories teeming with accurate nautical details, as long as he kept supplying his readership with cracking battle scenes and clever stratagems, and as long as Jack Aubrey always came out on top in the end, then his readership will always love him.

There is something to be admired about that.