Piano variations: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

I've been a fan of the piano since I was a child. One of my few regrets is never learning how to play. I tried a couple of times and discovered my brain is not hardwired to tickle the ivories, but I love the sound of it nevertheless. Over the last couple of weeks, piano music has become a welcome soundtrack as I work on various projects. Music is a must for me when I'm writing – the mood of what I'm listening to constantly informs the words on the page and often inspires scenes or moments in my poetry and fiction. This blog post is part one of a series of reviews about the music I've been listening to – in its many variations.

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's interpretations of the classics still move me like nothing else, so it should be no surprise that one of my favorite films is Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Released to acclaim and numerous awards in 1993, it's been out-of-print for years and the DVD was selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay. I had worn my VHS copy out. Luckily, Sony Classics came to the rescue and has re-released the DVD as part of its celebration of Gould.

Directed by François Girard (who also helmed another of my favorite films, The Red Violin), Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is exactly what it says on the box – a series of vignettes that are not so much biographical but snapshots into the pianist's mind and eccentricities. Using some of Gould's most famous interpretations as a jumping-off point, we first see Gould (an excellent Colm Feore) as a pinpoint on the far horizon of a flat, snowy tundra. As the Aria from Bach's "Goldberg Variations" plays, Gould walks toward the camera but veers away, which sums up Gould almost perfectly – get close, but not too close. We see his childhood brilliance, his ascendancy to fame, his dislike for playing concert halls, his obsession with getting the perfect studio recording and his acumen for playing the stock market.  

Unlike a biopic, Thirty Two... doesn't dwell on gossip or try to uncover the mad genius of Gould; it simply gives a glimpse into his world, which was his passion for music. There's even a hint of documentary as the fictionalized pieces are intercut with interviews of friends, associates and family members. One of the best shorts is called "Hamburg." Gould is in a hotel room, while a chambermaid cleans up. A package arrives containing his latest record and he puts it on the turntable and forces the maid to sit and listen. She is bored and uninterested but as the jaunty "Allegro molto e vivace from Sonata No. 13 in E Flat Major" by Beethoven plays, you see a smile break across her face and Gould is delighted. The maid picks up the album sleeve, realizes who Gould is and whispers "danke schön." Another short, "Passion According to Gould," finds him in a recording studio hearing a playback of Bach's "Gigue From English Suite No. 2 In A Minor." He dances around, expressively conducting the music while the bored engineers sit in the booth talking about nothing, until they too are overcome by Gould's music.

One of the final films is NASA footage of the launch of the Voyager space probes in 1977 to study the outer solar system. In case the probes were ever picked up by aliens,  gold-plated disks with details about Earth, it's people and music selections were included on each probe. Glenn Gould's interpretations of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude" and "Fugue in C, No.1" are still tumbling around out in space. The final film is Gould walking back across the snowy plain as "The Well Tempered Clavier" plays and the landscape subtly transforms into what appears to be another planet. Despite the fractured nature of the film, Gould and his music are illuminated in brief, but luminous detail. Watch and listen.


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