“The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture.”
–Glenn Gould, 1964 (343)
In the mid-1960s, the virtuoso Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, caused a sensation by abandoning live concert performances and tours, as well as speaking engagements, to focus strictly on recording and broadcasting. Gould had quickly tired of touring performances and the concert-hall economy that demanded them. His profession had ensconced concerts as the test and affirmation of authentic virtuosity. Gould not only dropped them, retiring to the studio and the radio booth; he also began to attack them, in thoughtful — and prescient — critiques, as the antithesis of artistic achievement in an age of mechanical reproduction.
Gould’s major statement of his thesis on recording as the future of music is his 1965 CBC radio documentary, “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording”. Gould’s argument uncannily echoed Walter Benjamin’s, on art and mechanical reproduction, of which, as far as I know, Gould was unaware; his position was more specifically influenced by Marshall McLuhan. Gould argues that new electronic media represent a more private, individualized, and aesthetically satisfying future of music in contrast to the outmoded public “museums” of
live performance that, for him, no longer lay claim to the optimal appreciation of music. Gould echoes Benjamin in criticizing the romanticization (what Benjamin would call the aura) of the artist at the expense of appreciating the artwork: “the determination of the value of the work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent for of aesthetic appraisal” (“Prospects” 341). To illustrate his case, Gould tells the story of a wartime forger of Vermeer paintings, Hans van Meegeren. Van Meergen was reviled as a forger who had fooled expert art historians; he got only momentary reprieve after the war when it became apparent that the Vermeers he had sold to Nazis for enormous sums were in fact forgeries. Gould hails van Meergen as a “private hero” whose case “perfectly epitomizes the confrontation between those values of identity and of personal-responsibility-for-authorship which post-Renaissance art has until recently accepted and those pluralistic values which electronic forms assert” (341).
Gould’s elaboration on the “pluralistic values” of electronic forms centres on “a new kind of listener — a listener more participant in the musical experience” — indeed, a “listener [who] can ultimately become his own composer” (347). For Gould’s new kind of listener, private listening eclipses public listening. The intimacy and clarity of home listening lends the music higher definition and opens it not only to more involved appreciation, but also to transformation by the listener: “It may well be that the very near future will produce a do-it-yourself laboratory of home recording techniques…We already see this happening in the case of the hi-fi bug, the fellow who places his own interpretative notions of questions of dynamics, of balance, of separation, of textural preferences [on] the recording which he plays on his home stereo” (“Forgery” 219). Gould is extrapolating from the increasing availability of home stereo EQ controls and home audiotape systems, in 1964, to accurately project new, participatory forms of music production-consumption (prosumption) that have since materialized: a decade later, in the vinyl-synching, cassette splicing foundations of hip hop music; forty years later, in the digital redistributions and remix forms enabled by CD, MP3, and P2P.
What’s more: Gould recognizes the symbolic and material threat that DIY listening-composing would pose to music critics, concert halls, and record labels alike. “To those who insist that the relation of audience to the performing act be a passive one, it already constitutes licentious interpretative interference” (219). Echoing Benjamin’s argument about aura, Gould identifies the “controversy [of] the tape splice” as a target of “the antirecord lobby [which] proclaims splicing a dishonest and dehumanizing technique” (337). As for the emerging pro-record (but anti-recording) lobby, Gould imagines a “local club of spare-time mechanics … concentrating upon the project of producing a master tape amalgamating the perfect virtues of the Beethoven Fifth as rendered by Klemperer, Karajan and Bruno Walter,” and then reflects that “there may be certain contractual difficulties here. Perhaps EMI, Deutsche Grammophon and Columbia Records will be less warmly disposed than I to this idea” (“Forgery” 219-20).
Gould even nods inadvertently to the discourse of intellectual property regulation in reflecting on the audience’s departure from public performance scenes to private home listening. “Those experiences through which the listener encounters music electronically transmitted are not within the public domain” (“Prospects” 347, my emphasis). For his purposes, Gould simply means that electronic media encourage domestic, individualized, and customizable music appreciation; yet by unwittingly referring to the “public domain” of copyright law, Gould ironically describes what has since become one of the most hotly contested issues in the copyfight today: the gradual disappearance of the public domain amidst the “new enclosures” of corporate copyright exploitation and entrenchment. On this account, Gould’s remark that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbably that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity” (352) is similarly right on the money, both in terms of the technics and the legalities now involved.
Yet despite his incisive (and sometimes inadvertent) recognitions of Big Media’s impositions, Gould remained consistently optimistic about the implications “that the mechanics of electronic creation and preservation will determine the large part of the future of artistically ordered sound — if that is a safe word than music” (“Forgery” 218).
In the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly … The audience would be the artist and their life would be art. (“Prospects” 353)
As an iconoclastic icon of Canadian culture, Gould shared important insights about art, adaptation, and appropriation — not to mention “pluralistic values” — that have proven prescient and urgently critical to current debates over intellectual property, and how best to define and regulate it, among the fast-changing technoscapes of electronic media. In the face of the attempted lockdowns, confiscations, and extortions of Access Copyright, Bill C-32, ACTA, and so on, I take as a heartening affirmation Gould’s assertion that “there is, in fact, nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape editor … exercising such interpretive predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance” (348, my emphasis).
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Internet Archive, 2005.
Gould, Glenn. “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording.” CBC Radio, 10 Jan. 1965. Rpt. in Time 4 Time [blog], 7 Oct. 2008.
—. “Forgery and imitation in the creative process” (1963). The Art of Glenn Gould: Reflections of a Musical Genius. Ed. John P.L. Roberts. Toronto: Malcolm Lester, 1999. 204-221.
—. “The Prospects of Recording.” The Glenn Gould Reader. Ed. Tim Page. New York: Knopf, 1984. 331-53.
“Glenn Gould on recording.” The Music of Man. Perf. Yehudi Menuhin, ,Glenn Gould. CBC et al, 1987. Rpt. at Youtube.