Glenn Gould, copyfighter

“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).

Works Cited

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.

See also:
“Glenn Gould on recording.” The Music of Man. Perf. Yehudi Menuhin, ,Glenn Gould. CBC et al, 1987. Rpt. at Youtube.

12 responses to “Glenn Gould, copyfighter

  1. Recordings have their place, and Gould was in his right as a performer to give up live performance. However, anyone who thinks that a recording, no matter how excellent, is the same as a live performance has never been to a live performance with the sheer physicality of music within you, the emotional and physical presence of others, and the chaos of creativity that is live performance.

    Using Gould’s ideas of what music has become as a manifesto for getting rid of copyright limitations is an intellectual stretch to the point of the ridiculous. I seriously doubt that Gould says anywhere that an artist shouldn’t be paid for his performance or the writer for his song.

    Taking the money out of the performer and the creator’s pocket and putting it into someone else’s by using the work as a mash up or whatever is the very opposite of creativity or fairness.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’d like to address your points each in turn:

    …anyone who thinks that a recording, no matter how excellent, is the same as a live performance has never been to a live performance with the sheer physicality of music within you, the emotional and physical presence of others, and the chaos of creativity that is live performance.

    Gould’s position (which I share) is not that a music recording is the same as a live performance, but rather that a music recording is aesthetically superior to a live performance of the same piece. You also seem to imply that I’ve never been to a live music performance, or perhaps to the right kind of performance. As an unrepentant raver, I’m extensively, intimately acquainted with the values of live performance you describe, but among the concerts, symphonies, operas, choir recitals, and myriad other music performances I’ve attended, none have managed even to light a candle that could be held to that dance scene — which, ironically, is based almost entirely on the creatively improvised (and often copyright-indifferent) playback of recorded tracks. (Of course, you may be of the opinion that the music defining this scene isn’t really music. But that’s a different argument.)

    Among its many other cultural functions, the rave scene critically problematizes “liveness” in performance; as Philip Auslander discusses in his eponymous book, there wasn’t really any idea of “liveness”until traditional entertainment business interests began responding to the advent (and commercial threat) of recording technologies. Sarah Thornton further details how “liveness” became an ideological stick used by band unions to beat then-new record labels — who themselves now use the stick of “piracy” to beat the new listener projected by Gould.

    Using Gould’s ideas of what music has become as a manifesto for getting rid of copyright limitations is an intellectual stretch to the point of the ridiculous.

    Yet Gould’s ideas of what music has become revolve quite precisely around the new listener now getting beaten with multiple sticks of IP regulation change. As in prior work, I am not calling for the abolition of copyright (yet, muhahaha!). I acknowledge that I am recruiting Gould’s ideas to resonate with present criticisms of copyright “modernization” campaigns, especially those that seek to protect “digital locks,” which are not intellectual property, but which control legitimately purchased cultural goods to such an extent that a US federal appeals court recently ruled the transactions shouldn’t even be considered purchases. To call the multiform PR campaigns and legislative efforts of the US entertainment lobby an exercise in “limitations” is to understate the extent of the real threat they pose to cultural production and the very character of the Internet that facilitates discussions like this. Other cultural icons one could reasonably recruit to “the copyfight” (as, fundamentally, a defence of cultural consumers’ rights to act as producers) include, among others, Shakespeare, Marcel Duchamp, and T.S. Eliot (who asserted that “good poets borrow, great poets steal”).

    I seriously doubt that Gould says anywhere that an artist shouldn’t be paid for his performance or the writer for his song.

    In the essays that I have read, Gould does not at all say that an artist shouldn’t be paid; but the speculative claim about this seems tangential. Gould actually just seems genuinely uninterested in the remunerative aspect of his art, and unusually, passionately interested in art for its own sake. (I do strongly suspect that that he was uninterested in money questions because he could well afford to be.) The relation of art to commerce only seems to come up in his negative characterizations of the concert hall industry. (To be fair, I’m curious now to revisit Gould’s work and look for more specific discussions of his own experience of art and commerce.)

    Taking the money out of the performer and the creator’s pocket and putting it into someone else’s by using the work as a mash up or whatever is the very opposite of creativity or fairness.

    I’m afraid this claim misunderstands and oversimplifies matters on a few fronts. It is not artists but corporate record labels which are specifically feeling the financial effects of file-sharing. Artists have actually been shown to do better with file-sharing — and without corporate label “support.” Music artists signed to corporate labels typically reap all the remunerative advantage of being handed a “credit card with 66% interest” (Saunders R1), so that only some dozen of the top artists routinely make money for themselves as well as the label. (A wider view of the major labels’ longer-standing, predatory business practices is taken in Jack Bishop’s excellent study “Who are the pirates?”) Lastly, most “mash-ups” are amateur productions, neither made nor meant for money-making — an exercise of Gould’s “splice perogative” devoted to art for art’s sake, after the manner of Gould’s own passion, using tools I’m pretty sure he’d be up to his ears in, had he lived to try them out.

    Works Cited
    Bishop, Jack. “Who are the pirates? The politics of power, greed, and poverty in a globalized music market.” 36th Annual Meeting, Society for Ethnomusicology, Pomona College, 23 Feb. 2002. Rpt. (revised) in Popular Music and Society 27.1 (2004): 101-106.
    “Do music artists fare better in a world with illegal file-sharing?” Times Online Labs 12 Nov. 2009 .
    Saunders, Doug. “Rocking against the suits.” Globe and Mail 2 Mar. 2002. R1.
    Smith, Ethan. “Federal court sides with Eminem in royalty dispute; record business does not implode.” Wall Street Journal Law Blog 3 Sept. 2010.

  3. Give me the imperfections of a live performance over a recorded performance polished to the point of dullness. It certainly is more honest.

    I’m not that familiar with Gould since he isn’t a cultural icon around here, but he sounds like Marie Antoinette suggesting the starving should eat their cakes since they don’t have bread.

    Heaven save the rest of us when the rich, over-educated, and clueless Marie Antoinettes of the world determine the direction society should go.

    If the copyfighters are after the “evil” corporations, they are aiming at the wrong targets. Corporations don’t own the copyright, the creators do in most cases, and most creators aren’t rich fat cats.

    A vast majority of us creators struggle to get by, and we can least afford an assault on our incomes. The corporations will be just dandy if the copyfighters win, but the ground around them will be covered with the bodies of the creators.

    That’s a heck of a cost to allow the creation of mashups.

  4. Actually Gould argued it’s the live performance industry that acts more as the elite determinant, shoring up outdated norms and values of music appreciation that not only justify ticket costs that would keep music from the majority of the public, but also compromise musicians’ technical ability to faithfully and creatively render and honour canonical works (Bach, etc.). Gould saw that ability — and the audience’s appreciation — far better realized in recording and its popular distributions. He saw home listening as a growing popular practice with huge potential to democratize music-making and music appreciation. This post suggests that history has confirmed that view, on several fronts.
    As for copyright in the music business, the rule is that corporations do own the copyright (see Marshall) — it is only an extremely rare exception that a music creator owns copyright. What obtains for IP regulation in print publishing is not at all the case in recorded music.

    Marshall, Lee. “Metallica and Morality: The Rhetorical Battleground of the Napster Wars.” Entertainment Law 1.1 (2002): 1-18.

  5. hm.
    @marilynn- i wonder if busking would be such a tough gig, if the ‘honesty’ of live performance were the sole determinant of its value, over other factors, like class status and the influence of advertising (similarly: panhandling vs. live theatre). to what extent does the stage – and all the ideals, expectations, relationships and nostalgia it has come to stand for – determine your feelings of excitement, embodiment of music, honesty, etc for you, regardless of the content of the performance (which is increasingly visual and digitized anyway)?
    it seems to be a valuable idea to recognize that the experience of a performance is mediated by more than the creator’s intent, and allow audiences to intervene in and respond to works by reworking them, as well as to be very aware of who benefits (and how) from such interactions. culture jamming, for instance, intervenes (with debatable efficacy and a disregard for copyright similar to djs’) in both the harmful ideas produced in culture and the production of cultural works for the sole benefit of corporations, at the sole expense of audiences; this seems like a good thing for artists. if we tried to do that at live performances, well, that’d be rude, but recordings offer a standardized environment for artists and audiences both to work.

  6. I have been trying to get ahold of “forgery and imitiation..” – I have seen it on Jstor, but for some reason cannot access it through my university. I stumbled upon your site (good stuff) searching for it.

    Is there any possibility I could get it from you?

    regards Jakob

  7. academicalism

    Hi Jakob; thanks for your interest. I had just signed out a copy of the book that “Forgery and Imitation” is in from my local university library. Whether it’s at your local, or available via inter-library loan, or from a used bookseller, online or otherwise, the title in which it appears is:
    Gould, Glenn. The Art of Glenn Gould: Reflections of a Musical Genius. Ed. John P.L. Roberts. Toronto: Malcolm Lester, 1999.

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