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DVD Review

Genius Within

The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Directors: Michéle Hozer, Peter Raymont
Lorber Films LF-DVD-719
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Also available on Blu-ray LF-BR-740:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - CD Universe

We (still) can't consistently appreciate Glenn Gould's music-making to the extent that we do for most (other) musicians. This is partly because, for some reason, we allow the Gould myth, the "stories", the public image, the perception of his eccentricities to swamp those aspects of his work on which we rely exclusively with most other performers. By concentrating just on what we hear, rather than trying to set it against the backdrop of such a colorful character we might avoid that trap. Failing that, Gould's eccentricities are hardly so self-indulgent to the exclusion of achieving the ends (making wonderful music) which he intends that they must always necessarily intrude into plain appreciation. Secondly, it's all too easy to supply the gaps and "missing" aspects of what's necessary thoroughly to assess Gould's contribution to music in the middle of the last century with inaccuracies, speculations and elisions to what otherwise obtains in how major professional such figures "work".

Here is an award-winning (BBC Music Magazine, "Best DVD Documentary" 2012) DVD from Lorber by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont which could quietly and sensitively contribute to redressing these imbalances. By not ignoring, yet placing in a predominantly musical context, the personality of Gould through a carefully annotated biographical approach we end up with a clearer picture of why (not merely how) Gould worked the way he did. For example, the 12 chapters of the DVD (which can be played continuously as well as selected) suggest the transcendency of his playing in a variety of subtle ways: Gould's playing, his own comments, those of others from across the spectrum. Other such representative myths that are gently demolished – or, at least, rendered more accurately – are that Gould loved applause as such. In fact he delighted in applause (chiefly, only) as an indication of the profound effect that music (which happens to be his music) has on them.

Similarly, Cornelia Foss describes Gould's Bach as the "dismantling" of the composer in order to reassemble his music with perfection. Yet again, the famed distinction of each note played "separately". Thanks to his teacher, Alberto Guerrero's, Gould insisted that notes can best be "tapped" individually on the piano keys. And a much more nuanced assessment of Gould's love of solitariness, self-reliance yet fragility also fill out a more rounded picture here than that usually pushed by those intent on sensationalizing Gould.

A lot of the material in this compelling, carefully-crafted, expertly-edited, well-balanced documentary is presented for the first time. Particularly illuminating is the simple inclusion of anecdotes, commentary, narratives that illustrate some aspect of Gould's approach to life and music which everybody feels but few articulate… the monotony and drudgery of nightly performing, for example. And his abhorrence for anything pretentious: he never hammered such a dislike, but why shouldn't he be allowed it?

One must assume that it is the slow and well-paced agglomeration of this explanation, discussion, analysis and dissection – albeit in conventionally shortish snippets – that explain the the product's subtitle, the "Inner Life" of Gould. There are few of the longer ruminations (or for that matter extended extracts from performances) by Gould himself that exist in the Glenn Gould On Television - Complete CBC Broadcasts 1954-1977, or Hereafterfor instance, which is a paradox. On the other hand, much of the footage from Gould's early tour of the Soviet Union is fascinating.

Several of the contributors provide their memories and assessments of Gould with varying degrees of condescension and sense of fun which only just avoids gratuitous criticism. Presumably these are included to avoid or sidestep the potential charge of hero-worship. Fortunately, the extent to which Gould's idiosyncrasies were exploited by the publicity and marketing machines of mid-Century America were in order, simply, to sell. At the same time, there is enough specifically musically analytical material in the DVD. For instance Chapter 5 illustrates Gould's unusual tempi in The Turkish Rondo and Moonlight Sonatas. By the same token James Wright's defends Gould's refusal merely to replicate yet another Mozart Piano Concerto performance. Would that the record companies today felt the same way. Gould wanted each performance of his not to be "special" (for the sake of it); that is an analogous error. But to bring something significant, new, exciting every time. What's more Genius Within The Inner Life of Glenn Gould makes and supports well the point that Gould's conception of electronic media (albeit scarcely digital) was advanced; and was a paradigm for the way we work today. And that as such Gould was amazingly prescient.

The film, at heart, slowly and painstakingly reveals Gould's "big dark secret": that Gould had no "big dark secret" to speak of.

His reservation, his reserve, his privacy, those parts of his (public) career which were (unconsciously or consciously) designed to let him live with… himself – all these were at worst aspects of his persona which were likely to win him greater acceptance. But more nearly, simply a performing and musical genius blending the personal with the public effectively and successfully. His relationship with the Foss family is a case in point. On the other hand, that Gould had severe tendencies to hypochondria is well sustained in the film… fear of germs, multiple medications, excessive self-"monitoring". But they are not dwelt on unduly.

There are two aspects of Genius Within The Inner Life of Glenn Gould which jar – but very mildly. The more intrusive is what appears to be the appearance of a figure (often dimly lit) "(re-)enacting" episodes of Gould's life, such as pacing the roads alone after his mother's death. Although the well-known dialog in the New York taxi which opens the film must have been neither scripted nor staged. So this "figure" is at best to be taken as sleight of hand. Much less obtrusive is a graphical technique which throws into three-dimensional relief not only sentences from texts – Gould's correspondence, for example – but "frames", frieze-like, from still images as the rostrum camera pans across them; these might have communicated just as effectively if left still and "on the page". But these really are small points, and detract minimally from the substance and depth of the project.

There must be two criteria with which to judge the worth of this film: is it sufficiently full of substance and depth dealt with in a sophisticated and approachable way to bear repeated watching? And does it tell us something about Gould's music-making; more – about music itself? The answer in both cases is Yes.

The visual and acoustic standards of production of "Genius Within" are every bit as high as one would hope for. There is a total of all but two hours in 16:9 widescreen 5.1 surround sound with "Extra" interviews and "Deleted Scenes" (though to and from what is unclear). If Gould fascinates you to the extent that he clearly does so many and you still want more, specifically if you want to achieve even greater understanding of what was myth and what worth following, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould will help enormously.

Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.