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BEHIND THE SCENES: A collection of reflections on Glenn Goul

We asked producers from all over the world to answer a few questions about Glenn Gould. Their responses reveal the depth and degree to which Gould made his mark as a distinctive and inspirational radio producer. *

*Contributors: Jackson Braider, Allan Coukell, Phil Easley, Victoria Fenner, Tim Halbur, Alan Hall, Lorelei Harris, Harri Huhtamaki, Karen Michel, Steve Rowland, Gregory Whitehead

*What's the first word that comes to mind when you think of Glenn Gould, and why?

Fugue. Gould was the unequalled master of polyphony and counterpoint, in his playing, and in his radio work. Tropical. The guy's brain was literally a hot house -- luxuriant in its foliage, fertile, exotic. Intellectual. Genius, Eccentric because he was utterly virtuoso, extremely precise and yet very individualistic in his interpretations. Intimate in performance. Brilliant because of his ability to see deeply into experience, to reconstruct that experience for an audience. Perfectionist. He was on a relentless quest for perfection in his recordings. Excellence, he was truly committed. Obsessive. ### What is it about his radio work that resonates with you

VF: The element of surprise. That he worked mostly way back in the '60s at the CBC. The documentary form which he developed for his radio works must have been very unusual especially 35 years ago, and it pleasantly surprised me that he was able to compose these works and get them on our national airwaves. There must have been a couple of CBC producers who championed his cause and took some artistic chances themselves to have them broadcast

TH: The musical quality of it. If you've seen the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould , there's a scene where he (well, the actor playing him) is conducting radio interviews with a baton. That scene stuck with me -- there is inherent music in people's speaking voices, and they can be structured musically

PE: Two things... I get a sense of the "personal" mixed with the "universal"... the people I hear from in his work reveal very real, very personal thoughts, feelings, etc. In a way that illustrates connections and similarities with others. I also like the language. When Gould narrates, or edits the voices of others, I get a glimpse of how his mind works. His writing makes me both smile and think. At the same time. AH: Gould took radio - as he took everything - intensely seriously and seemed to believe that work in the medium might endure just as work in more familiar "art" forms does. For most of us radio is fleeting, disposable, an experience that is barely reflected upon. Gould paused and considered the value of what it was that might be achieved through radio - this transmitting of manipulated or composed sound into people's lives. He connects us back to the early ambitions for the medium before it became wholly information-driven and commercial

GW: Gould opened ears to the tone of a community. To the idea that a place, or a subject, might have an audible tonality that was more than the sum of the words and sounds. He also had a fearless grasp of the appropriate structure for an idea: intricate ideas require intricate structures, not simple and reductive formulae. And he treated his audience like thoughtful adults, not like thumb-sucking infants

Do you think Gould's documentaries would be well received by today's general public radio listening audience

SR: I think Gould's radio work should be required listening for anyone who wants to understand contemporary radio production. Whether they would be received well by a general audience is not really the point. I suspect it is obvious that they have a limited appeal -- but if they were presented with enthusiasm, and the audience was made to understand that they are important works, there would be an audience for them. I think it may be more important to have them heard by producers and students and for people to engage in discussions about what parts of the programs work/don't work for them

GW: Gould's radio works are timeless masterworks: they will always have an audience. They are not as accessible as A Prairie Home Companion , to be sure: and thank the gods for that

TH: I'm not so sure. They take a lot of patience, and a lot of space. I like to listen to them in the dark under headphones. The Canadian series that he did seemed very appropriate. I've worked on some Canadian projects, and I'm convinced they have more patience and space to listen

AH: His work belongs to its own time. And it was always presented in a manner that borrowed deeply from the theory and practice of music. He produced radio to be listened to musically and that ability is not the prevalent mode among the listening public nor those who schedule broadcasts

KM: If they could get on the air... then, yes. Most likely audiences inundated with first-person accounts regardless of topic and/or expertise of reporter would welcome hearing something different

*What lasting contributions has Gould made to the art/practice of radio production?

PE: I don't really know about the art/practice in general, but my personal thinking about radio production has been forever altered by hearing his work. I find an unusual combination of both stretching and focusing... stretching the limits of style and format, focusing and strengthening the substance and content. The result is that he gives you a sense of place, and he gives you a sense of time, and he gives you a sense of the personal, and a sense of the universal

VF: I think he expanded boundaries in terms of radio compositional technique for those people who are aware of his radio production. But I don't think he has had widespread impact on the art of radio in general because there are relatively few broadcasters who are aware of his radio work. I wish that every communications or media arts program included Gould's radio work in the curriculum - both as an example of alternative forms of radio production, and more important, to build a sense of our collective history as broadcasters

GW: Gould's legacy among producers is actually quite modest, and to me, that is very unfortunate

JB: It's interesting to note that Gould was extraordinarily sparing in his use of music per se. It could be argued that the lasting effect of his radio work is that musical fragments were not decorative wallpaper or time keeping elements to give punch to a punch line, but cogent features of the story

SR: Gould's radio work is singular, and extraordinary. His concept of using voices in an operatic fashion is highly influenced by Mozart's conception of using singers. As documentaries they are somewhat limited by his lack of location sound. But the way he used voices was very advanced. The Idea of North is a mono-production, and the layering is held back a bit by the limitations of mono - The Quiet in the Land is an interesting comparison because in stereo, the layers can be denser, while the words still intelligble

I do think these works are seminal, but we should be careful not to deify Gould the radio producer. I don't think the works are ultimately as important as his work as a pianist. There are artists who have gone way beyond Gould in their work of layering - George Martin's work on some of the Beatles records is fantastic, and one group that is nearly totally ignored by our public radio group is Public Enemy. Their early recordings, done mainly by Terminator X and Chuck D, include some of the most powerful layering of voices and music I have ever heard. These recordings have inspired a newer generation of studio magicians - including Beck and Moby..

But as examples of what can be done strictly with voices, and especially for radio, the Gould pieces are, as I said, extraordinary, and hard to beat

Producer Allan Coukell contributed this essay about Glenn Gould and The Idea of North , the first documentary in Gould's Solitude Trilogy

"The only way I see this happening," says Wally Maclean, "is on an extended ride north . . . a long, terrible, trying trip." Maclean is our guide and narrator in Glenn Gould's radio feature "The Idea of North," which is 35 years old this year, but still sounds fresh. This is a program that belongs in the canon of every aspiring maker of radio documentaries

The Idea of North opens with a trio of speakers. First a woman, like the woodwinds section of a symphony, begins to describe the northern landscape as seen from an airplane high above. Soon, this voice is pushed to the background as a man enters. Here is the bass line, taking up a contrary theme: "I don't go, let me say, I don't go for this Northmanship business at all," he begins. After a minute, a third voice joins the first two: "Sure the north has changed my life...

Famously, this is Gould's "contrapuntal" approach to radio (used also in The Latecomersand The Quiet in the Land , the other programs in his Solitude Trilogy). The interwoven, overlapping voices are like elements of a fugue, each rising to the fore and receding. After three minutes, the trio fades and Gould introduces the program

The Idea of North is an extended meditation on, well, what? Gould tells us of his longstanding fascination with the North and tells us that we are about to hear the stories of four people, a geographer, a sociologist, a government official and a nurse, "who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada." But he also hints at more

Aside from the voices, there are only two other major sound elements to the program: a variety of train interior and exterior ambiences, which begin here and accompany us for most of our long journey north, and Sibelius' Fifth Symphony , against which the final eight minutes of the program are set

Gould introduces Maclean, our guide, with whom he claims to have had a day-long conversation. Maclean "parlayed surveying into a literary tool," says Gould. "I began to realize that his relationship to a craft, which has as its subject the land, enabled him to read the signs of that land, to find in the most minute measurement a suggestion of the infinite, to encompass the universal within the particular.

Maclean is folksy and avuncular, but explains himself through references to classical mythology and essays by early 20th-century philosophers. A remarkable surveyor, perhaps: clearly Wally is no wally. But then nothing here is quite as it seems. For a start, we never quite know whether these are real people or actors working from a script. Moreover, it eventually becomes clear that each of the four main protagonists is laboring under some degree of self-deception. Gould has given us not one, but five, unreliable narrators

Our four "travelers" relate their experiences with the North. They talk about why they went, their responses to the land and to the community of the North. They talk about their vision for the future of the North. Despite their contrasting views, we end up feeling they have one thing in common: each is in some way alienated from, even hostile to, the North

The Idea of North is often discussed as a reflection on isolation and solitude, but to me these are not the dominant themes of the program. Early on, one character observes that a nation is defined partly by its frontier, but it is left to Maclean, set over Sibelius, to draw the strands together. He quotes William James, "there is no moral equivalent of war.

At least in part, the idea of north is the idea that we often define ourselves in terms of an opposing force. For these characters, it is the North, but Maclean takes it further. This may have nothing to do with north he says, or any direction. "Apparently few of us can afford to be for something; but all of us can afford to be against something." These are themes that resonate far beyond the Canadian relationship with the arctic. (Think of the former Yugoslavia, or perhaps of current events closer to home.

So how would audiences respond to this program today? A great deal of attention has been paid to Gould's "contrapuntal" technique, but in fact these sections occupy only a small portion of the documentary. (But - producers take note! - where they occur, these are not merely layered voices, but carefully layered voices, elements interwoven with attention to tone, meter and, most importantly, meaning.

What really distinguishes The Idea of North from much else on the radio is its length and ambiguity. Gould allows the themes to emerge gradually, over almost an hour. And, as with a novel or a symphony, the long-form means we feel the conclusion more deeply when it arrives. And as with those other long-form works, the program is open to multiple interpretations. That does not mean it is obscure

It is fashionable just now to imagine that our listeners can only pay attention for 60 seconds at a time, but I wonder. It seems to me that just as there is a small, but substantial (and growing!) audience for independent, European or "art-house" cinema, there ought to be an audience for this kind of challenging radio

I am not suggesting that every listener would or should appreciate The Idea of North , or similar programs. (I'm sure that my parents -- intelligent, dedicated public radio listeners -- would not have liked this program in 1967 and would not like it today.) Surely at least part of our audience would be open to a kind of radio that is not just something to dip in and out of while cleaning the house, but rather something to experience and think about. If we give them the chance.Allan Coukell is a Canadian radio producer who has a longstanding fascination with the North. Between 1999 and 2002, he produced Hungry for Justice and Grey Ghost , as well as 159 other programs for Radio New Zealand. He now lives in Boston.