NOTES BEHIND THE CURTAIN 4
In the early 1960s The Beatles were on a rigorous gigging schedule, hungry for success and hungry to land that ever-elusive recording contract. With their natural charisma and ability to wind up an audience, they became the biggest band in Liverpool- then London and onward until Beatlemania swept the world. The youthful momentum of live performance was exciting at first, but the band soon tired of the road. It wasn’t the playing, but the anxiety around the mania that surrounded them. And, more importantly, it was the fact that the spectacle of their appearance overshadowed them as artists. Indeed, neither the band nor the audience could hear the music over the din of the crowd. Fans and the Press were not leaning forward to examine new song structures, they were fascinated by The Beatles’ haircuts, how they shook their heads on stage, and other idiosyncrasies. Within three years of making their first major record in 1963, The Beatles retired completely from live performance to focus on the artistic process of studio recording.
As I explored in my last post, The Beatles music also found its way behind the Iron Curtain and inspired generations of black market listeners to find new freedoms of attitude and expression. This is the focus of the documentary concert film, Paul McCartney in Red Square.
The year 1964 was an important one for The Beatles. A number one hit on the US charts paved the way for their first voyage across the Atlantic. This was the era of iconic Beatles moments: Ed Sullivan, the press conferences, waving from the plane, all captured in various documentaries and re-lived by The Beatles themselves in A Hard Days Night.
1964 was an important year for another musician, who is the focus of the second documentary film I’d like to highlight this week. Imagine fans clamoring for payphones during intermission- calling their friends to rush down to the theater to see this fantastic act. Tickets now sold out, additional seats were added to the sides of the stage and a group of over one thousand was permitted standing room only at the back of the hall. Yes, it does sound like the familiar stories of The Beatles experiences in Hamburg and in Liverpool. Not a quartet of rockers this time, however, but an eccentric young pianist and musical genius from Canada, Glenn Gould.
Peter Taussig said of Gould, “Suddenly you get a sound that no one has heard before…it’s boney, it’s tout…it is very rhythmical, it’s clean, it’s transparent. Here is a skinny scrawny guy from Canada who looks as if he’s about to die by the time he comes on stage- so pale… he sits almost on the floor, he sings while he’s playing. We’ve never heard anything like this. It’s like, “Where did this guy come from?” The larger-than-life balance between Gould’s genius and his physical idiosyncrasies would, like The Beatles, become a tiresome burden. Gould was as fascinating to watch as he was to hear. Constantly in fear of illness and complaining of circulation problems, Gould kept bundled in coats, scarves, mittens, and soaked his hands in scalding hot water before playing. He sang and conducted while he played (one can hear his voice in the background of many of his recordings), and he enjoyed taking on playful personas, much like John Lennon, and giving humorous speaches in mock-German accents.
The stress of performing and the constant focus on his affects drove Gould to retire completely from the stage after a concert in Los Angeles in 1964. And, like The Beatles, he found a pure form of creative expression through recording. Gould’s experimentation with the Classical Masters now extended to multiple tape loops, splicing alternate takes to craft his pieces, and creating overlapping soundscapes and audio documentaries.
A documentary film, The Russian Journey, chronicles Gould’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1957. Very much like the film, Paul McCartney in Red Square, the film interviews musicians, teachers, and scholars who tell a fascinating story of discovering Gould behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The pianist is most known for his interpretations of Bach, two versions of The Goldberg Variations book ended his recording career, and it was interesting to learn in the film that his Russian audience saw the music as subversive because of its connection to the church. Like the black market for Beatles records, Gould’s Soviet audience recalls how the pianist broke open whole areas of music that had been banned. Suddenly copies of sheet music were being passed among music students. Young musicians were inspired by new freedoms of expression. Gouldmania followed him from Moscow to Leningrad and continues to echo throughout conservatories today.
After Gould’s return to Canada, he spoke out and lectured in support of artistic freedom behind the Iron Curtain. While fans continued alight from his inspiration, the Party publicly denounced Gould and proclaimed that his visit had been a kind of spy-like maneuver so that he could create a platform to subvert the Soviet Union. Who knew that Bach and Beatles could be so equally as terrifying to the state. I encourage Spyvibers who are interested in music and the Cold War to check out Paul McCartney in Red Square and Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey. The parallels between Gould and The Beatles are quite interesting. You can see clips from both films on the Spyvibe website.
Learn more about Glenn Gould:
Bach- The Goldberg Variations
Bach- The 2 and 3 Part Inventions
Glenn Gould: A Life in Pictures (foreword by Yo-Yo Ma)
Glenn Gould: Hereafter (documentary film)