As I explored in Notes Behind the Curtain 2 and Notes Behind the Curtain 1, 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. [Elicit albums were traditionally cut on used X-ray sheets, dubbed Jazz on Bones, and traded on the black market in Russia]. You can learn more about Russian underground music in Paul McCartney in Red Square and in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.
The year 1964 was pivotal 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 Beatlemania: Ed Sullivan, the press conferences, the airport receptions, all captured in press footage and re-lived by The Beatles themselves in A Hard Days Night. By April of 1966, they were engaged in making tape-loop based Pop with Tomorrow Never Knows, and by Aug 1966, they left the stage behind forever.
1964 was also a pivotal year for another music sensation. Imagine fans mobbing the payphones during intermission, desperate to get their friends to rush down to the theater to see this fantastic act. Tickets sold out. Additional seats were added to the sides of the stage! Over one thousand people stood at the back of the hall. Yes, it does sound like Beatlemania. But this act was not a quartet of rockers this time, but an eccentric young pianist and musical genius from Canada named 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 focus of the press on Gould's physical idiosyncrasies would, like The Beatles, become a tiresome burden for the musician. Gould was as fascinating to watch as he was to hear. Constantly in fear of illness and complaining of circulation problems, Gould kept himself bundled up in coats, scarves, and mittens, and he 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). Gould also had the quirky habit of speaking to the press in the voices of various alter-egos he created. Similar to John Lennon's satirical mock-German accent, Gould created pedantic personas like Karlheinz Klopweisser, Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, and Theodore Slutz as a way to cope with the relentless and mundane questions from journalists.
The stress of performing and the constant focus on his behavioral affects drove Gould to retire completely from the stage after a concert in Los Angeles in 1964. Like The Beatles, he found a purer form of creative expression through studio recording. Gould’s experimentation with the Classical Masters now extended to using multiple tape loops, splicing alternate takes to craft his pieces, and creating sound collages and audio documentaries.
The documentary film, The Russian Journey, chronicles Gould’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1957. Very much like Paul McCartney in Red Square, it features interviews with 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- he recorded two versions of The Goldberg Variations, which book-end his recording career. It was interesting to learn 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 Russian conservatories today.
After Gould’s return to Canada, he spoke out and lectured in support of artistic freedom behind the Iron Curtain. The Party publicly denounced Gould and proclaimed his visit had been a kind of spy-like maneuver to create a platform to subvert the Soviet Union. Who knew that Bach and Beatles music could be so terrifying to the state! I encourage Spy Vibers who are interested in music and the Cold War to check out How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, Paul McCartney in Red Square and Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey. The parallels between Gould and The Beatles are quite interesting!
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)
Gould on Television
Related Spy Vibe posts about Cold War culture: Official Secrets Act, Atomic Art, Mods to Moongirls.
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