Let’s All Write An Epic Poem!
by Paul Mathers
As you probably know by now, I decided, for the poetic form of the epic poem, to write a heroic epic poem about Glenn Gould. I won’t say too much about it, except that the traditional epic poem is written in dactylic hexameter. After considering the subject matter, I wrote the poem in dactylic hexameter, and then translated it back into free verse so as to give it sort of the ghost of that tempo (which I think Gould would have appreciated, at least in concept).
Also, it was originally to be 32 cantos long, but I began to feel as if that were a bit gimmicky.
You don’t have to know a great deal about Gould to appreciate the piece, but the more you know, etc.
Anyway, it’s a very long piece, so let’s get to it.
So You Want to Write an Epic Poem?
By Paul Mathers
Canto 1 Invocation
O, what shall I invoke to write an epic about Glenn Gould?
The Universe Contrapuntal, Sound Tonal and Atonal,
Guide my meter, to rhythm worthy of this oblique giant
Who bravely took sound into a non-linear time context,
Where all could listen with fresh ears. This man who was
At once a modern classicist, a man of his time unstuck in time,
The soundest mind of sweeping madness, a rational contradiction.
Like a reliable chair fashioned for us, with the seat worn away.
May we rest in relative certainty that our all too human performances
Can be perfected, preserved, presented as a moment for the ages.
Canto 2 Unheard
At thirteen he sat at the piano rehearsing Mozart’s K. 394.
The vacuum started and he could no longer hear quieter sounds.
He knew what the sounds were from repetition and reading.
He knew the sounds his hands must have been conjuring from the keys.
They sounded better to him than any note he was ever able to hear.
He tried tirelessly to recreate the experience for the rest of his life.
A way to dull dental pain by playing music low under white noise
so that the patient must strain to hear it, rewires their nervous system,
Ultimately just another machine humans can use to improve their lives.
Canto 3 Stokowski
Maestro Stokowski is waiting in front of a live microphone
anticipating questions about his musical career. He expects to talk
about his major works and musical philosophy with the pianist
transposed to radio documentarian with whom he had worked
years ago. The ‘Emperor’ Concerto if memory serves… “Maetro,
I keep having this recurring dream, in which I am on another planet
where I have the occasion to bring Promethean light to an alien culture,
a civilization that has never experienced art. What would you do?”
Stokowski considered mutely, then started with the enormity of infinite space,
The infinite possibilities of mind, our ability to create the best of conditions,
The artist, Shakespeare, the music of random street noise, beauty and order,
our ability to create and to destroy. And Gould had his audio collage
with undertones by Schoenberg, Holst, and Scriabin.
Canto 4 Animals
He frequently gets in a boat by his lake home and rides loudly around
to spook the fish so that the angry fishermen will not be able to catch any.
Once upon a country road, he sang to the cows, “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish”
which the cows came to listen attentively, never a more hallowed concert audience.
A boy conceives an opera, with himself as lead, in which mankind has self-destructed,
leaving one boy to thrive in a world of sentient wild creatures. A dream of replacing
humankind’s domination with a peaceful, non-exploitive coexistence, harmonious.
They are preferred company to humans. They observe with uncritical curiosity.
Canto 5 The Spine
The child Glenn, confirmed boat watcher, a boating trip on Lake Simcoe,
where trees stand in the water, so much of home about it.
The scattershot focus of a child, the misplacement of a foot,
a body diminishing from the parents standing on the dock.
The crack of the developing spine on the rocks beside the dock.
The pain, the meds, the special chair, the focus on the state of the body,
the sense of the beginning of a long coda, a pattern written to a resolution
decades to come, to pit the human will against the ticking.
Looking up at the sky, the height from which he fell,
a moment shifting the course of everything to come, as they all do.
Canto 6 Toronto
Called a model of the alternative future, not only by Canadians,
An unlikely home to Gould, a city, but a city which has shed its cityness,
where one could sit on a park bench eternally gazing off lost in thought,
where one could walk by the Muddy Don without setting foot on concrete.
Toronto the Good, of his youth, remembered and rendered over the Strip of today,
The blue laws, the dry laws, the rolled up streets of Sunday, unspeakably appealed.
A city which seeks to retain Tranquility, the place to retain wonder and serenity.
Young Glenn’s mosaic of light through stained glass evening benedictions
“Lord, give us the peace that the earth cannot give” to be repeated by the man
silently, internal, as he navigates through the jarring, cacophonous world.
Canto 7 Under Glass
Glenn stands in gloves and overcoat, solitary by recording booth window
as Von Karajan conducts Sibelius’ Fifth to an audience of thousands.
Glenn thinks of a sadistic child pulling the wings off of a dragonfly
and how the world pretends to want to stop nuclear proliferation
but says nothing of the sadistic child, which is the audience,
poised to pounce upon the slightest human error. The insecurity
like the lowing of sonar from the depths of humankind on the other side of the glass.
But Karajan closes his eyes in rapture and Glenn follows him to that height.
The ecstasy which is only attainable in the undisturbed present is upon him
from behind the glass. The place where the artist can send messages
in bottles, and the public can pick up capsules of perfection.
Canto 8 Bernstein
Finally. but with a caveat. Before the New York Philharmonic broadcast,
the conductor speaks, admits that he does not agree with what they are about to hear.
But the importance of the artist compels him to conduct, to ensure that it is heard.
The Brahms D Minor Concerto, the tempi leisurely beyond anyone’s imagining.
A testimony to Gould’s rejection of the virtuoso soloist and competition in art in general,
An exercise in minimizing contrasts and integrating the pianist into the orchestra
when exaggerating the contrasts of the Romantics and rock star musicians ruled the day.
In spite or because of Lennie’s remarks, boos, critics aflame, and recorded music history.
“Thus thumbing, Bernstein decided to thumb his own nose at the music establishment”
One more misinterpretation of an intended interpretation. The music turns invisible
in light of the extrapolated drama. Another night of near riots in the arena of serious music.
In time, the honesty would be remembered, when conductor and soloist
admitted their differences to the audience before playing together.
Canto 9 Let’s Ban Applause
The Metropolitan Opera’s stop in Toronto inspired the derision of the press
for the prohibitive admission, keeping the lower classes from seeing the opera,
to the extent of lamenting the probable absence of inappropriate reactions.
Before Musical America, Gould stood and argued the elimination of applause
as would befit the proper reaction to art: the internal combustion for long drives
out in the solitary hinterlands of our curriculum vitae, each in our lonely vessels,
rather than pharisaic proclamations of piety in the public square of the demonstrative,
debating the integrity of those who would react differently in a packed house
than alone with headphones. To ask the concert-goer, what is the reward of art?
And faced with the responsibility of self-curating one’s state of wonder and serenity
each individual is culpable for the quality of their own divinity.
Canto 10 Quitting performing
They were evil, decadent, archaic, and sadistic to begin with.
Thousands of children ready to rip the legs off of a dragonfly.
Perfection was within our grasp and we were still wallowing in imperfection.
The live performance was God playing dice. There have always been those
who love beauty and order. To recut to perfection. The perfect flow,
undetectable to the expert editorial ears. A Wagnerian quest for
the ideal means of reproduction, being the only means by which
the artist can have a one on one relationship with the audience:
To isolate, perfect, for the audience to experience. Everyone with their terms.
Canto 11 Battleship Grey
Assault. The bright colors and total lack of warfare, a composer he knew of,
all hippos and crocodiles, all brightness, sensory overload, longing for prison,
but a willful prison where he can adjust the temperature and lighting of the cell.
And the color in which the walls would be painted: neutral as stone, penitent as ash.
If a row of houses were all in glorious battleship gray and one non-comformist
decided to paint his home fire engine red, it would be an act of violence. One more
manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man, suggesting rage by way of hue.
To walk with isolation and pacific colors within, the protective cover of clouds
without cold. Without the moral danger of garish colors and what they inspire.
Canto 12 Schoenberg’s numbers
The centipede cannot walk while thinking about how one foot moves.
Only he who walked to the chasm’s edge could see what he almost fell into.
Some fell, he backed at the last chance, spent the rest of his time building structures
of his own devising to prevent ever going over the edge, until the structure
enveloped him. The stable instability, the importance and meaning in random numbers
boomed at Gould like the voice of God, like no other composer… save one.
To put it another way, a language evolves and expands until it collapses.
A man inherits a language right on the cusp of this. His options are to collapse
or to attempt to reconcile through rebirth the ancient and the contempo
in order to rescue anything worth saving, the danger of being a theory
Rather than a masterpiece.
Canto 13 The Idea of North
Applying fugal counterpoint to voices engaged in storytelling. A nation needs a frontier
for the conservation of its soul. The limits of recorded audio are vastly unexplored.
Not reasonably eternally discovered, but at least eternally renewed through ways of hearing.
Glenn mixes in the fourth voice simultaneously telling a story at nearly the same volume.
The Idea being that the symbol of extreme North suggests both the limitless creativity
and limitless disillusionment. A laboratory. A place to be told that the common enemy
of humankind was nature, once, until we came together against it, before we replaced it
and can deliver warmly pressed Look magazine to the coldest reaches of Earth.
All this to the rhythm of the metronomic steel wheels moving further down the tracks.
Canto 14 Outtakes
They never deny the author drafts nor a filmmaker the impure stagecraft
of the cutting room floor. At least not exclusively. Both exist to the delight of many.
An inaudible splice effectively cuts itself out of existence. Gould assembles eighteen
on panels, one musicians, one recording professions, one laity, to detect the point of cutting,
and finds the delight of Hypothesis evolving into Theory. The tape gets away with
your wildest desires. A little knowledge is dangerous, a lot deleterious.
A conductor known to “never use splices” believed like a starlet who “never had work done.”
A recording prejudice regenerated. As we document the past, the gnawing question
is if we ought even to evaluate, in the future, when machines are demanded
to contain the mark of their creator, firstly, the quality of memory. The ferocity
of Art’s own burning, like sun-fire, as we seek to hasten the click of the stopwatch,
and bask in the relief of Order collapsing in on itself, pulling us apart with it.
To a singular point where one can look back and see all time unfolding.
Canto 15 Solitude
The womb and the cloister of the studio. The arm’s length intimacy of the telephone.
Nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, and the self-removal from harm,
the uncertainties of the reaction of another or the free fall of health, carefully orchestrated.
The self-admitted, self-evident lack of spinal resilience on confronting polarities.
Bullied by schoolyard brutes, the boy’s family had a cabin a hundred miles north
where year round one could retreat, especially isolated in the cold, bleak midwinter
when lake vacationers were rarities. A sort of inverted sentimentality, to gravitate
towards the insulation that cold inspires, the Fifth of Sibelius, inches of clothing.
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel, Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Canto 16 The Last Puritan
The act of creation, communicated from individual to individual,
as a moral act, the apotheosis of lawful good. He hears Bobby Fisher
speaking of his love to crush his opponent’s ego, and knows murder
in the heart of his fellow man. Are you satisfied with this world we’ve made?
The encased art of modern technology allows the removal of competition
with rival artists, save for the performer’s self. As the moral spirit develops
and our dexterity expands, the suffering of the few for the good of many
gives way to the higher goal of the suffering of none. And so the puritan scolds,
never be clever for the sake of being clever, for the sake of showing off.
Canto 17 Dr. Herbert von Hockmeister
It’s a joke in the form of a mirror in the form of a grown man in costumes
by no compulsion and on his own free will playing as if there were no audience.
A New York beat musician commenting onstage on Gould’s performance at intermission,
members of the audience complained about the rude critic’s remarks, as Gould chuckled.
The dean of British conductors, complete with white fuller brush mustache.
A German hippie musician who plays classical like modern jazz. A boxer. A soundman.
Like a few drinks or a mask. The key to making laughter (albeit nervous) on topic.
No one could hold him to what the puppet said. While a figure like Karajan might show
in turbulent times that all have the capacity for the serious depths of the abyss,
Gould displayed the serious with the occasional cosmic buffoonery, a winking façade.
Canto 18 The Goldberg Variations
Intended as bookend discs, the latter to close the piano and open the documentary.
Sebastian, of course, but specifically a piece with no ending or beginning or climax.
But we intuit the unifying factors, simply by its existence, simply by the timing.
The very choice a tailored statement, in light of the stability of technique,
Not Old Gould showing up Young Gould, but rather the new spirit commuting the old.
The desire to capture the deliberate while archiving the explosion of ideas,
And how to find the stride of a well-tempered pace when one has discovered
the preciousness of a restful pulse, and yet to arrive at roughly the same time.
The legend has Bach composing for an insomniac in a form that he detested.
The question is posed, would J.S. compose in this manner for a forty louis d’or prize?
Or 100,000 records? An artist misunderstood in his own time, but not for the progress
so obvious in retrospect, but rather viewed as behind his time to his peer base,
in a time in which reason and science could still coexist with the mystical.
Canto 19 Szell
“But I really want to dispel this wicked myth that has run so rampant for so long.
My chair would not extend and I simply, on my own time, sought the theater carpenter
to construct casters to raise the Steinway to the level for my required posture.
Szell, on a union break, asked me what I was doing and I told him. He did not respond.
We performed in perfect accord. And then, years later, this story circulated.
He was on the podium and I was futzing with my chair and, in diverse variations,
He said that if I did not stop with the chair he would shave an inch off my derrière.
Years later, the Time reporter who conducted the interview confided that the story
came from the mouth of Szell. Presumably to capitalize on my public image and his.
Except that it never happened, but the story still circulates. I suppose if I could suggest
one inclusion, it would be to correct this, for the sake of his dignity… and for mine.”
Canto 20 The Stroke
The date adds up to 38 when Gould was 50. The sharp pain in the head lead
To the phone call to his manager who heard the formerly articulate now slur.
The left side died first. Glenn found himself stuck within the body finally gone
as haywire as he knew it could. The years of tracking his blood pressure
like a child on a long trip asking “are we there yet?” In spite of the pain,
the flitting consciousness of inexpressible internality, that which is beyond expression,
post-relational, five days until the brain was announced irreversibly damaged
and father said, “Turn off these instruments and let nature take its course.”
Canto 21 One on one with the future
First of all, he does not live on. Glenn Gould died in the hospital post-life support.
We must not romanticize. What did happen was that a man went into a studio,
or a series of studios, and performed pieces again and again, until he felt perfection.
Or, rather, he spliced perfection. A piece from outtake 8, from outtake 13, and so forth,
until he had his perfection, like an editor, like a composer of performance.
And then he sent these out into time and space while he made another.
He had noted the limits of the live audience, and sought the potential infinite
recurring loop of one-on-one connection with the anonymous listener.
Indeed only achievable thereby. A conversation which can only occur in his absence.