Glenn Gould’s ‘The idea of north’

December 12, 2015 0 Comments

Glenn Gould studioThis week, as part of its Northern Lights season, Radio 3 broadcast an hour-long documentary made by the pianist Glenn Gould for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1967 called The idea of north. It turned out to be as absorbing as his piano playing.

By 1967 Gould had famously turned his back on performing in public and confined his music-making to the recording studio. But for him the studio came to mean more than playing his piano. The idea of north was the first of three radio documentaries he entitled his Solitude Trilogy – the others were The latecomers (1967) and The quiet in the land (1977). Musical composition is at its heart. Gould called it ‘a contrapuntal radio documentary’, and the voices heard in it are woven into and across one another in a consciously musical way, like a fugue.

Picture by Uli Kunz -

Here are five people familiar with the Canadian North: a nurse, the only female character and the most ‘romantic’ in outlook; a geographer and anthropologist; a civil servant; a sociologist; and Wally Maclean, a retired surveyor who acts as a kind of narrator. Behind the voices, for all but the beginning and end of the programme, is the constant sound of a train running on tracks – Gould called the sound an ‘ostinato’ or ground bass. We seem to be listening to companions on board a train, the Muskeg Express, on our way from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, a northward journey of over 1,000 miles. Though they’re clearly recorded individually, the voices follow, overlap and speak over one another, like instruments in an chamber ensemble. All of them speak naturally but with astonishing fluency.

A short prologue starts from high above, as the nurse flies in a plane over the emptiness of the land in winter – Hudson’s Bay, lakes, ice-floes and tundra stretching endlessly north – and recalls the same landscape in summer – the shimmer of sunset, geese in flight – and wishing it would never end. She’s immediately contradicted by a male voice: ‘there’s no special merit or virtue in being in the North’, before Gould himself introduces the documentary:

I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid. This programme, however, brings together some remarkable people who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada, who’ve lived and worked there and in whose lives the North has played a very vital role.

ChurchillThen, as the sound of the train establishes its insistent rhythm, the voices begin. The first speaker is a British geographer, who explains how he came to be in the North. He strayed there by accident, while trying to get to Iceland, via Morocco, and worked as a researcher in this ‘land of narrow, thin margins’, where humans were ‘at their greatest, and their most grotesque’, each one isolated in isolated communities. Daily life is far from agreeable, though it’s unclear whether the blame lies with your surroundings or yourself.

The civil servant arrived with more of a purpose, wanting to change Canada’s oblivious or uncaring attitudes towards the North, its terra nullius, and took a job with the Department of Northern Affairs.

Others come to the North as would-be hermits, without realising that it takes a strong person to belong there, and that it’s impossible to escape from the company of other people on whom you depend, or to keep your private life a secret from them. On the other hand, though you may be able to convince yourself that you’re part of a regular community, take part in singalongs and gossip (a ‘precious intimacy’) – and being gregarious is more than a social choice, it can be a matter of life and death – nevertheless, solitude is inescapable. The Canadian frontier complex can induce a feeling among northern folk that they possess a special kudos (‘what a sacrifice I’m making for Canada’) and a cult of personality and style – a stereotype that can come to be believed. Solitude in a solitary place may help self-discovery. ‘I’m getting along with myself’, says the narrator, ‘I understand the problems that are, not the problems I’ve created’. But the question never goes away: am I answering a challenge, or escaping from myself? The nurse came to ‘help the Eskimos’, but found that it was she who was most in need of help. Others, far from finding ‘El Dorado or Utopia’, meet disillusion and turn against what they find in the North, or blame others, or flee.

ArcticLater we hear about the complex relationship between the native inhabitants of the North (‘Eskimos’) and incomers from the south, and about how the speakers see the land’s future: variously, Soviet-style planned towns, suburbia or recreational playground for southerners. Then the train’s constant rattle ceases. After a short pause it’s replaced by the last movement of Sibelius’s 5th Symphony (Sibelius was one of Gould’s favourite composers). As the music gathers its great submarine swell we listen to a monologue from the narrator, in the form of an imagined conversation with a companion, a first-timer making the long train journey north. He talks of the ‘internal gyro compass’ that gives us a sense of personal direction, from the known into the unknown. Quoting William James’s worry that ‘there is no moral equivalent of war’ to bind human society together, he suggests that in the past men could agree to combine against Mother Nature. That is no longer so. Perhaps, he proposes with some trepidation and a little portentousness, the equivalent challenge today is human nature. That, indeed, is the real ‘idea of north’. And with that thought, and the fall of Sibelius’s final six hammer strokes, the programme ends.

The idea of north was well worth reviving. It sounds as fresh and inventive today as it must have 48 years ago. One of the reasons, it seems to me, is that it’s only ostensibly ‘about’ the Canadian north. It has much more to do with Glenn Gould’s exploration of human nature, specifically the relationship with the individual and society. The Arctic happens to be a convenient and extreme location for investigating a subject close to Gould’s heart. He may have been intensely private in his personal life, but despite his elective seclusion from musical company he always remained concerned with the problem of how an essentially solitary person can best communicate with and ‘get along with’ with his fellow human beings.

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