Messiaen, Glenn Gould and the Art of Conviction

While contemplating the compositional process and the writing of Oliver Messiaen, which seems to have benefited greatly from his religious conviction, I later watched a DVD of Humphrey Burton in conversation with Glenn Gould. It was broadcast originally in 1966, a time when such discussions could still command a prime-time slot. It centered around the music of J.S. Bach and the future of music.

In the conversation Gould predicted the death of the concert hall. He predicted that by 1999 the music listening public would be consuming perfect music, electronically recorded music from the comfort of our living rooms, we’d be twiddling knobs to manipulate the sound perfect for Bach (less bass, clarity in the mid-frequencies), or romantic orchestral recordings complete with full bass settings. He thought it wasn’t out with the realms of possibility that the listener would piece together his perfect recording from a series of different takes. These ideas defined his actions and ultimately defined him as a person and as an artist; he gave up concert playing to concentrate fully on his recorded legacy. He was of course spectacularly wrong.

I can see how he came to these conclusions however, and in some ways he was correct - there areless full time orchestras in the world in 2013 than there were in the 1960s; orchestralmusicians now have to compete with composers who use samplers and digital technology but they still exist and, many of those which do, thrive.

He was also living in the era of high fidelity, an era in which every new development in technology improved the quality of the listening experience. Since the late 1970’s however that trend has been reversed by economics and the triumph of quantity over quality. I wonder what he would make of the iphone music world of today? A world in which most music is consumed on the move or as part of something else; a shop trying to sell you clothes or an advert trying to sell you a car. Or Spotify, an application that provides every piece of music ever written for free if you are prepared to listen to adverts (containing more music) every ten minutes. He also predicted most consumed music of the future would be electronic and in this respect he was also correct.

I was not struck so much by the content of his words however, but rather the complete certainty with which he spoke, a religious conviction - notan ounce of doubt; Humphry Burton was obviously a fool for wanting to attend a concert rather than listen to a recording. This is the conviction he brought to his piano playing too, a desire for fresh ways to interpret the old.

In his closing comments John Culshaw of the BBC, probably to appease the enraged musicians and conductors, summarized Gould’s views and came to his own conclusions, in my view, the correct conclusions:

“he is probably wrong about the total decline of the concert hall, there will always be people who what to listen to music as members of a community rather than individuals”.

“I’m sure he is right in his views on the expansion and importance of home listening in whatever medium the future produces”.
“ I think he is also right about listener participation, the listener is going to take more care to reproduce the sound he wants in his own home and mould that sound to his own wishes”.

“I don’t think Glenn Gould is right about DIY Beethoven, the splicing together of different performances to create one’s own performance, although I’d say it’s a pretty harmless pastime if you like to do it”.

“The listener of the future will participate much more in the listening to music, responding to music and creating the conditions he wants”.

In my view Messiaen was wrong (not wrong musically) and Gould has been proved wrong but that’s unimportant, they had big ideas which enabled them to move forward. They had conviction.