Goulding Glass

Last Monday, Philip Glass was awarded this year’s Glenn Gould prize. It’s a relatively new prize, awarded every few years as a lifetime achievement for musicians. It’s not afraid to court popularism—all for the best, as far as I’m concerned—with Leonard Cohen having received the prize in 2011.

It’s interesting to see the names Gould and Glass together: Gould was a master technician who seemed most interested in exploring complex, weaving layers of counterpoint; Glass is the arch simplifier, stripping his music of everything that could be called decoration.

But in peculiar ways, their music has things in common. Both are iconoclasts: Gould’s precisely detached finger technique and Glass’ hypnotic arpeggios are too distinctive to be imitated. Their music is highly abstract, and leaves many listeners cold (while also creating vociferous fans). And both have rejected tradition: Gould preferred the recording studio to the concert stage, and argued for performers to interpret music in new ways rather than giving complete fealty to the score; Glass’ first opera, Einstein on the Beach, was written with the idea that the audience could come and go during its performance.

Gould didn’t record any Glass, to my knowledge. In fact I’d be very surprised if he even liked his music. But he did, in a hilarious outtake from his recording of the Brahms rhapsodies and ballades,[1] do a strange Glassian impression of the Brahms. It’s oddly reminiscent of the opening of Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray, which is Chopin seen through Shaw’s lens.

  1. Via erasing.org. I had no idea this video existed when I started this post. It takes a certain kind of geek to get excited about five hours of Glenn Gould in the recording studio. I am that kind of geek.  ↩