Here’s a curious fact about Glenn Gould, a man of many paradoxes. Although he gave up performing live concerts in 1963 at age 31 and died nineteen years later, no musician of his generation seems a more vivid living presence today. Lincoln Center is even presenting him as the subject of a ten-part film festival: “Glenn Gould Unveiled,” which concludes this week with three final entries: the pianist discussing and performing Bach, a documentary (The Alchemist) that explores Gould’s philosophy of recording as the most valid way of experiencing music (still wildly controversial), and a symposium on his legacy as a prophet of our own digital age.
If you can’t make it to these events, not to worry. Hours of Gould on film are readily available for home viewing, from the many television programs made by the CBC featuring the pianist performing and analyzing core items from his repertory to a variety of documentaries on his life and career. There’s even a commercial feature by director François Girard (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) that dramatizes the pianist’s life and ideas. Perhaps the most creative bit of filmed Gouldiana to surface recently is Glenn Gould: Hereafter, by that indefatigable documentary-maker and observer of famous musicians, Bruno Monsaingeon. This ingenious synthesis of archival material and beyond-the-grave mysticism (the film gives the illusion of being narrated by Gould himself) opened Lincoln Center’s mini-festival, and it has just been issued on DVD by Idéale Audience International.
What makes Hereafter unusual is its unconventional structure, a polyphonic interweaving of three basic audio-visual motifs—a technique perhaps inspired by the way Gould used musical principles to construct his own purely “sound documentaries” for the CBC. Monsaingeon takes the device a step further by adding visual counterpoint to the sound element. First there is the selection from Gould’s autobiographical comments, appropriately illustrated, as he made them over the years. The second element features five “participant listeners” who, in their different ways, are deeply affected by the pianist’s art and represent his unique ongoing relationship with the public (one of these devoted posthumous fans is an ex-rocker from Birmingham, England, who has the four-note theme of a string quartet by Gould tattooed on her midriff). Finally blended in are the archival films of Gould the pianist at work, seated at his favorite creaky chair and humming along as those infallible fingers spin the strands of a Bach fugue into golden threads.
The film’s mystical element might possibly turn off some viewers, especially the suggestion that Gould’s musical personality was so potent that he actually became interchangeable with the composers he played. I’m not sure even the great man himself would have bought that, but it does lead to a final powerful image of Gould playing and explaining Bach’s last incomplete fugue, which breaks off, as Gould’s life did, just when we get the awesome feeling of entering a truly amazing expanding universe. The sight and sound of the moment perfectly complements a comment Gould made earlier in this intensely musical documentary: “Infinity, the idea of hereafter, is simply more plausible than oblivion.”