Wednesday, 19 June 2013



A Radio Drama by Bruce Charlton - Copyright 1995

Comprising 10 imaginary letters from the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould to an imaginary friend - as if Gould had not died shortly after his fiftieth birthday - interwoven with music from JS Bach. Words by Bruce Charlton
Music by JS Bach - From the fifteen Two-part Inventions BWV 772-786 and the fifteen Three-part Sinfonias (inventions) BWV 787- 801.
(From the recording Fantasia, inventions, chromatic fantasia and fugue, by Angela Hewitt. HYPERION CDA 66746)
TOTAL RUNNING TIME: 40 mins approx. (never broadcast)



Dear Scott,
Today I turned fifty and I'm feeling just fine - one of my good days. As of now, everything in my life is under control.
Even better, I've had a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Company to compose a piano sonata. Big bucks; but the project must be completed within the year. The idea is that they will broadcast my first performance while I am still fifty. This would consist of a documentary movie of me miming to a studio recording.
It seems a tall order, but it happens that a big sonata is just exactly what I have been wanting to do for some years; only I have not been sure that any work of mine would be recorded - the sales guys at the record company tell me that the public will buy anything I perform, however weird, but this charity would not extend to my compositions.
Anyway, here goes with my magnum opus. I feel as if my life so far has been a study for this one. For once, I can hardly wait to get at the piano and try it out.
Dear Scott,
I've started my preparation by playing through Bach's two and three part inventions. You remember I recorded them a few years back just after my Steinway had been dropped and mangled. It's still one of my favourite performances despite - or is it because of ? - residual unrepaired mechanical problems which led leading to CD 318 sounding 'like a bar room piano' as one critic put it!
The inventions were meant to be harpsichord tuition pieces designed to polish up contrapuntal technique. This makes them particularly rewarding to play, quite apart from their wonderful musicality.
Which brings me to Gould's first piano sonata... I have never really got to grips with the piano as a creative object; and just now I am torn between composing at the instrument or in my head. The answer should be blazingly obvious, given everything I have written against the piano. But, then again, I do keep coming back to the unwieldy beast, don't I?
Today was particularly fine: it isn't the playing fast that I enjoy so much as the elation of discrimination between note and note. I despise staccato machine-gun rapidity, the blasting out of identical and equally spaced bullets. I think of myself rather as firing something like a fast action pea shooter: each individual note is organically grown, related to its neighbour, yet slightly different. But the sheer exhilaration of this at speed, when aural discontinuity is magically transformed into singing line, when each moment is eternal yet suspended between the dying tone and the tone being born...
Maybe, after all, its just a more constipated version of good old, two-fisted, three pedalled, knock 'em down and kill 'em, barnstorming virtuosity. It doesn't feel like it, though. At such moments of solitary ecstasy I would not swap the piano stool for anything I know of - certainly not the composers study.
Dear Scott,
Yes, I will gladly see your PhD student, or at least speak to her on the telephone: it's always a pleasure to assist the pursuit of scholarship, and only reasonable that I repay the University of Toronto for the honorary doctorate. Ask her to call me between midnight and four am. on any weekday and we'll take it from there.
In fact I'd be glad of some diversion. The sonata is not going well: in fact it is not really going at all. I have this absurd notion of writing something that encapsulates the twentieth century zeitgeist, and its tyrannical power; and putting this into contrast with the world according to Gould - the non-competitive creating of a moral life through the narcissistic contemplation of art - you know the kind of thing.
I also want the music to comment - implicitly, I hasten to add - upon the charity of technology and the possibilities it open out for truly creative solitude. And finally I also want the thing to be unplayable by anybody else except me! So I am planning that it should be the most through-going, sustained, integrated, archingly-structured and difficult piece of true counterpoint ever devised for the piano.
Contemporary life is so full of bombast; I daresay this applies even for Professors of philosophy. And yet we are the lucky ones. In the light of all the public expectation fostered by the CBC (did you see the press coverage!) and of my own outrageous over-ambition, it has become a case of me and Steinway CD 318 against the world.
All of which explains why I have spent days avoiding the sonata and playing the simplest and sweetest of the two-part inventions. Their pure lines seem, in their brevity and lucidity, to show up the bogus emptiness of my own rhetoric. They imply everything, and declare nothing.
Dear Scott,
You breed a high quality product at the University if Lin Po is anything to go by. I have been very taken by her, I must admit. Indeed, after only a matter of - say- fifteen hours of nocturnal telephone conversation I have already consented to meet her 'in the flesh' - as the horrible expression puts it.
I know, such unseemly haste lays me open to the possibility that I may be stripped of my status as the hermit of Toronto, but it's too late. The deed is done, and we met for a drink (soft drink, needless to say) at my favourite out-of-town cafe, and were driven around the city in the limo' for a couple of hours.
She is a very interesting young woman - not least because of her encyclopaedic knowledge of, and intelligence concerning, my recordings - the Bach in particular. Plays nicely too, and doesn't touch the loud pedal, I'm delighted to say! But I was particularly fascinated by the topic of her PhD thesis. Did you suggest it to her? Or was it perhaps derived from one of my magazine articles?
I have promised to look up some references from my files, and the conversation has led me to do some more thinking on the theme. I guess, that I, of all people, should know something about the interface between individual subjectivity and the objectivity of communications media. I invented the interface, for Chris’sake!
No progress on the sonata, I'm afraid. The whole idea is beginning to seem nauseatingly grandiose. Where have we gone wrong that it isn't?
P.S. The most interesting thing about meeting Lin Po was that I accidentally let her shake my hand when we parted. I completely forgot my phobia of having my bones crushed.
It didn't hurt. Actually, I am forced to admit it was nice to have touched someone again. I had forgotten how warm and smooth, and gentle, a hand can be.
Dear Scott,
Thank you for your note. I will ignore all innuendo as beneath contempt, but you are correct in your surmise - I have indeed been 'seeing a lot' of Lin Po. I make no apology for the fact; indeed I would say that meeting her has been the most profoundly ... well, challenging event of recent years.
This is partly intellectual, no doubt - or at least that is how it began. But, I must admit that there is something altogether more personal about things. the whole business intrigues me - I have spent many hours brooding on the phenomenon.
It is worrying too. Particularly worrying is the thought that the basis may be nothing more than lust - the physical desire of an old man (well old-ish man) for a young and attractive woman. I say 'attractive' but I am not really sure. She has what I consider to be a typically serene Oriental face. But what sticks in my mind, however, is her quality of attentiveness. That, and the subtle unpredictability of her opinions and behaviours. I hate inconsistency and shallow moodiness; but it is not that - more as if the thought processes themselves were subtly different from my own so that the same input leads to a different output but in ways I do not fully understand.
All this means that I have set aside the damned sonata for the moment, while I seek refreshment of the spirit. It should not take long to compose, if I can attain the necessary condition of detachment. The thing is written in my head, and merely need noting down...
At least I think it is in my head. To be quite candid, I am not absolutely sure.
Dear Scott,
Things are tough. Just now Lin Po is away back home, visiting her folks. The deadline for the sonata is getting very close - the recording studio is booked for next week and I have not had the guts to tell CBC that nothing is yet on paper.
Even worse, and please keep this strictly to yourself, I am having some technical problems with my playing. Not just the odd finger slips - a real problem which I can only describe as loss of control. I have always valued control above all else - over-valued it, perhaps. It was one of the main reasons why I quit giving live concerts more than eighteen years ago; I could keep strict command over the recording process. But there it is - when playing anything of length I can't seem to keep the 'overarching structure' in my mind. There is a kind of dissipation, I end up pointing in a slightly different direction from the one I set out on.
All of which is pretty subtle, and I daresay might not be noticeable to the average listener - but things are worse. There is a difficulty with the phrases, in particular shaping the contrapuntal voice leading. This was always the thing that I did better than anyone - or so I have believed. But the ability seems to be going. So even the miniatures are flawed.
I can only assume that I have some sort of illness, something I have not previously experienced, and that it is undermining me in ways that I do not understand.
I have stopped playing the inventions for myself, but I have been listening. Lin Po recorded a few for me on good old Steinway CD 318 before she went away. They have that serenity I associate with her and, while I am listening, I can lose myself in the music.
Dear Scott,
You will have heard the news, I have no doubt. Yep, I failed to deliver - the sonata was not written. Everyone at CBC was disappointed, the public was disappointed, and me? Well, you can imagine how pleased I was.
This is not the place for breast beating, nor are public apologies appropriate. The announcement said I was sick, but the truth is I didn't write the piece because I couldn't. I couldn't do it - that's the thing.
And neither could I give them a new recording of something else to fill the TV slot. I wanted to do some my own versions of some Richard Strauss songs, but the technical problems meant I just couldn't do that either. I didn't even try. So, they just re-ran an old program from the archives.
Since a kid I always wanted to be a composer, always assumed that was where I would end up, eventually; but I guess that my talents are interpretative rather than creative - transcriptions and sound collages are the best I can manage.
And now that the easy pianistic technique has gone out the window at exactly the same time as I have realised my creative limitations, I am faced with some kind of crisis. This is a real problem, Scott, the worst I have faced. Just as I got my life under control, the way I wanted it. Things fall apart. I wish I had someone that I could talk with. I wish Lin Po was back.
Dear Scott,
At last - Lin Po is back. She has been around my place for hours, through the night hours - talking, talking.
It has been a great help to me. So far we do not appear to have exhausted the subject of my 'artistic problems', but I must admit that they have rather lost their sting. But one thing I must tell you about is the poetry, the Chinese poetry.
Lin Po brought round a calligraphy set and a book of poems. What she does is to copy the poem, actually paint the symbols for me there and then, then she translates it. Or rather she discourses on it. She will maybe do a short literal translation, describing the meanings of the symbols, then she free-associates about the background, the metaphors, the poetic conventions and all that stuff. Really, its incredible.
I realise that the Chinese poets were trying to do the same thing as I was. To capture a hard, impersonal essence of crystalline moral beauty. So hard and uncompromising and pared down that each poem attained an apparent objectivity - nothing sloppy or confessional or sentimental: the artist was lost in the work.
It is quite wonderful. But did you notice the past tense above? That is significant. For all its wonder, the approach of Chinese poetry is incomplete. And it is not really objective, or else Lin Po would not need to give me so much background. The poetry was, after all, embedded in its culture, only the culture was so stable and permanent that nobody realised.
What I get from all this is hard to express. I don't regret the way I've done things in the past, or my so called uncompromising integrity over performance styles, the dry piano tone, the purity of the recording studio compared with the gladiatorial display of the concert hall.
All that was true - is true. It just seems to me, now, to be incomplete. It's not the whole story. There must be room for mess, for vulgarity. Sometimes, we have to touch people.
Dear Scott,
I wanted to be the first to tell you: I am going to do a live concert, and I want you to be in the audience.
Of course the whole thing is going to be very hush hush, and given that I don't need the money there will be no tickets on sale and the venue will be small. In a way, I want the occasion to be taken very casually, despite its momentous significance for me. I certainly don't want some kind of big deal of the Glenn Gould's Triumphant Return to the Platform headline kind; never mind a Gould Concert Debacle. But, of course it does represent a major shift for me.
There is one very important thing. The recital must NOT be recorded. Personally, I would like to have all the audience searched for concealed microphones - body searched if necessary, but Lin Po has persuaded me that this would be impolite. So instead I am only inviting people who I can trust not to lay any bugging devices.
Why not record it, you will ask? The real reason is not the most obvious one, which is that my technique is unreliable. My technique is unreliable compared with what it used to be, but I am fully recovered from that loss of focus I was suffering some time back. The phrasing and architecture are just how I want them - but the detail is imperfect and I can guarantee there will be finger slips - quite a few.
But that is not why I am forbidding recording. It is that I want the concert to be here and now, shared by the people present and them only, evanescent - and more beautiful because of the fact. Like the fall of a petal of cherry blossom. The memory will be shared as memory, and the validity of the experience will not be diluted or undermined by any false sense that it can be repeated.
My hope is that this will be a 'Zen' concert, if you know what I meant; as far away as possible from the usual heroic performer and passive audience, block-busting piano concerto followed by virtuoso encore. You will be my guests and equally I will be yours. More importantly we will be there, myself and the listeners, at the same time and once only; a smallish group of people, contemplating a small world of music which we shall create together.
Dear Scott,
Thanks for understanding. I know it may seem bizarre for Lin Po and I to get married. Bizarre from so many viewpoints: my solitude and self- absorption, my dread of physical contact. And then from her viewpoint too - the age difference, the likelihood of unpleasant comment in the press, the cultural differences...
But Scott, what can I say? All this can change! It's like re- inventing my life. No it isn't, I'm sick of inventing things for myself with only the piano as a companion. I've been playing Bach inventions again. They feel different now. And I've stopped humming along - I only noticed yesterday. Somehow my vocalisations have gotten into my fingers, into the music itself.
But music is not everything - I see that now. Creativity sometimes needs to spring from roots in human society. From now there will be another factor, another party - one that engages me in dialogue, trialogue, even - because the Steinway remains a vital partner.
Lin Po influences me and behaves in ways that are out of my control. That is the key to my change of heart - I have given up the need for total control in life and music. I have embraced un- predictability, the introduction of another voice.
Life has become a counterpoint in three parts.

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