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This inukshuk stands in front of the Eskimo Museum in Churchill, Manitoba — the destination of the Muskeg Express train mentioned in Glenn Gould’s radio documentary “The Idea of North.” An inukshuk is meant to stand as a navigational guide and a marker of human presence within the stark isolation of the North, an element Gould explores in his piece.
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Northern soliloquy
Glenn Gould translates the landscape of the North in his experimental radio documentary
By Jordan Timm

On December 28, 1967, the CBC Radio program “Ideas” broadcast an hour-long documentary by Glenn Gould called, “The Idea of North.” Commissioned as part of the CBC’s celebration of Canada’s centennial year, it was the first of what would become his Solitude Trilogy. These radio documentaries allowed Gould – at the time retired from live performance and devoted exclusively to recording – to explore solitude and isolation, subjects that had fascinated him for most of his life. He was able to push the boundaries of radio by manipulating human voices into compositions by organizing them according to musical theory.


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“The endless white of the Far North. The opening aria of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” can be heard faintly over the whistling wind. A small black dot appears at the centre of the distant horizon. At first it appears to be still, but gradually we recognize movement. Over the next few minutes the shape begins to grow until it has defined the image of a man walking towards us. As he approaches, the music grows clearer.

“The man is Glenn Gould. We recognize him by his dark coat, his hat, his habit of hiding his hands and by the way he rounds his shoulders. He reaches us and stops. Standing on the desert of frozen rubble, he surveys the world before him.”

– from 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: The Screenplay, by François Girard & Don McKellar


*****

“I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and Subarctic 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.”

– Glenn Gould in “The Idea of North”

“Radio…is a medium I’ve been very close to ever since I was a child, that I listen to virtually nonstop: I mean, it’s wallpaper for me – I sleep with the radio on, in fact now I’m incapable of sleeping without the radio on, ever since I gave up Nembutal [laughing].”

– Glenn Gould interviewed by author Jonathan Cott
in Conversations With Glenn Gould

Gould interviewed five subjects for “The Idea of North”: Marianne Schroeder, a nurse; James Lotz, a geographer and anthropologist; Robert Phillips, a civil servant; Frank Vallee, a sociologist; Wally Maclean, a surveyor whom Gould had met on his own trip north. All had spent a significant amount of time in the North. Gould devised the dramatic conceit of making it seem as though the five were aboard the train known as the Muskeg Express bound for Churchill, Manitoba. He layered their voices over the continuous sound of a moving train, and over each other, and carefully edited them to make it seem as though they were occasionally reacting to each other’s words. In fact, the five were interviewed separately and never met during the production process.

*****

“He would talk of the organization of his radio work in terms of musical forms, contrapuntal forms or rondo forms. He’d talk about crescendos. He would make a transcript of the program and then he would call it the score. His terminology was musical.”

– Kevin Bazzana, Gould scholar and author of
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould

“What we’ve tried to do…is to create what I have grown rather fond of calling ‘contrapuntal radio’, which is a term that I’ve picked up from a fondness for contrapuntal music, and tried, rather arbitrarily, to attach to another medium, where it has not belonged in the past.”

– Glenn Gould interviewed on CBS Records’ 1968 release,
Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout

“If you examine any of the really contrapuntal scenes in my radio pieces, you’ll find that every line stacks up against the line opposite, and either contradicts it or supplements it, but uses, in any case, the same basic terminology – a set of numbers, similar or identical terms, or whatever.”

– Glenn Gould, in the 1975 CBC film Radio as Music

“…And as we flew along the east coast of the Hudson’s Bay, this flat, flat country frightened me a little because it just seemed endless. We seemed to be going into nowhere. And the further north we went, the more monotonous it became…”

– Marianne Schroeder in “The Idea of North”

 




“…I don’t know those people who do claim they want to go farther and farther north, and so on, but I see it as kind of a game, this northmanship bit. People say well, ‘Were you ever up at the North Pole?’ and, ‘Hell, I did a dogsled trip of 22 days’, and the other fella goes, ‘Well I did one of 30 days.’ You know, it’s very childish…”

– Frank Vallee in
“The Idea of North”



 

“…and then for another 11 years I served the north in various capacities. Sure the north has changed my life…”

– Robert Phillips in
“The Idea of North”

*****

“It was a program about the Canadian North, ostensibly. What it was really about, as a friend of mine kindly said, was ‘the dark night of the human soul’. It was a very dour essay on the effects of isolation upon mankind.”

– Glenn Gould interviewed on CBS Records’ 1968 release,
Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout

*****

“All of his early documentaries had to do with this idea of, ‘What does isolation, what does solitude, offer to a person? What does it do to a person? How does it affect your thinking?’

– Kevin Bazzana

*****

“What Glenn really thought about solitude, only Glenn knows. He designed his solitude to suit himself, like a pearly shell. He made it a work of art. He distanced himself from other people’s emotions – and then he was brilliant.”

– Judith Pearlman, director and producer of the
television adaptation of “The Idea of North”,
in an interview by Otto Friedrich for Glenn
Gould: A Life and Variations


Learn more:
The music man

  External links:
www.glenngould.com
The Idea of North - CBC archives

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