Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould & the Technological Self


Glenn Gould was after the most immaterial of things — abstract musical structures and ideal lines that could only be glimpsed darkly in the markings of sheet music or compositional sketches; the kind of things that sound itself might reveal, but could never contain. The virtuoso classical pianist of his age, he abandoned concert performances forever at the age of thirty-two, pushing aside the defining objects of his life and work — the concert hall, the live performance, at times even the piano — for the isolation and focus of the recording studio. But in pursuing those ethereal goals, Gould obsessed over the malleability of material objects. He agonized over the texture and action of piano keys, the qualities of a chair, the pliability of the body, the placement of splices in magnetic tape. This paper explores how Gould’s musical idealism and his famed philosophy of recording were rooted in ideas about malleability and machines, and their potential for transforming the self. Locating his concerns among the emerging technologies of the 1960s, the avant-garde film and literary techniques that inspired him, the concert hall he despised, and the jazz and ‘chance music’ he tolerated, it examines Gould’s commitment to a certain kind of malleable music, one that tied morality and aesthetics, intimacy and isolation, to a concrete ideal for the kinds of people we ought to be.


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