The solitary figure wanders through the autumnal Ontario hinterland, in famous overcoat, gloves and cap, lingering here and there, swinging his arms as though conducting the rivers and woods to ripple and sway with greater zest. We hear the figure’s disembodied voice, expressing a sense of “distance from the world” as being an endemic virtue of music and art. Of course the figure only seems solitary, only seems distant, a triumphant escapee from the oppressive hubbub of the world—someone else, after all, is operating the camera.
Having exploded on the world stage in the mid-1950s, Glenn Gould was arguably the most thrilling, iconoclastic concert pianist alive before taking his final bow just a handful of years later at the age of 31. Only half-jokingly, he once referred to audiences as “a force of evil.” He continued to make records and developed a career in broadcasting and theory that would in some sense equal the dynamicism and brilliance of his virtuosic musical performances. Yet this retirement from the stage also indulged Gould’s considerable quirks. It was accompanied by a retirement from public spontaneity. His public persona became honed to the point where nothing could escape his meticulous design. So we should not mistake that lonesome kook in the wilderness as anything less than a calculated, and highly marketable image. Which is not the same thing as mistaking this as a false image. Just as Gould’s more considered, more meditative 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations should not be mistaken for some sort of false reworking of Gould’s youthful and more frenetic 1955 recording. Both possess their disparate authenticity. One Glenn Gould is not necessarily more real than the other. This elusiveness of singular truth in biography or in art is among the compelling subjects of Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s new documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.
While it isn’t able to delve very deeply into certain areas of his diverse achievements, especially as a theorist, Genius Within offers a coherent summation of Gould’s major artistic feats, not to mention his well-known eccentricities—the drugs and hypochondria, the humming and unusually intimate relationship the keyboard, the Petula Clark fixation—with tributes from the likes of Russian conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell. Where Genius Within boldly strays from the established Gouldology is in its focus on Gould’s personal relationships, such as his friendship with the recording engineer whom he asked to become his legal brother, and most especially his affair with painter and mother-of-two Cornelia Foss, who was still married to composer and conductor Lukas Foss for the duration of her five-year relationship with Gould. She provides some of the most candid and insightful comments about the hazy region that spans the gap between Gould the solitary, difficult artist, and Gould the sociable, romantic, child-friendly domestic.
Throughout Genius Within Hozer and Raymont emphasize the gray zone between the myth and the essentially unknowable man, all the while enriching our appreciation of the music. They also, as the title implies, subtly attempt to get at what it is that constitutes the genius of one such as Gould. Happily, some mysteries remain too durable to penetrate.