Because he idealized northerliness and mused often on solitude, Gould after 1964 is figured as a recluse. But he was hidden away only if you don’t count telephones, photography, recorded sound, recorded video, and speedy distribution networks. For his two electronic decades, Gould managed to be nowhere and everywhere. Though often sequestered, he suffused tens of millions of television sets, movie theaters, car radios, and eventually outer space, when, in 1977, his stunning interpretation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was launched out of Earth’s atmosphere on the phonographic time capsule aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Gould may be best experienced by curious extraterrestrials, ones with decent turntables or at least working ESP.
Gould had a sweet tooth for some pop music, including Petula Clark; he called Barbra Streisand’s voice “an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.” And though he himself had perfect pitch, he was captivated by unusual speaking voices, off-key or otherwise. He invented a form of documentary film known as contrapuntal, in tribute (maybe) to Bach, in which speaking voices are made to overlap with weird effects. The most evocative example is Gould’s film about the bleak Canadian tundra, The Idea of North, which sits easily among the most avant-garde fare on YouTube.
Though he hummed compulsively while he played, avoided shaking hands for fear of disease, developed an addiction to prescription pills, and dressed for a winter storm whatever the weather, Gould managed to stay in the flicker of electric eccentricity, never quite slipping into the monotony of madness. This delicate psychic balance is palpable in the erudite stem-winders he delivered straight to the camera. It comes through in his experimental acoustic collages and the innumerable radio broadcasts he recorded. Gould also spoke for hours on end to friends and unwitting acquaintances on landlines and pay phones, sometimes putting his companions to sleep as he reeled off theories of everything, a one-man soundscape whose changeable cadences of speech were uncannily like his piano playing. “No supreme pianist has ever given of his heart and mind so overwhelmingly while showing himself so sparingly,” said Gould’s close friend, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Gould became what might be known now as a pandemic musician. Tim Page, the music critic and a close Gould confidant, was asked last year what his friend might have made of quarantine living. “Glenn would have loved the internet,” Page replied. “He was a germophobe and didn’t like much physical contact. But he would have enjoyed things like Skype and Facebook [so he could] still enjoy his friendships while keeping his distance.” Indeed, Gould was at his best at a distance—far from the baroque chamber and the modern stage, holed up where he could send a signal to just one other person, lonely, like him, afraid of touch, across the very same untenanted Canadian expanses that inspired the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, a frequent interlocutor of Gould.