A Conversation between
Prof. Joshua Cohen and Robert Harris
On Sept. 23, 2017, as part of its celebrations of the 85th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s birth, The Glenn Gould Foundation invited Prof. Joshua Cohen of Apple University and UC Berkeley to appear in Toronto where he gave his presentation, “Gould’s Variations and the Human Qualities that Foster Remarkable Creativity.” The presentation was developed by Prof. Cohen for Apple University as part of a series of explorations of “The Best Things.” We invited Prof. Cohen to take part in a conversation with distinguished Canadian music writer, teacher and broadcaster, Robert Harris.
ROBERT HARRIS: Hello is that Josh?
JOSHUA COHEN: Yes it is
ROBERT HARRIS: Yes it’s Robert Harris in Toronto, how you doing?
JOSHUA COHEN: Good, how are you, Robert?
ROBERT HARRIS: I’m fine.
ROBERT HARRIS: So I was looking over your background and it seems to be a long way from John Rawls and studies of democratic institutions to Apple University and Glenn Gould. How did that journey – how did that journey start and what were those steps along the way?
JOSHUA COHEN: I wish I had a quick answer. I started at Apple in 2011 and I really had no idea what it would be like. I was still at Stanford and didn’t have any plans to give up my position there. So I wasn’t acting on some unfolding plan. What I found at Apple University was that I was able do some new and interesting things that seemed worth doing. Things that were intellectually interesting and potentially impactful, and not completely disconnected from what I’d previously been doing. So the first thing I worked on at Apple was not Gould. I developed a presentation about Central Park in New York. The animating idea behind Central Park was . . . democracy. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for the purpose of creating a more flourishing democracy by creating a great public good that would bring people together for a compelling, socially integrative experience of natural beauty. I was interested in Central Park because I wanted to do a presentation for people at Apple about a truly great product — something that was really fantastic and iconically great. Having done the presentation on Central Park as an example of a truly great product – a designed product, though it feels very natural — I wanted to do a presentation on something very different from Central Park, but also iconically great, inspiring, and instructive both for its purpose and for the way that the purpose was executed. I didn’t know very much about Gould but he struck me as potentially having the right characteristics, particularly with the rerecording of the Goldberg Variations. The more I explored, the deeper I went, the more I thought it was an extraordinary story – extraordinary both for the Gould’s animating purpose and for the remarkable way he executed on the purpose.
ROBERT HARRIS: It interests me because, you know, Central Park and Olmsted are the essence of the public space in America, right? And some people could argue that classical music is the essence of the elite restricted space intellectually and aesthetically in Western art – so what does Donald Trump say when he wants to prefigure sort of an isolationist, fascist-like cultural policy? He says, “we write symphonies.” You know, not as a democratic thing, we write symphonies to prove our elitist cultural worth. So it interests me that you would move from Olmsted, who was clearly democratic to Gould who, I mean, I believe you’re right, is also democratic but the conventional wisdom about classical music is that it is the least democratic thing in Western art.
JOSHUA COHEN: But as your comment about Gould and conventional wisdom pointed out, Gould was not somebody who conformed to conventional wisdom. And I think there is a kind of democratic impulse in Gould that comes out in his fascination with technology as a tool both for improving the quality of performance and for communicating: communicating it as exactly as he thinks it should be heard and communicating it in a kind of one-on-one relationship. One soul at a time. There is a moment in my presentation where Gould is essentially anticipating the idea of a remix culture – and he says he sees technology as helping to advance, not an aristocratic purpose or hierarchy, but undermining hierarchy, and as serving a more democratic purpose – “democratic” is his term. So I think he has a deep aspiration to communicate one-to-one through recording – to communicate to anyone who is prepared to listen.
So here’s point of commonality of Olmsted and Gould. Building Central Park, Olmsted wanted not only to produce something for everyone – he wanted to produce a park for everyone that was beautiful and great. What Olmsted said is that the traditional, “aristocratic” view was that building a beautiful park for the people was like casting pearls before swine. He thought this view was completely wrong. If you build it beautiful people would come because there is a deeply shared, common human interest in the experience of natural beauty. It was something that he wrote powerfully about Yosemite – he was a member of the board of commissioners at Yosemite. There was the idea that you could do something that was for a very large number of people but you wouldn’t lower the bar, you’d make it great. People would want to have it and be part of it. I see something similar in Gould. In his recording, he wasn’t only honouring the music — he didn’t think of himself as playing in a kind of aristocratic cloud. He thought of himself as communicating potentially with each person individually, but to achieve that communication he didn’t want to lower the bar, so to speak. Like Olmsted, he thought that people would appreciate the greatness.
ROBERT HARRIS: It’s interesting because when you read exactly why Glenn turned his back on live performances, it has many, many strands. Glenn, as you know, was a master propagandist for himself so, he may well have been on the autistic spectrum – and of course the travelling life of a performer, whether it’s Lady Gaga or Glenn Gould is so appallingly difficult, he really couldn’t stand it. However, what he did say – which I thought was interesting and goes right back to your question of democracy: so you figure playing for live audiences is the ultimate in democracy and what he found in live audiences was a tyranny, a tyranny of expectation and a tyranny that forced him to play to it and to change that sense of what you just said about the ultimate perfection of the music. That always rang very true to me for Gould, is that what we understand to be a democratic experience, because you have 2,500 people all hearing the same thing, from his point of view was completely undemocratic – I don’t know whether it was aristocratic, it was tyrannical, there was a tyranny.
JOSHUA COHEN: Tyrannical, yes. I think he thought, aside from the psychological aspects of concert performance – he was concerned that you get group-think: everybody’s looking around at everybody else to see how they’re supposed to respond. So you don’t get, as he puts it, an individuality of response. He also thought it breeds artistic conservatism. You’re so worried about making a mistake that you don’t really try anything new and also you’re trying to maybe play to the lowest common denominator in the audience. But if you do that one-to-one communication you can get it exactly how you think it should be, and get at that individuality of response. That concern about the tyranny of the crowd is associated with John Stuart Mill and his On Liberty. It’s an interesting fact that Olmsted before he became a park designer was a journalist, and he traveled around in the South in the United States, pre-civil war. And he wrote three remarkable books on social-political life in different parts of the South – ruled by a white planter aristocracy based on slave labour. In 1861, a synthesis of these three books was published in England, it’s called the Cotton Kingdom. Cotton Kingdom was dedicated to John Stuart Mill. So I think there’s some –
ROBERT HARRIS: - connections there for sure.
JOSHUA COHEN: There’s some connection there.
ROBERT HARRIS: The other thing that’s interesting is that so much of this is sort of counterintuitive and ironic because of course by selecting the recording as his means of communication, you could argue that the recording is inhuman, it’s inflexible. I understand his remix culture idea, but the truth of the matter is that the recordings that he released were not re-mixable, they were one time only, you as a consumer of these things had no impact. You know, Theodor Adorno hated the recording like [Walter] Benjamin in [The Work of Art in] the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, their whole argument – they were the anti-Gould – to them music is a communicative experience that can only happen live. Adorno said that a recording is not a performance of a piece of music it’s overhearing a performance of a piece of music, and that’s precisely because you are not influencing the actual creation of the work. And again, I’m not asking anyone to choose sides, but it’s really interesting that what you say about Gould and the respect for the individuality of the listener is undoubtedly true, and yet his chosen vehicle is something that you could argue honours the individuality of the listener the least because it’s produced without – I mean maybe with his ideal of the listener in mind – but you pick up that recording the Goldbergs you heard, and the Goldbergs I heard, and the Goldbergs a million people heard – every vibration in the air is identical, it’s almost golden. So it’s a weird irony.
JOSHUA COHEN: I hear what you’re saying. Maybe Gould wasn’t expecting what he was doing to be remixed, although he did some remixing of his own himself. But he talks about that individuality of response to recording that you can’t get in live performance. Probably what he thought was, “I’m going to put these things out there and I think there’s pretty good and they’re different and they’re faithful in some way to what’s really there in the music. People are going to respond differently to them and that’s okay. I just don’t want people to be copying somebody else’s response.” If they get that ecstatic experience that great musical performance aims at — all to the good. If they don’t then, well, go and listen to something else.
ROBERT HARRIS: It’s funny you mention that because, Brian Levine [Executive Director of The Glenn Gould Foundation], briefly mentioned this to me about, that you, in the lecture talk about Gould’s spiritual nature because – you know – we’re here in Canada and there have been more people – we talk a lot about Glenn Gould and we never talk about that. It’s almost embarrassing to us to think of him – he was not an institutionally religious person, that is for sure, but he certainly was a secular man, but a man who was really in touch with the spiritual world. But his parents, his mother especially was a devoted Christian and to her Glenn was a gift from God and she sort of the drummed that into him when he was a young boy. Whether he was skeptical about it or not, to her this was very clear and in my mind its something people miss – you can’t understand Glenn Gould unless you understand that a secular man living in a secular time using a secular medium and basically playing secular music, the music of Bach – certainly there’s great religious music, but Glenn wasn’t playing any of that – if you don’t understand there’s a spiritual dimension to it none of it makes any sense.
JOSHUA COHEN: Well, you know, he says great musical performance aims at an experience of ecstasy, and ecstasy at its root means standing outside. That’s what the Greek word means, [ἔκστασις] ekstasis: standing outside. So you’re creating a musical performance which is so completely enveloping and absorbing that it creates a kind of world and architecture that you can live inside with the world at a distance. You could call it a spiritual attitude, you could call it a religious attitude. In my presentation I describe it as a kind of an ethical position. It’s not only an esthetic position, it’s an attitude towards the world: you want to establish some kind of distance between yourself and the world because there’s so much in the world that’s awful, competitive and fortuitous and painful. So music – and he says all of this is true about all art – is about creating that sense of distance from the world. I’m not sure that all artists agree with that, in fact I’m sure that some of them don’t, but that is his attitude that I think is the mark of what I think of as an ethical attitude. It is an attitude not about what to do on a particular occasion, and it’s not just an attitude about how to live; it’s an attitude about the world as a whole. I don’t think you can understand what he was trying to do at all if you don’t take that seriously. He did have this particular fascination with the Japanese writer Soseki, who has a similar outlook. But you don’t have to go to the fascination with Soseki. If you just listen to what he says and interpret what he’s trying to achieve — it is about creating that sense of distance. He sometimes associates his interpretations with a Schoenbergian concern about musical architecture. I don’t know enough about Schoenberg to really say this with any authority – but I think it feels like there’s something different with Gould. It’s not a rationalistic preoccupation with order, but about creating that ethically-based sense of distance.
ROBERT HARRIS: Well, it’s interesting because Gould loved the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg & Webern but he detested their serialism which was Pierre Boulez’s taking it to the next step and actually reifying every aspect so that literally a computer could write some of these musics, where you give a scale of pitches, a scale of tempi, a scale of dynamics and then you create an order which you can vary and then basically you churn it out like a computer program and Gould hated that. So, you’re right, I think there is a distinction between the two. So, I have a question for you. How do your colleagues at Apple react to this? I mean, I can’t imagine that many of them, unlike Steve [Jobs], had either of the two Goldbergs on their iPod. Have they ever heard of Gould? Everyone’s heard of Gould, I assume, but did they know anything about classical music? Did they care? What’s the range of reaction you get?
JOSHUA COHEN: Without going too far into detail, I think some people have heard of Gould and have a great enthusiasm for him. But most of the people I present to that haven’t heard of Gould – or at least don’t really know anything about him. But people typically find what he’s trying to do somewhere between very interesting and compelling. They admire his sense of conviction about the importance of creating great musical performances. They admire deeply the fact that he has a big idea about the purpose of musical performance. They appreciate that he was doing things in a kind of a “think different” way, that you have to play it differently from the way it’s traditionally been played, otherwise it’s not worth doing. But they appreciate also that when he’s doing things differently he’s not doing it to try to draw attention to himself: he thinks that he’s on to some new way, some new possibility that’s really present in the music. If you think the music is some system or set of possible performances, then you are being faithful to something that’s really there in the music — bringing out some new way of seeing it that’s a genuine possibility present in the music itself. I think people appreciate that sensibility. Also they appreciate and identify with Gould’s obsessive attention to the details of the performance and that his obsessive attention to detail isn’t only because Gould is kind of obsessive-compulsive, but because he thinks that spiritual impulse really lives in the details. You make the large purpose come alive by getting it into the details, which requires a kind of obsessive focus and attention. Olmsted’s co-designer on Central Park, Calvert Vaux, a British architect and designer, once said that the purpose of Central Park was to translate democratic ideas into trees and dirt. I love that [chuckles] and I sort of feel like when I’m watching Gould play – listening to him play – I think there’s something analogous. It’s not trees and dirt, but he’s trying to translate his large purpose of creating an experience of ecstasy, of keeping the world at a distance, by putting it in the minutest movements of the ten fingers on his hand and his body. It’s like he’s trying to embody that large purpose in every detail.
ROBERT HARRIS: That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I have two other questions for you. So, you could argue of course that the Apple to Gould is Steinway, in other words, Apple is making the device that Gould used, that in fact you could talk about the people who make – the people behind Steinway who thought about the purity of tone, talked about evenness of sound – because the Apple obviously – or not so obviously perhaps – are instruments that others use. It interests me that you took a creative personality to be the model rather than a personality, an instrument maker, a Stradivarius. But I can understand why because Apple – to contradict myself, I’m falling into an old way of thinking about Apple – they’re not just making devices for utility.
JOSHUA COHEN: Right. That’s right. This is all about working at the intersection between technology and the humanities. These are not just devices for utility, that’s exactly right. They are devices that are supposed to be beautiful and they’re supposed to enable or empower people to do things that are genuinely worth doing and produce experiences of surprise and delight. But in addition – when I started going down this road, giving the presentation on Central Park and then the presentation on Gould and also one on the discovery of the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider – what I was looking for were great products. Apple talks about making great products, but I was looking for great products that you wouldn’t ordinarily classify as products. So Central Park — you don’t think of as a product, except it’s all completely created – there’s nothing natural about it. Central Park was a pestilential, rocky swamp before they built a park there. It’s all completely designed. And then similarly with musical performances: you might think it’s somehow vulgar to think of them as products but that’s only if you think of a product as being vulgar, or just things of utility. But great products are the manifestation, the outward face, the expression of the human capacity and creativity of the people who create them. So what I wanted to do was to focus these presentations on a product in that very broad sense of the term —not just things of utility, to use your very helpful phrase.
ROBERT HARRIS: Well you’ve been very helpful too. This so interests me. So I have one last thing, it’s not a question, but it’s an observation. Do you want to stay – and you haven’t said that you were going to stay with revolutionary, technical Canadian thinkers – it fascinates me beyond belief that the work of Marshall McLuhan is so little discussed these days. One could have argued that he should be on every – I mean the Global Village – talk about anticipating the modern world in some very real way. So maybe you could find a product from McLuhan. It’s got to be the record player, I’ve done a little work, not nearly as extensive as you, but I did a series [on CBC Radio] about the record business – but getting back to the day when the recording was invented. Edison said it was his only true invention because he wasn’t looking for it. Everything Edison invented was an improvement on an existing invention. He made better cement, he had electric lights rather than kerosene lights, he had a motion picture camera rather than a still picture camera. The phonograph, it doesn’t improve on anything, because nothing like that ever existed before in human capacity: the ability to capture sound. And all of the incredible psychological ramifications of that, which is sort of what we’ve been talking about, that ability for a record to be unbelievably intimate and yet it’s a mass marketed product at the same time. So, maybe that’s your next one, take McLuhan and centre him around – you know he was a very Catholic man, Catholicism was really important to his worldview and his intellectual view. It interests me that McLuhan’s work gets so little attention these days, I just find it quite baffling.
JOSHUA COHEN: Yeah, it’s an interesting observation and I know there was communication between Gould and McLuhan. I think maybe people find the writing hard to understand, I’m not sure. In the spirit of preconceptions, I’ve read some of him but I haven’t given it the attention that I should –
ROBERT HARRIS: With the two Goldbergs – it seems to me that you understand the essence of Glenn – and I know a lot about Glenn because I’m a Canadian who’s interested in music but there are details, the two Goldbergs for example people think are wildly different but – I’m sure you’ve read that or listened to that Tim Page interview that Glenn gave, but you know all of Glenn’s interviews none of them are interviews, they’re scripts which somebody would read. So Glenn wants us to know that in fact he’s added repeats to the second Goldberg which weren’t there the first time because they had a LP that only held forty minutes of music. But when you take those repeats out of the second Goldberg the two performances are almost exactly the same length and it’s only because the aria, the first one, is so remarkably different in tempo that we think that whole thing is like that. And actually there are places where he’s played it faster the second time around and there are places where he’s played it slower the second time around. So it’s actually closer to the original than people think and that’s all part of Gould’s mythologizing.
JOSHUA COHEN: In the presentation I make something out of the fact that he plays thirteen of the repeats. And I have a very detailed discussion of what he does differently. I did a spectrographic analysis of exactly what he does differently in the first repeat in the Canon at the Sixth. From my point of view it’s the highlight of the whole presentation.
ROBERT HARRIS: I think it was a highlight for him too right? I mean wasn’t that the - I can’t remember what number that one is –
JOSHUA COHEN: The canon at the sixth, he said it’s a gem. It is a gem. It’s a stretto canon and the counterpoint is carried in the bass line…anyway, that’s getting into the details of the presentation.
ROBERT HARRIS: I’m going to be there on Saturday so I’ll look you up if you don’t mind and I want to thank you so much for your time. It’s been really fascinating. I’m really looking forward to it… Thanks, Josh.
JOSHUA COHEN: Thank you, Robert.