By Melissa Hok Cee Wong, Guest Contributor
Most days of the year, Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernathy’s bronze statue of Glenn Gould sits alone on a bench outside the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto. The occasional tourist might join him for a photo, passer-by for a quick sit-down, or CBC employee for a cigarette break—but otherwise he is a solitary figure, stoically agaze in his thick overcoat, trademark hat, gloves, scarf, and rubber-toe boots. On this sunny Saturday morning in early May, the statue was as stubbornly clad in this heavy garb as Gould himself was during his life, but instead of sitting alone, it was joined by about thirty avid Gould fans curious to learn more about the enigmatic Canadian icon.
This group had assembled for “Glenn Gould’s Toronto,” a walking tour that examined Gould’s creative output in light of his complex relationship with Toronto—a city that he lived in his whole life, despite his distaste for all cities. Having given up concert performance early in his career, Gould remained firmly rooted in Toronto for most of his later life, where he dedicated himself to studio recording, broadcasting, composing, conducting, and writing. As we led the group among the landmark institutions where he undertook these projects, my walk co-leader Erin Scheffer and I hoped to open up a dialogue about Gould’s approaches to technology in his work, drawing a parallel with his attitude toward the changing face of the city over the course of his life.
The bench statue was a natural starting point for our walk, given its location in front of the CBC, with which Gould maintained a steady association throughout his career. Here, we talked about his diverse radio and television programs for the public broadcaster, including performances, interviews, documentaries, discussions, and commentaries. Without the pressure of a live audience, the infinitely shy Gould flourished in this environment, taking on a range of alter egos and experimenting with the possibilities afforded by technological meditation to develop his method of contrapuntal radio in the Solitude Trilogy, an approach that reflected his affinity for the musical counterpoint of Bach. The discussion was amplified by attendees who shared their own memories of hearing or watching Gould in these broadcasts.
The group then made its way up to Glenn Gould Place, a small park in the large public plaza beside Roy Thomson Hall, current home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with which Gould made his first orchestral appearance in a performance of the first movement from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major (although this performance was at Massey Hall). Gould’s Yamaha CFII concert grand piano, on which he performed his 1981 re-recording of the Goldberg Variations, is on permanent display in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall, which gave us the opportunity to highlight about the importance of piano technology to Gould’s unusual technique, a discussion that was largely informed by interviews with his former piano technician Verne Edquist, with whom we were very fortuitously able to get in touch just prior to the walk. Standing here also allowed us to talk about the reasons that Gould abandoned the concert hall, which he likened to a competitive sporting arena that allowed only for survival of the fittest—a law of nature that he sought to transcend through the technology of the recording studio.
Gould’s favoured recording space in Toronto was the Eaton Auditorium, a concert hall that was located on the seventh floor of Eaton’s College Street and celebrated for its excellent acoustics. When the department store moved to the newly opened Toronto Eaton Centre in 1977, the space was taken oven by new owners and left in a state of neglect until it was reopened in 2003 as the Carlu event venue, which made for the last stop of our walk. Standing at the base of the former site of the auditorium, in front of a display of archival and publicity photos of the space, we painted a picture of Gould’s routine in a recording session, his use of the microphone as an instrument, and his manipulation of tape as part of the creative process. As Gould saw it, technology gave him the ability to control every aspect of his performance, just as it afforded humans the ability to become masters of their environment and transcend the laws of nature through urban development—a fitting thought as we stood at the intersection of this historic space and its present-day manifestation as a business, commercial, and residential complex known as College Park.
The walk officially ended there with a moment of remembrance for Gould by listening to the da capo aria from his 1981 Goldberg Variations—the same recording that played at the end of his public memorial service at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street after his death in 1982. Afterwards, a smaller group of the participants joined us at Fran’s Restaurant on College Street, where we continued the discussion over brunch. With this location just around the corner from the former Eaton Auditorium and another (now closed) location a short walk from his apartment on St. Clair Avenue West, Fran’s was a favourite haunt of Gould. Both here and along the route, we got the opportunity to meet and talk to the diverse group of individuals who came out to the walk. The group ranged in age from student to retiree, in musical experience from casual listener to professional pianist, and in geography from downtown core to outer suburb. Nonetheless, all felt a strong attraction to his recordings and showed a curiosity to learn more about Gould, even thirty years after his death—a sign, perhaps, that Gould really had found a way to transcend the laws of nature, that he lives on even in death.
Erin Scheffer is a PhD candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto. Melissa Hok Cee Wong is a PhD candidate in music at the University of Cambridge. They enjoy sharing their excitement for music and their love of Toronto through organizing community events that explore the intersections of music, technology, and urban space. Their past events include “Cityscape/Soundscape: Exploring Our Sonic Environment” and “Unsilent Night Toronto.”
“Glenn Gould’s Toronto” was offered as a part of Jane’s Walk, an annual event that celebrates the ideas and legacy of urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods. Every year on the first weekend of May, local residents and organizations in cities all over the world offer free community walks that create a space for people to talk about what matters most to them in the places they live and work.
Photo Credit: Allyson Burrows