By Mark Laurie
Pilgrimage to Solitude is an experimental documentary that traverses the personal geography of the late Canadian pianist, composer, and writer, Glenn Gould. Through long, often stationary takes, the camera explores spaces that feature prominently in Gould’s life story, above all in Toronto but also outside the city, such as at his family cottage on Lake Simcoe and in the wilderness near the Northern Ontario town of Wawa.
The soundtrack of the film captures intersections between Gould’s art and the sense of place, using a sonic technique pioneered by Gould himself in his influential series of sound documentaries, the Solitude Trilogy: the formal treatment of layered voices which he called “contrapuntal radio.” Taking its structure from Gould’s most famous documentary, The Idea of North (1967), the film presents four of Gould’s friends and colleagues engaged in simulated conversations across the stereo field. They discuss, debate, and reminisce about Gould, the absent figure in the landscape.
All four speakers were associated, in various capacities, with the CBC and had firsthand experiences of Gould’s innovations in the use of recording and broadcast technologies. They have also been prominent voices in the discourse surrounding Gould’s legacy, surfacing as major sources in the published biographies and, in some cases, producing memorial responses of their own. Reflecting their different perspectives, they offer contrasting insights on the mind and music of Gould, and so are ideally suited for the contrapuntal treatment.
There is William Littler, a longtime Toronto Star music critic and broadcaster. A pianist himself, he wrote countless reviews and articles on Gould for the newspaper, including its multiple obituary tributes that insightfully drew together the main themes of his life amidst the shock of his sudden death. Littler had paid a late-night visit to the studio where Gould was editing The Idea of North, and explored the connections between the radio documentaries and Gould’s personality in his article, “The Quest for Solitude.” Littler was also a neighbour of Gould’s at the Park Lane Apartments on St. Clair Avenue, and they occasionally drove home together; he recalls, “As befitted my humbler station in life, I was on the third floor, while Gould was in the penthouse.”
Next, there is Margaret Pacsu, an American-born broadcaster who worked as a television news anchor and hosted a music show on CBC radio. Pacsu collaborated with Gould on his Silver Jubilee Album in 1980, acting as a moderator in scripted discussions between Gould’s comic personae and her own alter-ego, Márta Hortaványi, a Marxist musicologist from Hungary (Pacsu notes that Hortaványi was modeled after her own mother, a Hungarian-born pianist and “Bartók groupie.”)
Vincent Tovell represents the voice of the previous generation. A decade older than Gould, Tovell was a prominent producer of arts and history television programming for CBC, working on documentary series such as Images of Canada, which, in collaboration with thinkers like Northrop Frye, explored Canadian history and identity through landscape, architecture, and visual culture. Tovell interviewed Gould and produced various musical programs with the pianist during the 1960s. After Gould’s death, Tovell co-directed (with Eric Till) one of the first posthumous documentaries on the musician, Glenn Gould: A Portrait.
Among the four interviewees, it is perhaps only the sound technician Lorne Tulk who could be counted among Gould’s closest friends. Tulk first met Gould as a boy on Christmas Eve 1950, after cutting an acetate record of the pianist’s first radio recital. He reconnected with Gould fifteen years later, while working on Gould’s humorous radio essay, “The Search for Petula Clark,” and subsequently assisted, as a technician for CBC’s Ideas series, on The Idea of North and the later documentaries. Though an employee of the CBC, Tulk also worked after hours for Gould, recording and editing his musical recordings at Eaton Auditorium throughout the 1970s.
The film is shot on Super 8-mm motion picture film, used to evoke memory and the intimacy of home-movies and other personal modes of filmmaking, among them the characteristically Canadian “landscape film.”
I began work on this project in the autumn of 2007, at a time when the world was awash in tributes of every kind commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gould’s death, reflecting both the magnetism of his personality and his broad impact on contemporary cultural life. The passage of three more years has seen a number of additional creative responses to Gould, and though the living memory of Gould may be slowly starting to fade, the public fascination shows no signs of abating. My documentary has evolved in awareness of the accumulating tributes that continue to shape and reshape the Gould legacy, and of the ultimate impossibility of recovering a complete picture of someone who no longer exists. Pilgrimage to Solitude, rather than attempting to produce a totalizing synthesis of a complex life and its equally complex posthumous reverberations, aspires to a more personal objective. As one born in the historical moment of Gould’s death and raised among the Toronto places – and musical traditions – where his mythology is most strongly felt, Pilgrimage to Solitude is a journey to re-imagine familiar sites through the eyes of another, and to inscribe my own voice within the elaborately layered counterpoint that is Glenn Gould’s life after death.
Mark Laurie studied history and art history at McGill University in Montreal before undertaking an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto. Born in Ottawa, he grew up in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto and attended Williamson Road Public School, where he was surrounded by the mythology of its most famous pupil, Glenn Gould. His interest in music and its history stems from the twenty years during which he studied violin, first with Leo Wigdorchik and then with Vivian Waters at the Royal Conservatory of Music. His other short films include The Canada Goose (2007) and Horse Patrol (2008). He lives in Toronto.