Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano
In 1982 or 1983 I experienced a supernatural encounter in a department store in north Bellingham. My mother and I both recall me walking up to one of those electronic keyboards in fashion at the time, turning it on, and then playing something virtuosic. I only remember turning the keyboard on and then waking from a trance and seeing a small crowd of people standing around applauding. My mother recalls the actual impromptu performance.
Prior to this “episode” I had never taken piano lessons, thought I sucked as a musician based on a personal tragedy I experienced when I auditioned for the high school band and I had nearly flunked music theory at Western Washington University. I had given up the notion of ever pursuing my dream career as a musician or composer until a boost of confidence from the department store incident changed the course of my life.
That was my first encounter with the spirit of Glenn Gould, but I didn’t know who he was at the time and wouldn’t learn about Gould until almost 20 years later when I saw the movie, The Red Violin (another fateful moment) and a colleague told me about the documentary by the same writer-director team, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould. While I was watching the documentary in my apartment, I felt a presence in the room and when I listened to the various interviews interlaced throughout the film, I remembered the keyboard incident in Bellingham. I realize that saying that it felt like a ton of bricks hit me is a cliché, but that’s how I felt upon the moment of my realization. Could that actually have happened?
Author Katie Hafner opens her biography, A Romance on Three Legs with similar testimonies by fans or listeners of Glenn Gould’s music. They too sensed his supernatural presence. She closes the book with a story about a Hungarian pianist performing on Gould’s beloved piano--a Steinway labeled “CD318” inching its way to the edge of the stage while she played music that the late Gould despised. But even beyond that Gould’s spirit comes through in biographies written about him, the documentary mentioned earlier and his career worth of recordings.
Hafner’s book though doesn’t just focus on Gould and his myriad of eccentricities or his virtuosic talent. She gazes at the love affair a man had with one piano, the piano’s tuner Verne Enquist, and the Steinway family, as well as, the history of Steinway pianos. She educates her readers about the mechanics and structure of pianos, and even gives a few lessons on the challenges tuners face. And what musician can’t relate to obtaining the perfect instrument? This isn’t just relegated to pianists. Violinists, cellists, guitarists, etc…all deal with the quirks of their particular instrument, tuning problems, ergo dynamics, and physical ailments caused by playing instruments not in alignment with a physical body. I have often dreamed of the perfect guitar both in sound and in bodily comfort.
Another focus of the novel revolves around Gould's antagonistic relationship with the Concert Artists department at Steinway & Sons. Certainly any musician would understand that each pianist would need a particular piano to perform their repertoire. Most of the Steinway pianos of Gould's time had tight action and keyboards made for fiery performances of the Romantic Era performers whereas, the more sensitive Gould performed the work of Bach. Also Gould's relationship with his perfect piano, CD 318 ends in tragedy when the instrument some how falls off a five foot loading dock and is severely damaged. It is never restored to its once miraculous state. The romance ends and it feels like a tragic loss.