Glenn Gould’s The Idea Of North

by Thomas Brett

In honor of all the cold weather lately, I take the opportunity to revisit one of the only odes of the North (and the cold) that I know of–I’m speaking of course about Glenn Gould’s radio documentary, The Idea of North.  Gould is most famous as a pianist who renders the keyboard music of J.S. Bach with crystal clarity, making the composer’s dense fugues sound like a (contrapuntal) walk in the park.  Here is a clip of Gould playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Major on a two-tiered harpsichord.

As Gould retired from the concert stage to concentrate on recording, he also began experimenting with musique concrète-style audio compositions.  His best known work is The Idea Of North, the first of a three-part radio documentary called The Solitude Trilogy.  Here, Gould explores what the (Canadian) north means to a variety of characters who either live there or have interacted with the North in some way.

The Idea of North is hard to categorize: it’s part soundscape, part documentary, part studio composition, part contrapuntal radio experiment.  But most of all it’s about multiple voices telling overlapping stories that requires of us new ways of listening; in fact, it reminds us how differently we process music and speech.  We can easily pay attention to many musical lines happening at once, but following several conversations at once and making sense of several voices sounding simultaneously is much more difficult to do.

Here is an excerpt of The Idea Of North:

And here is an interview with Peter Shewchuk, one of the sound editors who worked with Gould on the project.