Some years ago I taught some sessions in a class on Canadian cross-aesthetics. Three of my colleagues at Aalborg U and I went from philosophy, especially Charles Taylor, through the singer Leonard Cohen, the novelist Margaret Laurence, to other types of artistic manifestations. The class was a joy, especially as I had the privilege to close with Glenn Gould playing Bach. Now I can’t remember what I said, between showing enthusiasm for Gould’s own enthusiasm for Bach’s mathematical compositions and my own fascination with the cross between numbers and noumena, but I do remember that one of the things I emphasized was the fact that what made Gould’s performances so über brilliant and without equal is his ability to approach the musical subject without prejudice. In terms of method, he never approached a score without first learning it by heart, then thinking about it long and hard, and then playing it not on the piano, but in his head, as his fingers would tap on any board – without the keys. Such reverence inspires me.
The other thing I remember is one remark made by one of the students. As we watched some video clips with Gould’s only re-recording of the Goldberg Variations, something he rarely did – re-record, that is – the student let me know that what he found the most fascinating thing of all was watching me watch Gould’s hands as he folds them after the last variation (nr. 30). I wanted to shout: but how can one not notice what he does, and not feel moved down to the innermost core of one’s being?
Interesting business, watching others watch such moments of standing in close proximity to genius! I decided then, that that one student went home with a lesson learned. What this lesson was all about was precisely the rare kind that teaches us to be non-prejudiced. When one opens one’s mind to catching glimpses of the intricacies of the workings of another’s mind, one learns to ride an energy wave that has both gravity and grace in it. The function of experiencing passion in itself implies a tearing asunder. Performers that are bold enough recognize it in their audience, if the passion is felt in them. Some even choose to let you know that they’ve spotted it. It’s always a rewarding exchange when it happens, as what is mutually recognized is the transcendence of the thing-in-itself which is mediated not only by the performer but also by the listener. Such remediations enhance the intensity of passion and learning. I remember a couple of times what such closeness, brought about by the passion to transmit a thought, felt like, when I sat right behind Daniel Barenboim in a concert. After he finished, he gave me a straight and deep gaze, and with his head slightly bowed, he was almost making an imperceptible gesture of a salute with his hand.
The closest I came to experiencing other manifestations of the tearing asunder of passion, thought, and mediation, was not in a performer of music but in a lecturer. The late professor Michael Riffaterre from Columbia U, after having delivered a lecture in 1999 in Aalborg looked for me in the lecture hall in the break before the questioning session. He came up to me and without any introduction asked me if I wanted to go to New York. I said yes before he explained. The only thing he said following such bluntness was that it had been years since he experienced a burning gaze also at his back from someone sitting in the last row in a room where 300 other people were also sitting.
I had a good time in New York, and Riffaterre invited me back after my initial stay, so energy (and synergy) is not only something that happens in one’s own head.
Now I try to teach my own students to master not only a certain way of looking and listening, but also re-master their own performances in terms of showing reverence for that which deserves superior attention.
Enjoy Glenn Gould, the master of enabling us to ignore the times when we fall – out of grace, or into oblivion – and appreciate the times when we burn for others, and let others burn for us.