by Rhian Sasseen on September 25, 2012
Enough of thinking, enough with thought: the end of words. Why is the red line always deafening towards Boston, never away? I sit on the train on my way to work and I listen. A deluge of information: two girls discuss the Emmys, a mother coos at her infant son. Smart phones everywhere. Enough! On go the headphones, and on my iPod I listen to one album and one album only: the Goldberg Variations, recorded nineteen fifty-five, and played by the pianist Glenn Gould.
Like every classical novice I approach the music with all the wonder of an enfant sauvage. Without the clutter of words and the strain of their distraction, my reactions turn emotive. What is this key, what is this notation – da capo al fine, da capo al coda – it doesn’t matter. The music is not in front of me; thank God. I am not creating; I am listening. I am the audience, and so I am the receiver: in my innocence the listening experience turns bodily. Listening, lacking the self-consciousness of creation, requires only a sieve-like concentration: I sit and I absorb. I observe: in my ears, a private world, and outside of them, all the rest. Who cares. There is no action needed, no interpretation necessary.
Glenn Gould was a genius. His mastery was such as to be ubiquitous; those in tune with the classical music world are undoubtedly rolling their eyes at my discovery, so well-known and well-regarded is he. For the rest of us: a documentary on Netflix (Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould), an art film on the same (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.) He was a Canadian and an eccentric; this is how we like our artists. It makes them easier to understand – an idea to be pinned down rather than a living, breathing human being. Gould sang as he played, sat on a special wooden stool, and wore wool gloves even in the summer.
But artists are not butterflies. Gould, at surface level, is easy to categorize: the odd youthful genius who grows odder still with age. But when I listen to the music I forget. When I listen I dissolve. I tune out, in a sense – a terrible turn of phrase, with all its implications of ignorance. When I listen to Gould play Bach I am paying attention, and yet I am also not: I am blissfully detached.
The performative arts exist, in a sense, wholly separate from the literary. While literature relies on the interpretation of the world, music and dance exist as an absorption – an emotion. This is why I can listen and engage and yet also emerge without a thought in my head beyond the self-knowledge of the feeling. I do not categorize – I do not analyze – I do not make sense of the world. Rather, I enjoy it.