Glenn Gould and the Metaphysics of Music

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When listening to or performing music, many people have experienced the “oceanic feeling,” variously described as an altered state of consciousness, a sensation of limitlessness, an experience of eternity, oneness with the universe, an ideal dream where you are held in a weightless reverie and lose the boundaries of your self. French writer Romain Rolland (who coined the term) noted the presence of “le sentiment océanique” in mystics of all religious traditions. He believed that this feeling was the source of all religious energy, and that one may call oneself religious on the basis of this feeling alone, regardless of belief or non-belief. Sigmund Freud, who popularized the term (and who admitted he could not find this feeling in himself), saw it – if it exists – as the preserved “primitive ego-feeling” from infancy, before the infant discovers that other persons exist, an instance of the primary narcissistic union between mother and infant. Glenn Gould called it “ecstasy,” the state of standing outside time as one disappears into the music of certain composers, from Orlando Gibbons and Bach to Schoenberg and Richard Strauss.

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932–1982) became a cult figure among other musicians and the general public when he was still in his early twenties. Several of his recordings, most notably his two versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1955 and 1981), remain touchstones of twentieth-century musical performance. He is revered throughout the world for the uncanny expressiveness, feeling of spontaneity, and virtuosity of his playing. And the almost verbal, preternatural intelligence and originality of his pianistic voice – at once withdrawn and expansive, weighty and playful – continues to awaken in others a sense of the mysterious power of unique personality in musical genius. But does Gould’s artistry convey a sensibility, a state of mind, an attitude, that embodies an altered state of consciousness, a sense of limitlessness, an experience of standing outside of time, indicative of a morality, or even a metaphysics of music?

It is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire

We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

—Arthur Schopenhauer

It hardly needs saying that Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” – Gould’s “ecstasy” – is a subjective experience; it is, like love, or intuition, or compassion, experiential, and so incommunicable through intellectual means, because it is unamenable to description or analysis in words and concepts. It is therefore understandable that the many doubters of the reality of this experience may see the idea of it as romantic nonsense, and all talk of it as rhapsodic emptiness. On the other hand, one could argue that just as the congenitally blind have no conception of what it means for anything to look like anything, for whom visual appearance, the notion of “thereness” is incomprehensible, so it may be with the experience of doubters concerning the “oceanic feeling” of Rolland or the “ecstasy” of Gould: they may simply lack the psychic predisposition, the very faculty of the brain and central nervous system, to experience this particular state of consciousness. They do not perceive or feel this state, and therefore it does not exist for them.

We cannot think away the experiential aspect of music. It transcends the categories of thought. Many musicians and listeners will attest to the uncanny and powerful effect that music produces upon their psyche. The crude bonds of the body seem to disintegrate and, for a short time, the mind and spirit break free. Philosophically, we don’t really know what this means. Music is sequential; it therefore exists in time. It creates sound waves; it therefore exists in space. What else do we know about music? Not much. Like consciousness itself – which science tells us is self-replicating, organic stuff derived from non-living matter – music is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Whether in Debussy’s diaphanously orchestrated La Mer (influenced by the “structurelessless” of Chinese music); or in the dark pagan sublime of Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears” (ultimately Black American blues as transformed by British heavy metal and modern recording techniques); music is a cauldron of emotions expressed and repressed since early humans grunted, squealed, knocked stones together, and blew into hollow reeds to create the earliest organized sound. The species Homo sapiens seems to need music more desperately than any other form of art it so compulsively creates. We appear to need music even more deeply than we need the sacrament of poetry, or the ritual of visual art that began when we stenciled our hands and painted bison on cave walls 35,000 years ago. Music delves deeper into our reptilian brain than any other form of art. That is why Plato recognized its dangers and wanted to strictly control it in his Republic. That is why the medieval Catholic church banned music that contained polyphony (more than one musical part playing at a time), fearing that it would cause people to doubt the unity of God. And in our own time, that is why authoritarian states like North Korea and Iran still control music with iron chains.

In a dialogue by Oscar Wilde we read that music reveals to us a personal past that until that moment we were unaware of and that moves us to lament mischances that never occurred to us and wrongs that we did not commit. The feeling that music so often produces is that of loss of the boundaries of the self. Take away the categories of thought and all of us become one, indivisible thing. Although a common trope in Eastern (and in some Western) thought, such an idea remains disturbing and destabilizing to many. The philosophers of India, T. S. Eliot once wrote, “make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.” The sages of the Upanishads, for example, expressed the fact of our ultimate oneness in various ways. Most famously, all the living and lifeless beings of the world are led past in succession in the presence of the novice. Over each being a formula is pronounced: “You Are That.” All things, including tormentor and tormented, are literally one. From within this insight, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

The world we must live in – mediated by the categories of consciousness – is necessarily divided and broken. This opposition between the one and the many, and all its implications, is the true inner meaning of the Ten Thousand Things of the Tao Te Ching, the prajñã (wisdom, insight) of Buddhism, the biblical Fall and Resurrection of Man, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kafka’s The Trial, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

There is no art in Eden

The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

—Glenn Gould

At the still point of the turning world, art strives towards Gould’s “wonder and serenity,” momentarily achieved in states of rapture induced by art. Walter Pater wrote that “all art strives toward the condition of music.” As ethical as he was in his person, in his art Gould was not oppressed but exalted by an artistic endeavour that transcended ethics and morality. Art is not democratic. It is not even humanistic. It is daemonic, in the Greek sense. That is to say, it is ecstatic, in the Gouldian sense.

In Eden before The Fall, birthplace of the moral edict and the sober deed, there is no art, or poetry, or music.

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About Author

Robert Kilborn has written fact and fiction for the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England). He started out as a rock singer. At the University of British Columbia he read Literature, Philosophy, and Art History. He’s a former English teacher, Don Draper, and General Manager of one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

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