On Microphones, Music, and Our Long Year of Screen Time

There is a music-tech controversy that rivals Bob Dylan’s choice to plug in his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. A year earlier, on April 10, 1964, the pianist Glenn Gould made a radical exit from live concerts.

Gould played seven pieces to a packed house at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, including four fugues. He gave no indication that the program was his swan song. Then he strolled—he never stormed—away from his Steinway CD 318 and out the door of the concert hall, into the mild California air. A year later, he boarded a train for the desolate Northwest Territories of his native Canada. He never played another concert. When Arthur Rubinstein bet him in 1971 that he’d be back, Gould took the bet; when he died 11 years later, at 50, he won. He came to regard live music as a “blood sport.” He especially held the sociability of concerts in contempt. “Music is something that ought to be listened to in private,” he said.

From that evening on, the pianist’s life became a testament to the raptures of electronic media. In the studio he found something subtler, kinder, and more intimate than what he considered the relationship of dominance and submission between performer and audience. To Gould, sound engineering and music production conveyed, as nothing else, “the spine-tingling awareness of some other human voice or persona.”

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Rejecting as priggish the cliché that technology is “depersonalizing,” Gould was smitten. “I was immediately attracted to the whole electronic experience … I fell in love with microphones; they became friends, as opposed to the hostile, clinical inspiration-sappers that many people think they are.”

This summer, as people in many countries are attending concerts and touching each other again, the case for solitude and computers over community and real life seems especially unpersuasive. It would dishonor the pandemic dead not to take life by the horns and go for broke on packed-yard barbecues and front-row tickets to Lady Gaga. But Gould proved at least that an existence heavily mediated by technology is not non-existence. Screen nausea and social media compulsions are no joke, but the current self-loathing about the long year of screen time is misplaced. It was not lost time. Rather, the boring and sometimes hallucinatory quarantine opened new portals for imagination that the culture hasn’t yet begun to assimilate.

Because he idealized northerliness and mused often on solitude, Gould after 1964 is figured as a recluse. But he was hidden away only if you don’t count telephones, photography, recorded sound, recorded video, and speedy distribution networks. For his two electronic decades, Gould managed to be nowhere and everywhere. Though often sequestered, he suffused tens of millions of television sets, movie theaters, car radios, and eventually outer space, when, in 1977, his stunning interpretation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was launched out of Earth’s atmosphere on the phonographic time capsule aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Gould may be best experienced by curious extraterrestrials, ones with decent turntables or at least working ESP.

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