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Wondrous Strange -- The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. Kevin Bazzana

Voice Two: Deep Biography


Bazzana's book is a fine example of a 'thoughtful biography'.

There is a sad tendency for biographers to write what I call 'document biographies' where each fact is supported by a footnote, usually involving a piece of written evidence. In this way the author can never be questioned ('The facts are right there') but rarely does he/she exceed the limits of this data. Numerous modern investigations of eminent figures are sadly flawed by this. What is left out is deep thought of the meanings, the ramifications of these facts. It seems enough to state the facts baldly. There is a fear that to go beyond them into the realm of speculation is to exceed the scope of scholarship.

Document biographies are written by scholars who are generally content to collect facts and are often loath to have anything less than the final word. Since the document cannot be questioned the scholar achieves by the fixation upon it as the ultimate arbiter of truth, the luxury of indeed getting the final word.

As soon as an author suggests, considers, probes deeper than the mere record of a life he/she is inviting argument and disagreement. That sort of thing undermines the last word syndrome. But moreover, there is the just question of 'What can one be justified in saying?' One author recently told me 'If you can't prove it, you can't write it.' Documents offer proof. Without a document, no proof, then it follows that nothing should be said.

Ah ... How can you prove a profound consideration of the meaning of a life's event? How can you prove a character analysis? How can you prove the meaning of the overarching form of a human's life (if there is such a thing)?

Well, I don't suppose you can. Yes, you can marshal your authorities by quoting Jung, Aristotle, Carlyle or some such. You can draw upon the expertise of authoritative observers. You can call in the experts. But as any lawyer can tell you, for any authority you summon another equally good one can be found to debunk it (within limits) and certainly the right spin can lower (or raise) the significance of many expert judgments. I suppose then that the document biography is the final achievement of honest intellectual labour. Nothing is beyond this; it is the limit.

But I rather think that we should expect more from people who have immersed themselves for years in the data of a human's life. If they have dug deep they should be able to tell us something, something that is beyond the mere documents. For while documents are important they cannot capture all of a human's life. As the Sufis ask 'Can you send a kiss by mail?' The answer is no, and there are many facets of life that are only barely hinted at in the paper trail.

The document biography is only the first, albeit necessary, stage. To stop there is to believe only that true which has been written down. But there are many things that have not been written down, cannot be written down, that are powerfully significant. There is much more to life than ink and paper.

Here is where Bazzana's book shines. He has studied the data in great detail. Bazzana is evidently thoroughly conversant with the Gould literature. He has acted as editor of a Gould focused journal. He has already written a detailed book of Gould's interpretational method. That book, considered a model of its kind, is in depth, scholarly and technical (though I think it readable even by the non-musician).

In Wondrous Strange, Bazzana goes beyond the mere data and dares to probe, dissect, weigh and contemplate Gould's life, nature, method, personality and musicianship. I say he is entitled to do this because he has mastered the facts and this is where the real stuff of biography is found.

Was Gould a hypochondriac (Yes) and moreover, did it affect his playing? Was he addicted to his medications (yes, in that he believed a pill would cure his ills, yes in that he was a veritable pharmacy) and did this hasten his death? Was he mentally unbalanced (no, apart from at least one period of delusional behaviour probably brought on by a bad combination of medications) and did this affect his interpretations? Was Gould capable of being a barnstorming Romantic pianist, or was his method defined by his physical limitations? Why did Gould not excel at composition and what did he turn to in order to satisfy his creative needs?

These are all legitimate questions and they are answered in the book. But I will allow Bazzana himself to satisfy the reader's curiosity. Read the book!


Footnote: (I am sure I will be misunderstood and accused of suggesting shoddy research and preposterous imagination. I ask that before anyone fire off a letter of complaint they carefully consider exactly what I have written).


A contrapuntal review

Introduction: Adagio

Voice One

Voice Two

Voice Three



Copyright © 4 August 2004 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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