Glenn Gould’s Inner Life

17 mins read

During his lifetime, Glenn Gould was the ungraspable piano prodigy. At the age of thirteen he performed with the Toronto Symphony, and at 22, having already conquered New York and Washington, he signed with Columbia Records and made a peerless recording of Bach’s daunting Goldberg Variations. His hands played musical lines faultlessly, as if each was directed by a separate mind, and he could learn new repertory by reading the score—no keyboard necessary.

At 31, he abandoned public performance, sinking into barbiturate addiction and extreme eccentricity while shifting his creative focus to avant-garde radio documentaries. Gould was dead at 50. Throughout the world the word ‘genius’ was freely scattered across the obituaries.

As one might imagine, there have been nearly as many filmed documentaries about Gould as the years he lived. But now there is one more, created by the team of producer Peter Raymont and veteran editor Michele Hozer, who emerges in Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould as a first-time documentary director. It has been chosen to screen in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

At 46, Hozer has won two Geminis for editing. Shake Hands with the Devil, the Romeo Dallaire documentary which she also edited, won an Emmy in 2007. But she had become restless with her role in the editing studio, and Raymont, her frequent collaborator, finally asked if she wanted to direct. She said she did.

That was in 2007. Some time went by. Raymont, who has a lifelong fascination with Glenn Gould, had been keeping an eye on an unfinished part of Gould’s story. Though there had been many documentaries about his prodigious musical abilities, and several more about his habit of wearing overcoats in July and refusing to shake hands for fear of hurting his precious digits, Raymont was interested in an aspect of Gould which was under-reported and had fallen prey to public fantasy and even paranoia: his sexuality.

Early this year—on February 1, to be exact—Raymont learned that the American composer Lukas Foss had died. This may seem unrelated to Glenn Gould, who died in 1982. But it was widely known that Lukas Foss’ wife Cornelia had upped and left Foss, taking the children with her, to go and live with Gould in 1967. She stayed for five years before returning to her husband. It was generally believed that the affair was a mariage blanc because of Gould’s supposedly peculiar or non-existent sexuality.

Cornelia Foss contributed to the growing myth by refusing to speak about the affair while her husband was alive. Over the quarter-century since Gould’s death, her silence had encouraged a spreading belief that Gould’s odd sexual proclivities, or absence thereof, were an established fact. “To tell the truth,” says Raymont, “I’d never thought of him as a sexual being myself. Some thought him homosexual.”

But Raymont found it intriguing that Gould and the attractive, charismatic Foss had lived together for so long. It raised the possibility that he was a fully functioning male of the species. Now that Lukas Foss was dead, there was the possibility that Cornelia might be willing to speak on camera and lay the rumours to rest. It was a chance to explore the final mystery about Glenn Gould.

This was the potential documentary, which he asked Michele Hozer to direct. It was a big one.

“It’s as if you swim into the unknown,” says Hozer. “You try to work with the character as a mythical character.” In the Western storytelling tradition, she observes, prodigiously gifted artists are seen as divinely inspired and somewhat mad. Thinking of Gould, she asked herself: “Can my character fit into these archetypes?”

The major challenge of the assignment, of course, was that Gould is no longer alive. The central interview would have to be with Cornelia Foss herself, and for the director of the potential documentary everything hinged on obtaining Foss’ cooperation.

To the film-going public, the role of a ‘documentary director’ is poorly understood. Most people think of a film director as an artist who works with actors and writers in order to create a fictional narrative. But a documentary director does not do that at all.

“And nobody thinks about that!” says Hozer, meaning: nobody outside the business. But within the documentary world, it’s well understood that the director may complete his or her shooting budget with 100 hours of film and still only the vaguest idea of how it will fit together. From a documentary editor’s point of view, says Hozer, the documentary director is a person who shows up with tons of film but “they don’t come with a script”.

And so it often falls to the editor to bring fresh eyes to the mass of footage, study it carefully, and then sketch out a sequence of material that will tell a story. The director, of course, will have his own idea of what the story should be. He may even have made a ‘paper cut’ where he suggests the two or three hours from the great stack of footage that will be most pertinent to the story. But at the end of the day, the editor will have looked at all the footage and very likely developed a different view of how the story should unfold.

Raymont and Hozer have a working relationship extending back to 2001, when she set up an editing facility, called The Cutting Factory, inside the Kitchen Sync postproduction facility in downtown Toronto where Raymont works. She worked on a number of films produced by Raymont but directed by others, as well as several films he directed himself and which are very important to him: A Promise to the Dead, Shake Hands With the Devil, and Arctic Dreamer: The Lonely Quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

The most recent is 2007’s A Promise to the Dead, where Raymont accompanied Ariel Dorfman on a return trip to the Chile which he had fled in 1971, when he was a young minister in Salvador Allende’s Marxist government at the time it was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s people saved Dorfman’s life, telling him that he had to stay alive to tell the truth about what had happened.

Dorfman’s return trip with Raymont was his first since 1971. During the visit, with impeccable dramatic timing, Pinochet died. This event set off a grenade burst of suppressed emotions on both sides. These became “pivotal moments in the narrative arc,” says Hozer. But of course that wasn’t evident at the time to either Raymont or Dorfman, caught as they were in the swirl of events.

To figure out the structure, as Hozer puts it, Raymont brought back the footage and turned it over to her. She turned it into a story. “Peter liked my editing (of the Dorfman material),” Hozer recalls, “and he said, ‘Do you want to direct?’” With that question he acknowledged her storytelling ability. But he still needed to know whether she was ready to direct a crew and to carry out crucial interviews herself.

When the Glenn Gould project emerged, Raymont reasoned that it would be a good first-time directing project for Hozer. Since Gould was long gone, the project would rely heavily on archival material and re-enactments rather than live interviews. “I said to myself, ‘This is an editor’s film. It will need archival footage and dramatic re-enactments.’”

He also knew that Hozer could “turn disparate ingredients into magic”. After shooting the Romeo Dallaire film, Raymont had handed Hozer the raw footage, too physically and emotionally drained from visiting the place where a million people had been butchered to do much of a rough cut himself. Six weeks later she handed him back the film which won an Emmy award (it shared the 2007 Emmy for Best Doc with the documentary God Sleeps in Rwanda). “She deserves the credit,” he says.

But he was worried about her ability to negotiate live interviews. He did the initial short interview with Cornelia Foss himself, to gauge whether she was ready to acknowledge intimacy with Gould on camera. When she said yes, he turned the project over to Hozer. “I didn’t do much,” he insists. “And later on she did the other interviews, including Ashkenazy” on her own.

Raymont is clearly being the generous mentor who steps out of the limelight when the protégé is ready to take over. But Hozer had doubts. Knowing little about classical music, she was nervous about interviewing Gould colleagues such as the great pianist Vladimir Asheknazy.

But the biggest worry was the fiery and patrician Cornelia Foss. “I saw Cornelia five times before doing the interview,” says Hozer. “I spent a whole day with her looking at her photos.” Foss eventually decided, having scrutinized Hozer, that she would do.

On camera, Foss is the picture of propriety, the loving mother who was aware of Gould’s instability and feared the effect it might have on her children, but who eventually came to believe that Gould longed to be a loving father. And—crucially—who longed to be, and became for her, a passionate sexual being.

It is all quite upbeat. But at one point, almost casually, Foss mentions that she never especially liked Gould’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations.

Now, this is the Bach masterwork on which Gould established his international reputation in the Fifties. Leonard Bernstein was weak-kneed about it. It is also the work, which he re-recorded in 1982 shortly before his death. On YouTube, one sequence of Gould’s Goldberg performance has three quarters of a million hits.

Yet Cornelia Foss didn’t like it. Other hints of a steeliness otherwise well concealed also emerge in the on-air footage. Hozer discreetly suggests to me that, where temper and temperament and inexplicable fierce reversals of emotion are concerned, Foss was easily the equal of Glenn Gould. It was, for Hozer, a baptism of fire in the art of the interview.

Once the interviews were done and archival footage assembled, she embarked on her long established editing process. Hozer often studies a heap of footage all day long without finding a way to cut and organize it. Then she goes home, has supper, and experiences an ‘Aha!’ moment—after which she cuts and assembles until midnight. After weeks of this she realizes that “a certain sequence is the opening.” She also develops a sense of what the narrative is, so that at a particular moment she also feels that “this is where it’s starting to wrap up” and it’s time to stop adding details.

But Gould was preposterously multi-faceted, making him a particularly complex challenge. The philosopher Mark Kingwell has said that Gould had more variations on himself than Bach did on the musical themes in the Goldberg Variations. Hozer felt that she had to tell younger viewers that Gould once made a documentary called The Idea of North where he edited a series of voice interviews according to the rules of composing a Baroque fugue (calling it ‘contrapuntal radio’). And that he was a clown and mimic who invented two dozen satirical alter egos such as the conductor “Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite” and the American critic “Theodore Slutz”. That he could, and did, do anything.

But—a director now—Hozer also had to find a focus. She finally decided that the strongest trait, which led to Gould’s downfall, was his need to control everything around him. “At the beginning he was able to laugh at himself. But the need for control seeped into every area of his life.”

With this leitmotif in hand, she finished the rough cut. She says laughingly that Hozer the director is as guilty as any other director of handing Hozer the editor a mass of shockingly shapeless material.

But she is quite confident that the interpretation she and Raymont will present to the public this fall would have met with the great pianist’s approval. The ghost of Gould, the man who could not bear a loose end, will haunt her if she doesn’t.

Previous Story

Collided, Crashed and Assimilated

Next Story

Soundscaping: Phil Strong and Laurel MacDonald

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00