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A Glenn Gould Journey

A few months ago, I was invited to attend a piano masterclass and convocation (all expenses paid) in London, Ontario. I immediately accepted the offer, but it wasn’t until a few weeks before I left when I realized that a huge opportunity awaited me just two hours away, in Toronto.

The old stomping grounds of Glenn Gould.

And so, having taken a look at some of his most famous locations in the area, I decided on three that were in the proximity of downtown (I also wanted to check out Rogers Centre and the CN Tower):

110 St. Clair Ave. West – Old apartment from 1957.

21 St. Clair Ave. West – Old Fran’s restaurant that Gould always ate at, now closed.

Glenn Gould Studio – Recording and performance studio named after Gould. Includes his childhood piano and other photographs. There is also a statue of Gould in front of the studio.

The main goals/questions I wanted to accomplish from this visit were:

  1. Gain an insight on Gould’s Toronto – what the conditions he lived under were like.
  2. What is his legacy today? Are there others that are trying to find his legacy like I am?

I set out last Sunday, completing the 200 kilometre drive to downtown. My first stop was his own apartment that he lived for many years. It’s main use was for sleeping and practicing, as Gould never cooked. An anecdote that my interviewee, Kevin Bazzana, shared with me is about how a person who cleaned out Gould’s apartment after his death was surprised at how clean and unused the cutlery was. Another story comes from the superintendent of the building, Marilyn Kecskes:

I used to sit up here, after I had done my cleaning, and I would listen to him play all night long. He never knew I was up here, or else he would have been angry with me, I suppose, but I had the moon and the stars and his music and there was nothing more beautiful.

It was surprisingly normal when I visited the building, it is still an apartment, after all. A small plaque was in front of the entrance, but nothing else alluded to the fact that Gould lived here before.

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(The full album of photos I took can be seen here.)

I headed down St. Clair to his favourite haunt, Fran’s. This place was its original location, and there are multiple ones open around Toronto. Due to its proximity to Gould’s home, he ate the most often at this location. He only ate one meal a day, often at 4 am at the 24-hour Fran’s. It’s now a Union Social Eatery, with no sign of the old restaurant.

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Even though it was a place that Gould always visited, I didn’t feel satisfied at all seeing a new restaurant that he had no connection to. But there were other options as well. Right beside Eaton Auditorium, Gould’s preferred recording location in the 1970’s, is another Fran’s, and one he occasionally frequented. There was just enough time to order take-out, and I wanted to experience Gould’s diet: scrambled eggs, toast, salad, and orange juice.

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After the detour, I went to the final location: his studio. Inside was a lobby that contained several photos of Gould, along with his Chickering piano that he played as a child. Unfortunately, the public could not play it, but a few years ago, my piano teacher did! She was surprised at how quick the action was (the keys would spring back up almost immediately after being struck) when she played it at a moving Gould exhibit in Victoria.

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But perhaps the most powerful part of my adventure was seeing the statue of Gould sitting on a bench in front of the studio. All the places I had seen leading up to that were interesting and quirky, but didn’t give me a unique insight into Gould that I couldn’t experience from looking at photographs. Seeing the statue changed everything. It wasn’t popular by any means – most people I saw sat as far away from him as possible. However, as I stared into his eyes, his customary gloves, scarf and hat adorning him, I started to realize who Gould was. My countless hours of research had created a mystic aura around Gould, and seeing his lifelike figure right beside me was a little overwhelming and uncomfortable, to be honest.

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Review of my goals:

Gain an insight on Gould’s Toronto – what the conditions he lived under were like.

When I was walking on the nearly-deserted streets of Toronto (it was a Sunday morning), I quickly found striking differences in the environment between Toronto, the business capital of Canada, and Vancouver, the west coast city surrounded by trees. I was surprised at how nearly every senior was wearing sunglasses. Whether they were to actually block out the sun, or just to avoid social interaction, I’m not sure. But most people seemed to be going somewhere, and they didn’t all seem to be enjoying it. It was a huge contrast with Vancouver, where only a small fraction of the people seem to be urgently busy, and everything is more laid back.

This, I believe, made a huge impact on Gould’s work. First of all, the economical nature of his native city probably affected his work – the atmosphere didn’t suit him very well, which might be a reason why he loved recording in the wee hours of the morning, with the streets empty and darkness surrounding him. Also, culturally, Toronto is a very diverse place. It might have been a reason why Gould could find his niche inside Toronto, where a combination of the diversity and business-like, self-centered attitude of the city would mean that his eccentricities wouldn’t be too emphasized.

What is his legacy today? Are there others that are trying to find his legacy like I am?

During my interview with Kevin, he highlighted the fact that Gould was indeed still very popular today. But as I went to so many places where Gould was, there was no one else that showed remote interest in the plaques or pictures of him. Whoever sat on the bench kept shifting uncomfortably away from the statue. This may be because, again, the always-changing landscape of Toronto. It’s been 35 years since Gould died, and the musical world has moved on. I do believe his legacy has been lost, particularly in Toronto.

Before my adventure, I think I was waiting for a revelation. I wanted something to set off a spark inside of me, to reignite my passion for my eminent person during the laborious tasks of creating a speech and learning centre. But nothing did change me, or my perspective of Gould. I didn’t learn anything new about him that I couldn’t have Googled.

I think that the biggest thing I gained as a little insight. A small nugget into where he lived and how he lived. A reminder that, no matter how little people today know him, there is always something that will forever reside in Toronto.

And, to a certain extent, reside within me.

Oh, and I also brought a little snack for him.

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2 Responses to A Glenn Gould Journey

  1. Liam Northcott says:

    I love the fact that even though you’re still looking at your goals and learning, you still manage to tell an interesting story. I was really surprised when I read about the locals’ aversion to the statue, and your insight into the reason why so many people wore sunglasses was very interesting.

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