Monday, 16 November 2009

To Listen Is To Feel: GLENN GOULD: The Latecomers

In order to talk about the central, it is necessary to get out of it to the outside.

The other afternoon I went to the ICA to see/hear a presentation by Mark Fisher (aka k-punk) - he was inaugurating the Deep Listening Club (as part of Calling Out Of Context), a rough group of listeners who will gather now and then to listen in near darkness to sound pieces, albums, etc. It happened in a white room with gray cloth-covered canvases here and there; even if the lights were on, there wouldn't be too much to distract the eye from the ear's work. I use the word work very deliberately, as we were not there to just hear what was coming out of the two speakers, but to listen.

What we gathered to hear was a sound collage by Glenn Gould called The Latecomers (1969), a documentary of sorts about life in Newfoundland, Canada. I don't know if I was the only person in the room to have ever lived in Canada, but the show felt intimate to me in so many ways (and I haven't even been to Newfoundland)! As the piece continued and gathered strength, multiplied layers, I really felt as if I knew these people, smelt the sea air, felt the constant play of surf on the shore, experienced their rural lives and awkward acceptance of change since they had joined Confederation in 1949. As goes Newfoundland, Gould says, so then goes the rest of Canada. Solitude is solitude of the mind, eventually, against the government and the natural elements. (The general audience at the ICA probably didn't know this, but The Latecomers was broadcast in November of '69, just two years after the general centennial celebrations, forever associated with this great song and Expo '67 in Montreal; a kind of Canadian cool was being developed as well, by Gould, by Marshall McLuhan and by future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.)

Fisher introduced the idea of how odd and discomforting and intimate listening to something in tandem with strangers can be (and is); people gather regularly to watch things and attend museums; why not gather to listen to things as well? As someone who was taught music appreciation at a rather young age (even before I officially was taught to sit & be quiet and listen to music, my father was teaching me how to do this by example - he never lectured me that much, trusting I would find my way, memorize songs, become familiar with instruments, etc.), this didn't seem quite as odd as it may have been to others. It's hard to know, as after Gould's piece was over no one said what I expected - that they had not had this kind of experience since they were kids in music class, or perhaps just in the backseat of their parents' car, eyes closed, radio on, listening...

No, the talk was about how this sort of thing - gathered adults in a place to listen intently to something - had happened before (the North in the first half of the last century) and there was some comment in general about the structure of the piece and its actual produced qualities. But no one took the piece in and felt it hit them; or if they did, they didn't speak up. When Gould played back his first piece of this trilogy, The Idea of North, to a friend of his, she listened for a few minutes and then started to cry, and Gould was very touched and pleased with her reaction - in some ways I would guess that she understood his message, what was underneath it, and was less concerned with the technicalities of the piece.

The Latecomers takes you into the tough, isolated and foggy world of Newfoundland and gives you back, oddly, a version of yourself, particularly if you are a creative person on the outside (even in super-central London, a mere half mile from Buckingham Palace itself). It isn't necessarily tear-jerking, but the listeners that surrounded me were perhaps a bit too guarded in their responses (I wondered afterwards if some food & drink afterward would have loosened them up a bit) and no one who spoke seemed to take in and digest the subject matter - the perpetual Canadian/Gouldian subject matter of independence, collectivity and how to deal with technology. They are definitely autobiographical and in a way to fail to respond to The Latecomers is a failure to respond to the mind behind it as well. As the listeners are all residents on their own island that is also grappling with letting go of the past in order to get to a better (it is hoped) future, I would have thought the piece would have set up a mirror; instead I could only conclude that the blankness around me was a reflection of how either deep Gould's work went, or how maybe some people were lulled into a kind of non-observing hearing of the piece instead. I hope not; I hope that those who did attend got over the mere novelty of their being together in the first place and were able to also sense the joyful determination of the Newfoundland people, people who are defiantly independent even in the face of opposition or defeat. A collective sense of purpose is what unites them, as it should form in the Deep Listening Club.

As for me, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to the next listening session; perhaps this time it will be Scott Walker, though it may as well be Charles Spearin's The Happiness Project, a unique work also from Canada that deals with, well, happiness. (Or is that too radical for the ICA?)