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A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

By Katie Hafner
Bloomsbury, 2008

I first met Glenn Gould when I was in the seventh grade. To say “met,” is a little misleading – the pianist died in 1982, just after his fiftieth birthday and a month or so before I turned three – but there really is no other way to describe the experience of encountering a musician whose recordings are so intimate that, when I listened to them, I felt like I was sitting next to him. Our geography teacher dusted off the projector and ran a grainy film about Toronto. The film was narrated by an odd lumbering spook of a man wrapped in an enormous woolen coat, who described his adopted city over panoramic, stridently-70’s-hued tourist shots. He punctuated the travelogue with stints at the piano and the pipe organ, in both cases hunched over the keyboard so that his nose very nearly grazed the keys. It took me two years, however, to realize who he was – and then to embrace him as the great antihero of my teenaged life.

If a person has heard of Glenn Gould, it is probably first because of his humming, and then because of the rest of his obsessive tendencies, and then because he retired from the concert hall when he was only 31. Indeed the prospect of the humming is the likeliest to turn off potential listeners – after all, we buy recordings of piano pieces to listen to the piano – yet Gould’s humming marks his recordings as vivid, almost-living things. Anecdotes abound concerning the revelation of that fact, from a terrified woman who swore there was someone else mumbling in the house, to a critic who believed it to be a shade of the voice of god. The humming, the singing, the foot-tapping, the self-conducting – these seem on the surface merely quirks, but, as Katie Hafner reveals in her book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, they signify something deeper, finer, and ultimately more melancholy than the trademark of an eccentric and exacting musician.

It took François Girard’s film Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and the acting marksmanship of Colm Feore, who portrayed Gould in the film (albeit with so much sensitivity as to provoke some critical controversy), to make me remember the Toronto documentary and its curious guide. From there it was an easy plunge into the wealth of re-mastered recordings which Sony BMG had been releasing (and still continues to release). I admire his mercurial Beethoven sonatas’ his intense and terrifying transcription of Ravel’s transcription of Ravel’s orchestrated version of “La Valse”; his devotion to forgotten early music by composers such as Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd; and especially his magisterial recording of Brahms’ D minor piano concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, which inspired enough debate that, famously, Bernstein had to give the audience a pep talk before the performance. Though I admire these, and many more besides, it is for his Bach recordings that Gould is, rightly, best known. The precision and clarity with which he voices each note, the manner in which unexpected themes and variations emerge without diminishing the surrounding contrapuntal support, the terrible speed he is capable of reaching, never fail to impress me, despite countless listenings.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, most of the short films and a glorious trove of other archival material, previously accessible only in libraries or via grainy geography classroom reels, are available for viewing, and these snippets offer a glimpse of the reclusive (he simply stopped giving concerts in 1964), compulsive (he took a bevy of prescription medications for a bevy of ailments, real and imagined), charming (of the numerous essays he wrote for liner notes and publications, by far the wittiest is “Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould,” published in High Fidelity in 1974) genius in a way previously inaccessible to the general public. But Thirty-Two Short Films, as Roger Ebert puts it, “actually inspires us to think about what it was like to be this man” by culling bits and pieces from a varied and peculiar life. Hafner’s book works in a similar way, though her ultimate focus is more fixed, and in so doing she brings out for readers a new – and often weirdly overlooked – side of Glenn Gould: his relationship with the piano he loved best, a Steinway concert grand designated CD 318.

It would also be misleading, however, for me to focus solely on Gould in this review (though indulge me a little further as I explain how this works). A Romance on Three Legs chronicles the forces that had to cooperate in order to bring Gould and his ultimate piano together. For Gould’s humming and singing, Hafner explains, were attempts to pull that best-of-all-possible-worlds instrument from his imagination and render it on the temperamental and imperfect keyboards with which he had to deal on a regular basis:

Following a concert in Detroit, the local critic wrote that Gould’s humming sounded like “a large blackfly had escaped in the auditorium”… At times the humming was so pronounced that it seemed a duet was being played between piano and pianist.

Gould sometimes said that he hummed in order to compensate for the shortcomings of an unfamiliar or inferior piano. But he had another explanation for it: It represented wishful thinking, the perfect, ideal phrasing he had in his head that he could never quite achieve in real life. It was probably a little bit of both: The humming expressed his ideal vision of the music he was playing, and it probably became more prominent in situations when an inadequate instrument subverted the realization of that vision.

For amateur pianists – those who, like me, were initially forced to the instrument by enthusiastic parents, but who perhaps later in life discovered they could take solace in the keyboard and actually enjoy the playing (yes Mom, you were right) – the idea that a piano’s imperfections needed compensation is mystifying. It was a struggle merely to comprehend the music, to plunk it out on the ivories; there existed little excess brainpower to devote to a piano’s feel and response, though naturally most people can notice out-of-tune or sticking keys easily enough.

But through a swift recounting of Gould’s early life, Hafner posits in the reader’s mind from the beginning the image of the pianist as having transcended that struggle. This tactic leaves the author open to explore the technical issues involved in transmuting the “wishful thinking” into aural perfection. These technical issues, in Hafner’s capable hands, are never boring. Who would have thought that a pages-long description of the action of a piano – the mechanism, as Hafner puts it, “that translates the downward pressure of the finger on the key to the corresponding hammer, propelling the hammer to strike the strings” – could actually make for compelling reading? (The only other piece which, to my knowledge, translates the technical side of piano-tuning to the appreciative layman reader is Denele Campbell’s memoir Notes of a Piano Tuner. Works such as those of Arthur Reblitz and Larry Fine are important reference materials ill-suited for the amateur or casual reader.)

Hafner’s story works contrapuntally, by intertwining several different perspectives to form one main narrative – that of, as the title suggests, the pianist’s search for the ultimate extension of his own body – and the result is not far off from the vagaries of one of Bach’s fugues. Though her prose is functional rather than eloquent, and though she cannot escape a bit of repetition (just enough to be noticeable, though you might think of it instead as the return of the dominant theme), Hafner’s work is nonetheless captivating, making for a lightning-fast read precisely because she successfully juggles so many varied elements and interweaves them so deftly. Indeed, Hafner’s side work is what makes A Romance on Three Legs stand out from other, more biographically-inclined, works about Gould. In addition to the necessary introduction to the pianist, she has chosen to give the reader a history of Steinway and Sons, a lesson in the construction of pianos, documentation about piano-moving, and a description of the concert life of the enormous instruments, and were that not enough, she finally devotes a paean to those most unsung of heroes, the piano tuners and technicians of the world.

It is the nearly-blind Verne Edquist who becomes, by the end of the book, an unexpected hero. Edquist learned to tune pianos at the Ontario School for the Blind, working door-to-door before landing a job as chief fine-tuner at the Heintzman piano factory. As Hafner points out, piano-tuning, “perhaps more than any other profession for the blind…offered a way past a handicap and into the working world.” Edquist, in addition to his refined memory and heightened senses of sound and smell, had a kind of synesthesia: he could see numbers, months, and sounds as numbers, which would help him when he came to learn tone regulation, a different beast altogether from the manipulation of a piano’s mechanical components:

A good tone regulator…has extremely acute hearing. Whereas a tuner listens for variations in pitch, a tone regulator listens for subtle variations in tone quality. And while a tuner employs a tuning fork as a guide, the tone regulator uses his memory of a sound to guide him…. [Edquist] was soon able to strike a note on the piano and remember the lingering harmonic tones the way a wine expert can summon from memory the aromas that are released in the lingering finish of a good wine. It was learning this skill that would catapult him beyond the realm of mere tuner and into the realm of technician, a more rarefied calling.

Edquist would eventually become Gould’s chief tuner and technician, working particularly with the pianist to perfect CD 318. Once Gould “retired” from the stage – to which he had felt, at best, bound by antagonistic necessity – he set to cultivating his true passion for recording music, manipulating and refining and editing a take until it became as close as possible to perfect. For these recording sessions, Edquist was kept on hand to tune the piano both before and between takes. “Whenever Gould was away from the piano,” Hafner writes, “Edquist would seize the opportunity to touch it up. Standing there, listening to Gould play, Edquist could actually hear the piano go out of tune under the pianist’s fingers.” Gould and Edquist were “[l]ike parents attuned to the slightest mood shift in their infant,” so attentively – or you could equally call it obsessively – did they administer to the piano. Yet, for all that, Edquist was not Gould’s sole technician. Hafner does note that “Gould was like a bigamist who invested great care and energy into keeping his families in different cities, making certain they didn’t discover one another’s existence”; while Hafner does struggle bravely to keep Edquist as a central figure, the history is against such a tidy narrative and she must dilute the plot by calling in others, like Ted Sambell and Franz Mohr (who tuned for Vladamir Horowitz, whom Gould liked to consider his arch enemy). Hafner’s twists and turns take us, at times, far from Edquist – who was instrumental to maintaining the great love of Gould’s musical life, but whom no one thought to notify when the pianist had died – despite that she pays detailed attention to his early life and career, so the whole work winds up feeling rather out-of-balance.

To turn back to the notion of tone regulation, Hafner’s wine metaphor is an apt one for her book. One of the best scenes of the film Sideways is when wine connoisseurs Miles and Maya (played respectively by Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen) argue that a bottle of wine is a living thing. Wine is “constantly evolving and gaining complexity,” Maya notes. In the same way, Hafner manages to reveal how a piano is equally, and similarly, a living thing. “He talked about his piano as if it were human,” pianist David Bar-Illan remembered. “He talked of its temperaments. He was proud of it. His piano, he said, improved with age.”

The idea of a piano maturing like fine wine was certainly counter-intuitive to the professionals at Steinway and Sons, given that their dogma was, “This year’s Steinway in the best ever made.” Hafner notes that the expected “lifetime” of a concert grand was around six years; after that, the piano would be retired, refurbished, and sold elsewhere, but it would never again attain its original majesty. Alexander Greiner, an executive at Steinway, grumbled in a memo that “[w]e are not in the business of promoting and selling Steinway pianos which were made 50 or 100 years ago. Our business is to promote the present product.”

And the “present product” had a distinctive tonal quality which still makes Steinways the most-played concert pianos in the world today (slightly less so for the amateur, Mom-forced-me-to-learn-it market). The key, Hafner explains, is voicing:

Any technician knows that a bad voicing job can ruin a set of hammers, but there is also great pride to be had in voicing – because it is in the voicing that a piano maker can have a real influence on the instrument…The sound of a piano can vary dramatically, depending on what the voicer has done. A piano voiced in a mellow tone for the music room of a typical home, for instance, can be swallowed up in a concert hall. And what one person might perceive as mellow, another might hear as weak. This subjectivity – this unquantifiable sense that guides the essential voicing process – is part of what makes each piano distinct, while at the same time it is what creates the characteristic “Steinway sound.”

The reader encounters a brisk history of Steinway twined with the improbable birth of CD 318 during World War II, when the Steinway factory in Astoria was co-opted by the government to turn out combat gliders instead of concert grands. From there, Hafner leads us, again at quite a clip, through the construction of a piano, peppered with fascinating – though at times diverting – bits of trivia: one of the more touching examples is that typically each of the multitude of craftsmen responsible for assembling a Steinway would sign his name somewhere on the piano. “A factory worker,” Hafner writes, “once recounted the story of walking past an old man, a second- or third-generation factory employee, weeping as he repaired an old piano. He had found the signature of his father – then dead for forty years – inscribed deep within the instrument.”

In intervening chapters, we read of the hair-pulling Steinway went through over its relationship with its pickiest of artists, which is both amusing and maddening:

In terms of the piano itself [argues David Rubin, head of Steinway’s concert department in the 1960s and 1970s], there is an aural concept of what the artist, in his imagination, hears, something they are listening for. I try to find out what it is they’re listening for. They show me. I think we are outrageously successful if we measure up to about sixty percent of what an artist is looking for. That’s very, very high. Once in a while you’ll get to seventy percent. But you’ll never get to one hundred percent because what they’re experiencing within themselves has to do with imagination and we are dealing with a physical product. And that physical product, in some way, has to coincide – that’s about as close as we can get to what they are trying to feel, hear, express, and project.

The way Hafner tells it, Gould was hitting in the ten- to twenty-percent range at Steinway for a long time, and he took every opportunity to voice his dissatisfaction with what he perceived as a long line of inferior instruments. (Gould preferred pianos, she writes, “whose sound might be described as ‘puritan’: not dry, exactly, or constrained, but clear and detached.”) Via a bit of narrative craftiness, Hafner pulls Gould and CD 318 inexorably closer, until finally they meet in the most banal of places: the basement of a Toronto department store. Speculating that Gould might have run into CD 318 at an earlier point in his life and not realized it, she describes the fateful re-meeting in 1960:

However it was that he encountered the piano, once he began playing, his memory was jogged. He recognized this piano. He knew he had played on it before, many years earlier. His ears now remembered its refined sound: the lovely, singing treble and clean, taut bass. And his fingers recalled its extreme responsiveness. For all those years, he had scoured New York, not Toronto, for the perfect piano. And here it was.

CD 318, and, subsequently, Edquist, accompanied Gould on his last few concert rounds, and then into the recording studio. Hafner recounts Edquist’s first rendezvous with CD 318 with even more reverence:

Edquist, like Gould, knew that there was something about CD 318 that set it apart even from other Steinways. Usually Edquist set his ear for nuances in pitch, resonance, and overall quality of tone…While Edquist encountered fine Steinways every well, the first few chords he played on 318 got his attention. He was well accustomed to the different qualities of fine instruments, but in 318 the tone and the featherlight, fast-repeating action stood out. This was a piano with a soul.

CD 318’s light was brief but shining, and therein lies the true poignancy in Hafner’s work. In excruciating detail she describes first the still-unresolved shipping accident which left 318 beyond repair, and then the refurbishment headed by the devoted Edquist, which resulted in a piano that had become, for both men, “an alien.” Gould apparently took the bad news with a preternatural calm, though as Hafner points out, such calm was counteracted by Gould’s lengthy investigation into the accident and his desperate, unsuccessful attempts, along with Edquist, to replace 318’s lost soul. So long and so hard had Gould searched for this instrument, and so contingent the events needed to align the right people for the match to take place, that, despite Hafner’s rather rough-shod attempt to spice up the story by inserting news of a years-long love affair between Gould and the wife of a conductor (the details of which only surfaced last year), the reader is left with a sort of hollowness for the remainder of the book. We don’t know if Gould felt the same way, but certainly vitality is lacking from the final chapters of A Romance on Three Legs, and one reaches the clumsy ending feeling empty and sad.

The tenth of the Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould is devoted to CD 318. The camera sweeps and caresses the piano’s inner workings while Gould’s rendition of the Prelude No. 2 in C minor from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” plays, and the hammers work by an unseen force. It seems a fitting if implausible tribute. The irony here is that neither of the two great recordings which made Gould famous, and which bookended his career, was played on 318: Bach’s otherworldly “Goldberg” Variations (an aria, thirty variations, and a repetition of the aria, the reason for the number of short films) still belong, in a sense, to Gould, despite their becoming more mainstream in recording culture over the past twenty years. The first recording, which came out in 1955 and has since become the best-selling solo classical album of all time was on a different Steinway; the second recording, stately and meditative, recorded in 1981 and 1982 and released not quite a week before Gould passed away, was on a Yamaha.

Of the Goldbergs’ structure (particularly concerning the repetition of the aria), a twenty-three-year-old Gould had this to say in the impressive liner notes that accompany his earlier recording:

It is no accident that the great cycle should conclude thus. Nor does the aria’s return simply constitute a gesture of benign benediction. Rather, its suggestion of perpetuity is indicative of the essential incorporeality of the “Goldbergs”… It is, in short, music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, like Baudelaire’s lovers, “rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.” It has, then, unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.

While the Goldbergs constitute Gould’s ultimate legacy, CD 318 has achieved a kind of perpetuity and essential incorporeality of its own. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager I spacecraft, which contained a golden record on which were images, languages, and sounds that epitomized human understanding of Earth. Among these sounds is a recording of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C major, made by Gould on CD 318 during its pinnacle of potency. “When I heard that,” Hafner quotes Edquist as saying, “it was like a dream. There’s Bach writing the music, Glenn is playing the music, and it’s my tuning that’s giving it voice. And it’s going somewhere in outer space.” If ever Voyager I reaches life, Edquist will have been among the true artists representing humankind.

Lianne Habinek is a Phd candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.

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