Graham Carr writes about how the “line between elite and mass culture” becomes blurred in regards to mass consumption and circulation of music after recordings took the world by storm. Carr speculates that Glenn Gould’s celebrity and his famous status came about, at least in part, due to the amount of photographs that were taken of him, and how many screen appearances he made during the late 1950s. In addition, Carr believes the images specifically were constructed in such a way by photographers so as to create an aura about Gould; he was unique, he also existed in a new modern culture of celebrity, too. Obviously Carr suggests technology changes the artist and how the artist is perceived. Likewise, he implies a link between technology and audience.
If we consider Gould – coming about as a professional artist at a precise moment in history when recorded music is being commodified like never before – he is, in some way, a product of technology. However, technology requires an audience to which it will be transmitted, in whatever form. Is it not feasible to imagine then that Gould is furthermore a product of his audience? Carr mentions Glenn Gould: Some Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man by Jock Carroll, most importantly the legal battle in which Gould’s estate engaged over the book. What’s compelling is that, in their ruling, the Ontario Court specifically made the point to state it is a matter of public interest for people to learn more about one of the country’s most talented artists. This ruling alone suggests a portion of an artist’s genius or their celebrity hinges on the public – their audience(s) – perception and understanding of them. Although there’s no ignoring the reach technology allows, in conjunction with the commodification of music in a capitalist system, it is harder to ignore the importance of audience.
In that vein, let’s consider another pianist: Franz Liszt. By all accounts, for his time, Liszt was an impressive pianist and composer. The poet Heinrich Heine coined the term Lisztomania to describe the intensity with which Liszt’s fans received him during his performances, am uncommon occurrence for the time, before the phenomenon we now know as the modern celebrity. Certainly the Hungarian composer arrived on the scene over a century prior to Beatlemania. Preceding the spread of photography, poets like Heine and writers like Hans Christian Andersen were the source of translating the celebrity of artists like Liszt to the public via the written word. Stories tell of fans picking up discarded cigars, broken piano strings, the remains of his coffee, keeping them as souvenirs. If true, Liszt is a proto-celebrity. Of course he had to go touring across Europe in the middle of the 19th century, whereas Gould and artists in the age of the mass produced musical record have capitalised on the luxury of technological advances to spread their work.
It isn’t hard to see parallels between Liszt and Gould: both were celebrated performers, loved by audiences for their physical appearance, their playing style, and an almost hypnotising way of performing onstage. Watching Gould hum and sway along to the rhythms of his fingers over the keys it isn’t hard to imagine that, were a TV crew able to go back to around 1842, they might capture footage of Liszt swaying and rocking at the piano much in the same way. This brings us right back to the consideration of audience, not just technology. In a 1987 article for New York Magzine, Peter G. Davis writes that even though Liszt wasn’t entirely a “transcendent virtuoso … his audiences thought he was” and this is ultimately what helped propel him to reverence.
We can adjust monetary figures (i.e. ticket sales and box office) today to gauge the economic success of a film that came out decades ago against the rate of inflation, giving us an idea of what the gross profit might be if, say, Ridley Scott’s Alien were released today rather than in 1979. We cannot, however, properly determine how successful someone such as Liszt could’ve been were he rising to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s like Gould. There’s no discounting their respective talents. It’s merely an intriguing thought, to wonder if both existed at the same time when Gould was thrust into the public eye would they have experienced similar success? Or does Gould himself possess an even more elusive quality which fuels his celebrity?
Either way, it appears Gould accepted part of his success was in the mass production of the recording and its ability to reach all ends of the globe, as well as his control over the recording process, evidenced by his retirement from performance at the young age of thirty-one. He chose to concentrate on recording in studio, where he could edit and piece together a recording, he could modify the microphones, and more. Yet another consideration of where audience and technology meet. Gould moved from live performance, where he only had momentary control over his audience, to the studio, where he regained a large measure of control in how his audience would consume his music.
With so much to consider, I’ll end with this (and feel free to comment below if you’re so inclined): if Franz Liszt were alive and well in the early 1960s, would he choose to keep touring around Europe as he did one-hundred years before, or would he abscond to the recording studio like Gould and fine tune his performance for his manic audiences?
Carr, Graham. “Visualizing ‘The Sound of Genius’: Gould and the Culture of Celebrity in the 1950s.” Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 40, No. 3, Fall 2006; pp. 5-42. Online.
Davis, Peter G. “Hit Liszt.” New York Magazine, 16 Mar 1987; pp. 68-74.