| Glenn Gould
For Edward Said, Glenn Gould is not only a virtuoso pianist, but also an intellectual. And the meaning of Bach's music for Said is mediated by Gould's legendary recordings of it. Hence, the scenario of Said writing about himself listening to Gould playing Bach creates a complex discursive space within On Late Style (2006). In this space, writing, thinking, remembering, listening, performing and composing come together as a continuous process of 'becoming'. Such a process is self-consciously historical, richly but painfully aware of being 'in time'. But it also brings into being, at its most reflective moments, a solitude and an inwardness, a sense of apartness and untimeliness, located elsewhere from this awareness of time. Yet even at such moments, the questioning, sceptical, historicizing intellect is not stilled. Even when immersed in a music that glimpses the mystical, Said can never quite let go of Vico's idea of the ingenium in The New Science ' 'the ability to see human history as something made by the unfolding capacity of the working human mind'. In its eternal wakefulness, the 'working human mind' expresses and elaborates itself as much through difficult writing as through virtuosic performance.
It is, therefore, important for Said that the 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, made with a kind of neurotic fastidiousness in Gould's penultimate year, and Said's own compulsively brilliant lectures, essays and notes on the pianist be seen as part of the same 'intellectual critical tradition'. This tradition would also include philosophers like Theodor Adorno, musicologists like Charles Rosen and Maynard Solomon, and great musicians like Alfred Brendel, Pierre Boulez and Said's friend and collaborator, Daniel Barenboim.
Yet Said is curiously uncomfortable with what Gould has to say about music in an address to the graduates of the University of Toronto in 1964. For Gould, music 'is the product of the purely artificial construction of systematic thought'. Claude L'vi-Strauss would deeply agree, and Said has no problems with this. But what Gould goes on to say seems to worry him. This artifice of thought, Gould continues, 'is hewn from negation', and is 'but very small security against the void of negation that surrounds it'. For Gould, musical 'invention', the composer's as well as the performer's, is a perpetual dialogue between this void of negation and systems of thought ' more simply, between Negation and System. The invention of 'creative ideas' comes from 'a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system'.
Said points out here the 'confusion' caused by Gould's 'imperfectly deployed metaphors', but assures his readers that it is possible to 'decipher the sense' of what Gould is trying to say, and then presents a relentlessly lucid explication of it. But are Gould's words really confusing' And are his shifts in metaphor all that difficult to go along with' Isn't Gould's dark, yet crystalline statement an example of the luminous obscurity that Said himself makes a defining element of Late Style' It is difficult to dispel the sense of an anxious reflex within Said's intellectual disposition against Gould's unflinching acceptance of a traffic with negation.
Said's chapter on Gould is also about Bach as a 'thinking composer' creating works that provide abiding assurance of music's ability to embody the highest ideals of human, and humane, reason. Outside the realms of musical rationality, and brought face to face with Gould's 'void of negation', Said ' the Enlightenment rationalist and humanist, disciple of Vico ' baulks at something that seems to challenge the fundamental premises of intellectual history and criticism, at something inevitable yet unutterable that takes him to the limits of his own cherished standards of rational articulacy. To be made to look, through sublime music, towards the Grim Reaper himself is to find oneself at the limits of the explicable and, indeed, of the thinkable.
This confrontation becomes, at its most inspired, a brilliantly heroic struggle against mortality in which every rational conviction, the human intellect itself, is pitted against the negating force of the Last Things. And in this, Said's work begins to resemble the essentially tragic work of music itself: 'not letting the sound die as it naturally would tend to', as Barenboim puts it to Said in a wonderfully far-reaching conversation transcribed in Parallels and Paradoxes (2003). 'This is why courage is an integral part of making music,' the pianist and conductor explains to his friend, and also why ' in a formulation that could be the epigraph to On Late Style ' 'a long note is a defiance of death'a kind of extraordinarily energetic and committed battle to keep something alive which is constantly flagging.'
The unflagging articulacy with which Said takes on the reticences of Late Style, and the momentum of his masterful prose betray an intellectual drivenness that resembles the 'unimpeded forward movement' of the first watch given him when he was twelve. It became the boy's secret task-master and made him feel, obsessively, for the rest of his life, that Time was forever against him. While writing his memoirs during his last illness, Said becomes suddenly aware of how that watch had begun to number his mortality, 'dividing it up into perfect, unchanging intervals of unfulfilled time for ever and ever'.
His memoir, Out of Place (1999), 'in some fundamental way is all about sleeplessness', about remaining sharply alert and awake for the acts of 'conscious recollection and articulation' that become the substitute for sleep. It is in the music that rises out of this prose, written late into the night, in its deepest plots and structures and in the temporal processes unfolding in it, that one begins to hear the resonances of the music that Said is constantly listening to and writing about while working on the memoir.
It is a life remembered and written through the figures of music. The musical forms crucial for Said are fugal invention, as perfected by Bach and Gould in the Goldberg Variations, and its Romantic development in the theme-and-variation form, unforgettably explored by Alfred Brendel in a Carnegie Hall concert of such pieces that Said had attended and written about in Musical Elaborations.
Fugal invention, for Said, is a form of 'creative repetition and reliving... that devises and revises thoughts against a resilient backdrop of conventions and constraints'. Said is quoting Laurence Dreyfus, but his own pronouncements on memory and repetition, and on the troubled dialectic of freedom and parental control are expressed in a kindred language. This is the story of the 'emergence of a second self buried for...beneath a surface of...the self my parents tried to construct'. In Said's arrangement of illustrations, the 'strictly centralized rigour of polyphony' gives way to music 'opening out', in Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, 'exfoliatively, elaborately, contemplatively'.
Said's narrative of being 'out of place' is structured through a series of displacements and departures, dredging up from within 'a secret but ineradicable fear of not returning', holding up before him 'the intense, repetitious, and predictable sense of banishment that takes you away from all that you know and can take comfort in'. This is the broken arc that Bach's music completes in the Goldberg Variations, as his invention departs from the opening aria, works through its thirty infinitely complicating variations, and then returns to that first aria, which now, in its primal simplicity, both is and is not the same. Similarly, in Barenboim's analysis of the tonal transitions in the opening of the Beethoven Fifth, Said recognizes the shape of the Homeric odyssey: 'a sense of home, going to an unknown territory, and then returning.'
Yet, it is in another recognized structure ' rather absence of structure ' that Said discovers his most liberating form of self-consciousness, the sense of himself as a 'cluster of flowing currents': 'These currents, like the themes of one's life'are always in motion'in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme.' Said is here reliving, hearing again, in the story of his own identity the 'encyclopaedic work of the late style', Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen (1945), itself a tribute to the funeral march in Beethoven's Eroica, and one of the great elegies to the Old Europe devastated by war. Out of the ashes of Strauss's music rises, with all its tragic freedoms and dissonances, the phoenix of modern music, precariously young, but also insuperably old. For Said, this is the music of letting go, yet not letting go.