When Stories Become Super Sonic

by Will Rogers


It’s easy to make cacophony: just stack audio tracks on top of each other in your editing software and click "play."

But it's a different thing, entirely, to make music out of it. Glenn Gould, during his foray into radio production, provides a calculated dose of cacophony in this intro to his radio piece "The Idea of North”, a piece that explores five characters’ perspectives on Northern Canada.

At first, you hold on for the ride, but you quickly realize that letting go is a necessary part of experiencing this piece of radio.

There are two ways to appreciate Gould’s cacophony: as a music of its own, and as a palate-cleanser.

Gould made himself famous as a musician - when he played Bach on the piano, he seemed to enter into another dimension. Watch him play; he honestly looks like he could be communicating with aliens. He was a handsome enigma, and the audience loved him for it. Apparently, he also played his radio interviewees as if they were musical instruments. According to one man (in the 14th of “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould”), he literally conducted him while he told her tales of The North. If you listen to The Idea of North as a musical piece, you can hear it. He’s actively bringing up one voice while fading down the others. Let go of your desire to make sense of anything; Gould is making his own irrational sense of everything for you. Just listen.

For two minutes, he mixes so many voices that your brain can’t handle the content of what everyone is saying: so instead, you hear only the tones-of-voice. The words fall away; they are secondary. The feelings behind them make the music. By taking you to a place where words have less meaning than inflections, Gould pushes speech into the realm of music. He called his voice-stacking technique “contrapunto,” (as in, counterpoint), comparing it to a song with several different melodies blending into each other.

But it’s not for everybody. Some listeners, no matter how hard they try, will be frustrated by Gould’s use of “interviewees-as-musical-instruments.” If this is the case for you, I recommend that you think of the cacophony as a palate cleanser: it prepares you for the journey ahead. The jumble of voices is unlike anything else you’ve ever heard (it’s like a crowd full of people who are alone, each one deep in thought). That will help you get ready to go northward with Gould.

And if you don’t have the time to listen to the entire hour, I recommend that you at least give a listen to the intro. Let Gould’s strong, idiosyncratic hand guide you to a place where introverts are all talking at once; it’s a place of calculated cacophony.

“The Idea of North”
Produced by Glenn Gould in 1967 for CBC radio, Canada
Introduction is 4 minutes; the full piece is 60 minutes; the entire “Solitude Trilogy” is 3 hrs


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