The Solitude Trilogy – Glenn Gould, Shellac and Marnie Stern

Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould

You wouldn’t think that the abrasive and angular music of Shellac would have much to do with Marnie Stern’s music, or that either of them could be linked to one of the most prolific, brilliant, thought provoking and curious concert pianists of the 20th century, but they are. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has influenced generations of pianists, but I don’t think that anyone has ever discussed his influence on artists outside of the concert hall.

Gould was a Canadian pianist, born in 1932. Even those with just a passing knowledge of his work are at least somewhat familiar with at least one of his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Those recordings work like the bookends of his recording career. When he was first given a record contract he decided that the then seldom heard, obscure Bach piece would become his debut recording. That was in 1955. Some 26 years later his re-recording of the same piece would lead to heated debates in the music community for decades. Those two recordings only give a tiny bit of insight into the way that Gould’s mind worked. He was constantly deep in thought and concerned about his role in the interpretation of the works that he performed. Without a doubt the man was a genius.

Not only was he obsessively driven toward pushing himself, he was intensely interested in pushing the bounds of how music could be realized in the age of new recording technologies. Gould would often remark that the state of recorded music (keep in mind when he was alive, from 1932 to 1982) would not only allow musicians to push the bounds of music, but that people at home would soon be able to create and modify those recordings through their own “knob twiddlings.” Of course he was talking about the way that music could be manipulated on home stereos via various volume, balance and equalizer controls.

It was his contemplations on the effect that the recording studio would have on music that drove him to be one of the first true “recording artists.” In documentaries such as The Alchemist viewers can watch as Gould endlessly annoys the recording engineer, constantly telling him where to cut the tape while referring to the score. Gould’s score had indications for not only the usual dynamics and articulations, but also indications of where the sound would be. Would part of the score sound distant and reverberant while another sounded more up front? How would those things be able to work together. Gould was truly able to use the recording studio not to simply preserve his performances,  but also as an extension of his abilities as a pianist and musical mind.

Gould was not only interested in recording the works of Bach, Webern, Scriabin and others, but he was also interested in composition. His compositions came in the form of a 3 part “contrapuntal radio documentary” called the Solitude Trilogy. “The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” explored Gould’s interest in the northernmost part of Canada, which reflected his own comfort in solitude and singularity.

Shellac. Steve Albin, Todd Trainer, Bob Weston.
Shellac. Steve Albin, Todd Trainer, Bob Weston.

When Steve Albini says that Shellac only writes songs about two things “Canada and baseball” it could very well be true, most notably in the song “The Idea of North.” This one is kind of obvious, being that the song takes its name directly from Gould’s radio documentary. Perhaps the same desolate mood of isolation and prohibitive environs that Gould explores in his documentary are interpreted by Shellac in the opening of their song. The sparse, spacious bass line invites listeners to consider the ambience that surrounds it. Perhaps Albini’s vocals that near complete obfuscation are meant to evoke the image of someone thinking outloud (barely) to themselves as a representation of the inquisitive, often self-obsessed way that Gould would.

The Idea Of North

Marnie Stern
Marnie Stern


On the other hand we have Marnie Stern, with her song “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,”takes the idea of Gould’s radio documentaries a bit further. In this song Marnie creates a tone poem of sorts where after narrating the actions of characters those actions are then assigned an idiosyncratic sound or motive. She begins by explaining “I will paint you a picture that’s inside my head.” Following that introduction she begins to describe that you are now standing in a room while “around you is a solitude trilogy,” and a bit later “you sit down and start to think of ideas of the North,” which is followed by it’s sound that is a chromatically ascending line. After the narration is complete and the scene has been set she begins to place the motives on top of one another, creating a contrapuntal sound collage much in the same way that Gould did with his intercut ambient sounds and multiple interviews at once. In this way Marnie is creating a bit of a miniature homage to Gould’s radio broadcasts.

Patterns of a Diamon Ceiling

We can now see how these two artists have made their influence blatant, but it still remains to be seen why they chose to do so. What is the deeper connection between Gould and his work and that of Marnie Stern and Albini and Co.?

Gould’s singular personality broke down a lot of the barriers that existed between classical music and popular music in his day. He was famously quirky and thoroughly interesting, not to mention self-aware. He knew that people were sometimes more interested in the spectacle of Glenn Gould, the character that was Glenn Gould perhaps more so than they were interested in the performances of the man himself.

Glenn Gould was punk rock before punk rock was punk rock. He did things his way and he couldn’t possibly care less what people thought of that. He knew that he was brilliant enough to do his own thing, to do things his way, and not to let anyone else dictate to him how his art should be presented. He was obsessed with his own perfection and never stopped wondering how he could better express himself. This much is clear simply by listening to (as mentioned up a few paragraphs) his two renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He didn’t just perform and record a piece to leave it behind. No, those pieces, everything that he played, stayed with him and he was constantly thinking about them and learning to think about them in new ways.

This sort of work ethic and perfection is mentioned several times by Marnie Stern across all 4 of her albums. Obsession and a focus on her passion are a consistent theme in Marnie’s lyrics.  In “Grapefruit” the lyric “keep on keep at it, keep on, keep at it” is repeated like a mantra. On her most recent album “The Chronicles of Marnia” in the song “You Don’t Turn Down” she states, nearly a cappella that she’s “Got to get obsessed and stay there now.” “Keep on, keep at it, keep on, keep at it” from “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!!” cover these themes in both its lyric and the song’s very title.

I think that Shellac’s awareness that they are a band unlike any other band around today, and that they staunchly disassociate themselves from the music industry as much as they can, supporting Touch and Go since the begining. And I think that this anti-industry stance is pretty well known because of Steve Albini’s famous tome against the corporate music world. In addition to all of this It seems that they relate more to Gould’s overall attitude, whereas Marnie Stern relates more to his obsessive desire to improve.

I’m sure that there must be other examples of Glenn Gould’s influence, even in slightly more indirect ways, can be found throughout independent rock music. It’s clear that, as Alban Berg famously said to George Gershwin, “…music is music.” It doesn’t matter how it is classified or how it is created, and perhaps the clearly constructed borders between genres that one imagines are in fact not there at all.


For more information on the life of Glenn Gould, and to hear the entire Solitary Trilogy follow these links:

The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” can all be heard in their entirety at the CBC’s site as part of their legacy audio collection. “The Idea of the North” was commissioned by the CBC as a way of introduction for themselves and have become a large and important part of Canadian culture, just like the man himself.

There are several books on the life of Glenn Gould. The first “biography” written about him was less of a biography and more a study of what made Gould the genius that he was. His habits, his practices, how he thought about music. It’s by Geoffrey Payzant and is called “Glenn Gould: Music and Mind

There is also Ott Friedrich’s “A Life and Variations” and Peter F. Ostwald’s “Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius.

You should also check out the documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon called “The Alchemist.” He actually did a whole series of documentaries about Gould, but this one is my favorite for showing Gould at work in the studio after he had permanently left the concertizing life to focus on his recording career.

Finally, my favorite movie of all time “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.” It mixes interviews with Gould’s contemporaries alongside vignettes depicting his life. Colm Feore does an incredible job at portraying Glenn Gould.