I wanted to mark Canada Day by listening to something uniquely Canadian.
I settled on one of the more curious and obscure items on my CD shelf — and something more definitively Canadian than most any pop or rock album I could think of.
Between 1967 and 1977, the great classical pianist Glenn Gould produced a series of three one-hour sound collages for CBC Radio, collectively referred to as the Solitude Trilogy and since reissued as a 3-CD set by the CBC.
- The Idea of North (1967) features the voices of people who have lived in Canada’s less populated northern territories, loosely tied together by the concept of a train journey to a remote northern outpost.
- The Latecomers (1969) features more voices talking about social changes in Newfoundland.
- The Quiet in the Land (1977) depicts life in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, and social pressures thereon.
There is very little music in the series. For the most part, each piece consists of overlapping spoken textures, as different personalities chosen by Gould step forward for some cogent or relevant comment. Don’t be too put off by the word “overlapping,” though: Most of the “solo” voices are clearly audible, and only from time to time does the chatter interlock.
Sound effects contribute to the atmosphere, as well. The rise and fall of the ocean is an inescapable part of The Latecomers, as presumably it is an inescapable part of daily life on the island of Newfoundland.
(If I correctly remember something I once read, the end of The Latecomers is produced on the stereo spectrum to give the impression that the final speaker has reached the edge of the island and is walking into the sea. CBC engineer Lorne Tulk worked closely with Gould on these collages, and deserves credit for what must have been some very challenging splicing and production work — especially in the days before digital editing tools.)
I did a fair amount of driving today, to one place or another, and managed to get through The Idea of North and The Latecomers.
I didn’t do it justice by listening in my car. These pieces are best experienced through headphones with your eyes closed, or in front of your stereo’s speakers with the phone turned off and nothing else to interrupt. (Yeah, I know how often that happens.)
Being a literalist, I had to get past the urge to judge the Solitude Trilogy as documentary — a purpose for which it was almost certainly not constructed.
Most of the voices sound like Gould’s — middle-class, male, well-educated and thoughtful in cadence. (Gould makes an appearance in The Idea of North, reading an introduction that alternates between overwritten and dryly funny.)
In The Latecomers, we hear lengthy discussions by well-spoken Caucasian males about conditions among the Eskimo people.
I had to beat back the recurring urge to ask where the Eskimos were — or, for that matter, where the women were; men outnumber women in Gould’s world by roughly five to one. (The woman who appears in The Idea of North is among my favorite speakers; the woman in The Latecomers sounds kind of bitter and annoying.)
But pure sound and atmosphere matter here more than content. Gould is not lobbying for more government money to be spent on the Eskimos; he is creating a kind of echo chamber where people discuss their role in the often-romanticized Canadian North.
And even to call it a “discussion” is kind of wrong. The interviews in the Solitude Trilogy are not group roundtables; they were conducted alone, one by one, by Gould. All these people who seem to be bouncing off each other are alone, just as Gould was, and just as we are. We could well be listening to the inside of Gould’s brain as he mentally processes his series of interviews, hearing one voice, then another.
The Solitude Trilogy is not easy listening. It’s not frequent listening — I don’t remember the last time I took out my copy. And if you don’t particularly care about either Canada or the different flavours of solitude, you won’t be interested.
It is a trip all its own, though … a thought-provoking experience from the mind of a fascinating creative individual.
I dream of visiting the Canadian Maritimes someday — preferably by myself, though I know that’s a pipe dream for a married man with two kids.
If I ever get there, it won’t be Neil Young or Rush or the Tragically Hip playing on the CD in the rental car. It will be The Latecomers.
And every so often I’ll pull over to the side of the road, and let the real-life sea replace Gould’s tape-recorded 1969 sea. And I’ll just think, to myself, for a while.