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Glenn Gould & Steve Jobs

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“It’s the like spirit being made flesh …” -Apple University Joshua Cohen, on Glenn Gould turning his musical aspirations into reality: the two recordings of the Goldberg Variations

Paul Thomas, Program Director of The New Classical FM, speaks with Joshua Cohen, Professor at Apple University, about the importance of Glenn Gould to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and why Apple students are required to learn about Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

PT: First of all, can you tell about the connection between Glenn Gould and Steve Jobs of Apple?
JC: Two points: first I decided to do this presentation at Apple on Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, before I knew Steve Jobs had any interest in Glenn Gould. I was doing presentations in a series called “Best Things” and I thought Glenn Gould’s musical performances – in particular, his recordings of the Goldberg Variations – belonged in that exalted category of “best things” … so that’s the first.
The second thing: I discovered Steve Jobs had an interest in Glenn Gould. Two observations: Apple had this product called “Ping” – long since bit the dust. Ping was a social connection to music and iTunes – people had a Ping page of musical preferences. When Steve Jobs launched the product, he had a Ping page with some info about him and images of 10 favourite album covers. One of them was Glenn Gould’s recording of both Goldberg Variations, 1955 and 1981. Second observation: in the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, there’s a description of my visit with Steve Jobs when he’s at home, close to his passing. I arrive and Steve Jobs is listening on his iPad to the two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, flipping back and forth between them, and talking about his views on them.
So he had an interest in Glenn Gould but I guess you’re asking not about Steve Jobs’ interest in Glenn Gould, but if there is a connection between the kind of people they were?

PT: Yeah, there seems to be a kind of Apple aesthetic, an Apple philosophy, and you teach this program, am I correct, as part of Apple University?
JC: I teach this course the GG seminar as part of a series of seminars “Best Things” … i.e., The design of Central Park … A seminar on the discovery of the Higgs particle … The Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations is part of the seminars in that series.

PT: So how does the seminar specifically on Glenn Gould apply to the thinking that Apple University is trying to develop? How is talking about G.G. and him being the best version of the Goldberg Variations – how does that apply? What do you get into, with the course?
JC: There are a bunch of qualities Glenn Gould exemplified – in a broad sense, making a great product, doing great things. One quality is he had a very large and ethical aspiration for musical performance. He felt that great music performance aims for the experience of ecstasy, an experience that puts people at some distance from the world … a completely enveloping and absorbing experience that keeps the world at a distance. I think he had an intense concern to bring that experience of ecstasy to people… a kind of moral conviction he had, out of respect for other people. It was important to deliver that great experience of ecstasy to them. Another quality is he understood in a powerful way it wasn’t enough to have some ambitious aspiration. You had to really make that aspiration come alive in the details; in his case, the very fine details of the musical performance. He had a very deep connection between the details of the “product”, in this case, a musical performance.

In the seminar for Central Park there’s a line I mention from one of the designers of Central Park, a British architect named Calvert Vaux. He said, “the point of Central Park is to translate democratic ideas into trees and dirt.” I think in the case of Glenn Gould the theme is to translate an ecstatic experience via the very fine details of the musical performance. We discuss these ethical aspirations and the execution of those large aspirations in the minutest detail, obsessing over them, to make sure you get them right.

PT: It’s interesting hearing you talk about Glenn Gould this way because I think often we – Glenn Gould is everywhere here in Toronto – turn him into a bit of a caricature – we think about his chair, his hunched over posture, we forget everything else that he brought as an artist to the table. We revere him as an excellent pianist, but the passion that you have spoken of, his idea of getting people to that same plane that he was on, in terms of euphoria and experiencing the music, it’s easy to hear how this could be a motivational story and apply it to so many different fields.
JC: I’ve had this conversation where I’ve told people “I’m doing this presentation on Glenn Gould, and the recordings of the Goldberg Variations,” and they’ll ask, “Is it about the humming?” and you know, first of all I don’t mind the humming …”
(PT interjects) “I like it. It’s part of the charm.”
JC: “Me too. It’s part of the charm. It’s easy to be distracted by the quirkiness …the gloves, hats, overcoats, the hypochondria, etc. But it’s part of the charm and a way “into” the subject, and what’s really fundamental about the subject is that idea of having such an incredibly large and important aspiration behind putting some great thing out in front of people. And not only having that aspiration but going through the incredible and extraordinary effort of putting these gifts to use and delivering on that aspiration. The finest details of the performance – it’s like the spirit being made flesh. Making that sense of purpose come alive in the product, in the musical performance.

PT: It sounds like it’s going to be a fantastic presentation here in Toronto … it sounds like we have plenty of fans who will show up and eagerly take it all in. I wish you all the best and good luck here in Toronto!
JC: Thank you very much – good to talk.

PT: Joshua, it’s been good talking to you.

Get tickets to attend Gould’s Variations and the Human Qualities that Foster Remarkable Creativity with Apple University’s Prof. Joshua Cohen here: glenngould.ca

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