Glenn Gould and the case for moral rights in sound recordings

4 October is a calendar date that has a resonance with many pianists.  In this guest post, Katfriend Mira T. Sundara Rajan -- herself a concert pianist -- has something special to say about one of the most gifted musicians of our generation and an interesting issue in moral rights. This is what she writes:
Today is the 33rd anniversary of the death of Glenn Gould – Canadian pianist and musician extraordinaire, who died in 1982, at the premature age of fifty. One month before he died, Gould completed re-recording the work that had first made him famous, the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach. But to say that he revisited an old work in that final recording seems curiously imprecise. The second recording was so utterly novel, so completely reimagined from his first, spectacular, and universally admired, 1955 version of the work that, in its own way, it qualified as a new undertaking. Amazingly, the second Goldberg managed to fascinate and captivate just as fully as the original recording did, but in a completely different way. It holds the work together with what Gould called “a sense of pulse,” and further bolsters Gould’s already stellar reputation as an artist of almost cosmic significance.

In the three decades that intervened between the two recordings, Gould developed what may have been the most remarkable career in the history of Western classical music. He hated live performance. At the age of 32, he decided to live life as he wanted to, and undertook the dramatic and unprecedented step of retiring permanently from the stage. He was warned against doing so by his manager, the legendary Walter Homburger, who told him that audiences were fickle and, once gone, he might never be able to come back. But Gould had a plan – to maintain his presence in the world of classical music through recordings – and proceeded to carry out this feat with extraordinary efficiency and effectiveness.

The secret of Gould’s success was arguably very simple: it lay in the quality of his recordings.  Gould approached recording as no artist had previously done. For him, the goal of recording was not to reproduce his own live performance; rather, it was to create a new, unique work, one that could only have been born in the studio.  Live performances were one-off affairs and, if something went wrong, if anything were different from what the artist truly desired, nothing could be done. The failure was complete – a fatality. He called it the “non-take-twoness” of performance. In contrast, the recording studio represented control – supreme, undeniable, artistic control – the ability not so much to excise and avert mistakes (not an issue for Gould) but to re-think and re-conceptualize every instant of a musical interpretation, to exercise creative control over nearly every dimension of the final musical form.

He learned about the recording process, was fascinated by it, and attempted to use the technologies of recording to serve his vision of a more perfect work of art. His long-time producer, Andrew Kazdin, wrote a fascinating, if at times bitter, account of the 15 years during which he worked with Gould as his regular producer. As Kazdin tells it, Gould would play many interpretations of his pieces for the microphone before he chose his definitive versions, or constructed them out of pieces of each of his own, perfect takes. Any artist who has worked in the studio can attest to the extraordinary stamina, skill, and concentration that Gould’s recording process must have demanded.

Gould loved technology in all its dimensions, admiring Bach as played on the Moog synthesizer, and arguing that the “new listener” of the future would enjoy music by playing it on a sound system that would enable him, or her, to exercise new kinds of manipulation and control. Technology would allow the listener of the future to intervene creatively in the sound, and to take an active part in generating his or her own artistic experience. Ancient Sanskrit thinkers already knew that the human brain, itself, accomplishes this very goal through its experience – individual, shared and transcendent –  of musical consciousness. They called the shared artistic experience rasa, and he or she who enjoys art as creatively as the maker makes it, the rasika. Gould’s vision of technology seems almost spiritualized. By a paradox, the man who sought to efface his presence from the concert stage by physically removing himself from it, managed to achieve an almost limitless expansion of personality through his recordings.

Recording technology is a fast-growing field, and the changes, even since Gould’s latter days, are tremendous. Yet there is still no other artist like Gould – no classical musician, in particular, who has embraced the possibilities of technology for an “alternative” career to the traditional path of exhausting competitions, Carnegie Hall debuts, and concert tours... The goal of classical music production generally remains the re-creation of an idealized version of the concert-hall experience for the listener at home.

Interest in Gould has grown phenomenally since his death. Since the 1980s, there has been an outpouring of work on Gould – but the true explosion of interest in him has taken flight in the internet age. Much of this interest surrounds Gould “the man,” rather than, primarily, the musician. Gould was known for his eccentricities – his solitary lifestyle, late-night phone calls, humorous alter egos, obsessive privacy, terror of illness, and compulsive hand-soaking in hot water, to name only a few of his special “characteristics.” In recent years, Gould’s psychological health has been probed in books, and the secrets of his love life revealed – apparently with the understandable desire to settle public speculation – by his long-time companion.

But his music, of course, cannot fail to command attention. In the post-Gould era, recordings of Gould’s playing have proliferated. His original label, CBS Masterworks, was acquired by Sony in 1987, and Sony Classical has remastered and re-released the original recordings. New CDs have also been issued: works that Gould performed but never made into definitive recordings are now available. Throughout most of his life, Gould was not only charismatic, but handsome and photogenic, and his recordings are frequently issued with covers, or even booklets, featuring striking photos. New video footage of his performances is available. Indeed, there is now such a wealth of recorded matter featuring Glenn Gould on the market that even seasoned aficionados of Gould’s playing would be hard-pressed to identify everything.

To what extent do these recordings represent the versions originally made, with Gould working alongside his producer? What is the effect of re-mastering, and has it faithfully preserved the defining qualities of the original sound? What would Gould think of the variety of other matter, including live recordings, that is now available? ...What would he think of something like the Zenph company’s attempts to re-create the original sound of his playing through sophisticated software that takes into account his every movement and gesture, and “re-performs” it, eerily, on a piano that plays itself?

We can look at it both ways. It’s new technology – Gould would have loved it. And he surely would have loved, and been awed by, the amazing growth of the world’s interest in him and, above all, in his music – to be reaching listeners around the globe through new technology.

But, at the same time, there is no question that Gould loved his recordings, and there can be no doubt about the dedication that he brought to the process of creating them. He exercised control, as completely and comprehensively as he could, to make them works of art. Now, they are awash in a virtual universe of matter and material, afloat on an ocean of works both by and about him. What would he think of an environment where his original creations are becoming increasingly difficult to identify,  and where his recordings are interspersed with works not “made” by him, in this broader sense – although his playing appears in them? And what about those who worked with Gould, including Mr. Kazdin; how would they see these developments?

On September 11, 2015, Sony Classical officially released a remastered set of Gould’s “complete recordings.” The set of 81 CDs is accompanied by a 416 page book. Sony’s website for the project is available at “,” and it notes:
 “The first generation of Goulds’ [sic] recordings were [sic] available on magnetic tape in the Columbia archives, permitting us to ensure maximum sonic authenticity by applying the high-resolution Direct Stream Digital procedure (DSD). Moreover, in one of the most lavish remastering projects of all time, the listening conditions in the studio were so elaborate that the recordings could be heard there with less distortion and greater clarity than Gould himself was accustomed to when listening to his takes.”
These amazing developments raise fascinating questions about the art and artistry of musicians in the digital age. While there are few clear answers, there is an interesting legal dimension that could potentially help to clarify readers’ thoughts. In recent times, the law has come to recognize a moral right of integrity for musical performers. Performers’ moral rights made their first appearance in the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty of 2002 (Article 5; provision first drafted in 1996). However, the right applies to performances; it does not recognize the unique features of a recorded performance, particularly in the sense in which Gould, and his producers, might have understood the term. At the same time, there is no moral right in sound recordings per se. Where a legacy as important as Gould’s is concerned, it is interesting to wonder whether there might be a new and valuable role for the moral right of integrity in the new world of recorded sound – a concept of integrity in recorded music that is totally novel, and adapted to the needs of the technological age (here and here).

If the time ever comes when it is difficult to find Gould’s “original” recordings, there is one place where we know that we can look: the spacecraft Voyager, where at least one of them, his Prelude and Fugue in C Major from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” (Book II), remains, for the time being, safely stowed. It is hurtling away from us through interstellar space, at unimaginable speed and already at an unimaginable distance, but it is there – as close to forever as anywhere can be.
Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations recordings here.
Glenn Gould and the case for moral rights in sound recordings Glenn Gould and the case for moral rights in sound recordings Reviewed by Jeremy on Sunday, October 04, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. Mira

    In addition to a great copyright discussion, you encouraged me to listen to both of Gould's recordings of the Goldberg Variations in chronological order, some that I had never done before.

  2. Thanks Jeremy!

    Still, my favourite recordings of Gould are the ones of Byrd and Gibbons ...

  3. Many thanks to Mira Rajan and IPKat for this fascinating piece. There are useful, if limited, analogies in photography regarding the rendering of a negative or manipulation of a raw image file.

    While Gould was precise and purist in pursuit of his own music-making, he was no music snob, which I think is proved by his humorous a cappella pieces. So I think he'd welcome the popularisation of his performances. Some perhaps should be left in the archives, but it's right - and wonderful - that we the public can make our own choices.

  4. Thank you, Jeremy, for giving space to this thoughtful writeup! However, most links are dead.

    Professor Sundara Rajan points to important issues, and the following description of the technical situation might contribute to the context.

    The whole concept of recording and reproduction of sound has baffled everyone ever since its inception. The most powerful (but erroneous) feeling is that the process is fully transparent and that listening to a recording is witnessing a performance. First of all, the physical object, the recording, is absolutely nothing without the apparatus it has to interact with. This apparatus creates the stream of sound. A carrier has to move with respect to a reading head. In digital, nothing needs to move, it may be simply an algorithm reading a table and converting each entry into a voltage, which is amplified and taken to a loudspeaker.

    The point is that what we are hearing is the stream that is coming from the loudspeaker. Mostly we cannot determine if it is a direct replica of a stream of sound that has truly existed, or whether it is a composite. This means that the art lies in the final loudspeaker presentation. That is now the performance. Provided the loudspeaker, room, and audience are the same when the record is reproduced again, then the performance is repeated. Otherwise it is different.

    From reading what Glenn Gould himself has written, I believe he was fully aware of this situation, but since he himself deviated so much from the “witnessing” approach to recording and reproduction and made “ideal” composites, it is difficult to believe that he would be against modern manipulations of his work. But he never went as far as the composer Conlon Nancarrow who punched player piano rolls manually in order to create tone clusters comprising more than ten fingers.

    Two important technical matters: it appears that Zenph works solely on the sound that was caught on the record and does not take any “movement and gesture” into account, except as they are reflected in the original sound. What you get is a second recording, using a different piano, music room, and microphone setup. It is not obvious that a pianist would play that room and that piano exactly the same as he did when the first recording was made and/or composited.

    Concerning the Sony Classical reissue it is quite clear from the description that they did not avail themselves of the “Plangent Processes” (R) that is able to provide a sound that is clearer and better defined than mere reproduction of the master tapes. It may create an unfamiliar clarity that does not go down well with an audience who has grown used to the original records.

    George Brock-Nannestad

  5. For anyone interested, the 1981 recording may be found here:

    One can't help wondering whether he's about to play a third contrapuntal line with his nose. And the better is your replay equipment, the more obtrusive becomes Gould's notorious moaning along, which was the despair of his producers.

  6. Thank you for this brilliant and, for me, personally enlightening, post, Jeremy. I am currently falling in love with Glenn Gould and praise you for the tip. As a theatre-based copyright person, I am very much interested in the distinctions we draw between "recorded," "live," and "public" performances. Gould takes us to the heart: I am watching right now a recording of a 1970 performance of the "Emperor" concerto which was "live" (even "impromptu/improvisational") but not "public." It seems that Gould's progress was from live public through live private to studio-mastered. What a wonderful framework to examine some of the issues that interest me!


All comments must be moderated by a member of the IPKat team before they appear on the blog. Comments will not be allowed if the contravene the IPKat policy that readers' comments should not be obscene or defamatory; they should not consist of ad hominem attacks on members of the blog team or other comment-posters and they should make a constructive contribution to the discussion of the post on which they purport to comment.

It is also the IPKat policy that comments should not be made completely anonymously, and users should use a consistent name or pseudonym (which should not itself be defamatory or obscene, or that of another real person), either in the "identity" field, or at the beginning of the comment. Current practice is to, however, allow a limited number of comments that contravene this policy, provided that the comment has a high degree of relevance and the comment chain does not become too difficult to follow.

Learn more here:

Powered by Blogger.