Glenn Gould: Inventor of “User Rights”?

Kat friend, Professor Mira T. Sundara Rajan, offers a fascinating argument to view the legendary pianist Glenn Gould as the progenitor of “user rights” in the creative industries.

In 1966, a Canadian musician and a BBC television host sat down together to talk about, among other things, the future of music performance. Humphrey Burton’s admiration for his guest’s talent is almost palpable, but it is clear from the outset that the two hold dramatically different views on this question.

“Why so much love for recording?” Burton asks.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the musician replies: “Because it’s the future. It’s the future for performing music. It’s the future for writing music. It’s the future for listening to music. All of our futures in music are involved in recording. It’s as simple as that – and as complicated as that.”

“The concert hall as we know it is – is –“

“Is dead.”

The musician is Glenn Gould, who, at the time of this interview, had already given up live performance for two years. What is often overlooked is how risky this decision actually was. With hindsight, Gould’s tremendous celebrity and the proven longevity of his fame make his chosen career path seem almost inevitable. But his choices were controversial, even radical, and they took vision and enormous courage. Giving up performance could have meant the end of a career. No musician before had ever severed ties so definitively with live performance. Even more tellingly, no musician since has done so either.

In this interview, Gould explains that, in his view, the future of music depends on a growing level of audience engagement, made possible, crucially, through technology:
I think that we’re in a moment of transition in music right now…I think it concerns the way in which music is being listened to….In fact, we have to consider the listener as what he is, the ultimate end of our objectives in making music. I think that the listener …has realized this, that he can throw his weight around, the very great power that has been given to him. …It’s the power of making decisions that are… incorporated into the performance and into the composition of music….

[T]he listener today, sitting at home behind his stereophonic dials, which are primitive dials when you compare them to what is going to happen 10 years from now, even, … is making …interpretive decisions. He is deciding on balances, he is deciding on the things that conductors decide upon…[H]e is deciding about the clarity that he wants the sound to have…[H]e is supplanting or supplementing the decisions that I as a performer make…You may very well say to me, well, is the listener qualified to do this…. I hold that not only is he qualified, or can he become so qualified, through the erudition that is available today everywhere through recording catalogues, and simply through listening experience, but that indeed he must become so. This is his role, this is his future.
More than a half-century after this interview, Gould’s provocative statements appear prescient. Just as importantly, they remain provocative.

The era of potential listener engagement that Gould foresaw – or, more precisely, that he saw dawning – has arrived. With digital recording, the possibilities of manipulating sound files through technology have become ever more sophisticated. The technology for altering musical recordings to suit musical tastes and needs is highly accessible.

Similar phenomena have infused every area of art and culture: from literature to the fine arts, from text to image, technology has made it possible to find, use, re-use, recreate, and disseminate the results of those experiments around the world. And yet, technology has not yet made the concert hall obsolete, as Gould suggested that it would. Instead, technology and live performance continue to co-exist.

New technologies have generated vast quantities of new materials, some of them more creative than others. Among artists as well as those more broadly interested in copyright law, a sense that these changes present immense challenges to authorial control, and, thereby, to the prerogatives of ownership, coexists with an opposing awareness of expanded creative possibilities. Not only may it be impossible to resist technology, but it may also be undesirable to do so.

These new technological possibilities, and the polarization that they have generated in the world of copyright, have led to the development of a new term of art: user rights. Users’ rights aim to counterbalance the power of owners’ rights within the existing framework of copyright law. They seek to acknowledge the creative potential of the public, while also recognizing as inevitable, natural, and even desirable, the drive of the public to engage with technology.

User rights are considered a relatively recent innovation in copyright law. The Gould interview, and countless other writings and interviews by the pianist, suggest that he should be credited as one of the originators of this concept as it arose, first and foremost, in the creative arts.

In the copyright community, the idea of user rights reflects a wider concern about potentially excessive copyright protection. User rights advocates argue that exaggerated copyright rules impose unfair limits on the creative re-use of pre-existing works. Loosening copyright restrictions and favoring user rights, it is said, can support creativity and culture by allowing creators free reign to develop new creations out of the body of existing human knowledge.

However, legal reasoning on these issues often reflects the polarization of policy debates, and can lead advocates of user rights to overstate their case. User rights are no panacea for copyright’s ills; they alone cannot offer adequate recognition for human creativity, nor is there any need to claim that they can. Instead, user rights can and should work together with authors’ rights to support a sustainable environment for creativity. Both positions deserve to be treated with greater nuance.

Creativity permeates human culture – it is amazingly persistent – and, in the technological environment, people are likely to find themselves playing different roles in the creative process at different points in time. The same individual may, in one situation, be the “user” of a copyright work but, in another instance, find himself or herself creating a new work, or playing the more traditional role of audience or simple observer.

This democratization of the creative process is immensely valuable from a social point of view. It implies the possibility of a new understanding among those involved in the creative arts by enabling the recognition of shared interests and, indeed, values. In each situation, the individual’s experience, and his or her needs in relation to copyright, will shift.

Moreover, an individual may also play multiple roles within a single aesthetic experience. Glenn Gould brought his faculties of composition and listening into play when he worked on his recordings of Bach. The results of his recording process reflect the merging of all three identities – composer, performer, and listener – in a single work.

But Glenn Gould’s idea of “user rights” presents us with an interesting paradox. The pianist focused on recording as his sole method of musical communication. Much has been made of his technical expertise in this area; perhaps more importantly, the aesthetic control that he exercised over his recordings was more or less absolute.

As is made clear by the extensive accounts of witnesses, including his musical collaborators and producers, Gould’s process of recording involved staggering feats of musicianship. He could and did commit multiple, flawless versions of music to tape, reflecting diverse approaches to musical interpretation. This ultimately allowed him to select and combine the musical ideas that worked most effectively together, in his judgement, from across a range of recorded materials.

Each of Gould’s recordings was the outcome of an extraordinary process. Now, countless unauthorized recordings of his performances have been released – unauthorized in the precise sense that they were not personally prepared or approved for release by the pianist himself. These releases even include five hours of outtakes from the first, 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that catapulted him to worldwide fame. As Howard Scott, the producer of that recording, commented in a 2004 interview:
If Glenn knew Sony Classical was going to release those outtakes, which he rejected… he would probably come down and shoot anybody who allowed them to be released.
How can this intense desire for control be reconciled with the democratic idealism with which Gould welcomes his “new listener” – the person who has all the means necessary at his or her disposal to intervene in Gould’s painstaking work, reexamining, re-thinking, experimenting with and even recreating the pianist’s original creation? Perhaps the key is to be found in Gould’s own comments, as the interview with Humphrey Burton continues: …
What happened in the eighteenth century, when performers stopped being composers, was a great disaster for music….[T]o look at it today as an irrevocable move, and to say that…we cannot in fact get back to that glorious time when performers had a composer’s insight into music, and when an audience…consisted largely of people who performed and composed for themselves –[to say] that we cannot get back to that, is simply to say that music is finished.
User rights, then – at least as imagined by Glenn Gould – involve, not only the freedom to intervene, but musical interest, knowledge, and creative intent. All of these can be acquired by the listener, once again, by one crucial means: “listening experience.” User rights are also user privileges.

Perhaps, Gould’s reflection on listeners’ rights and prerogatives can be turned back upon himself as performer. Performers’ rights, too, might then involve performers’, or creators’, privileges and obligations. Based on the evidence afforded by his recordings, Gould clearly felt a strong imperative to offer what he saw as the best of himself to his listeners.

Once Gould had given what he had to give, he was prepared to receive the best of what his listeners could, symbolically at least, return to him: their creative engagement with his work. To him, their engagement made his music come alive. It is fascinating that he saw this being enabled anew by technology.

But, the outtakes? Unruly bits of notes or text, from his point of view, uncurated and unexamined by their performer, the raw materials of his craft. To give those materials to the public, at least in the form of artistic testaments, was something that he might have seen as creatively deficient – and, potentially, the listeners’ casual manipulation of those raw materials as unfair to both artist and art.

Since Gould is no longer here to comment, little more can be done than to speculate. The pianist’s rich legacy of recordings, musical and otherwise, can help us to understand his pioneering ideas, and give us glimpses of his remarkable inner world.

Gould died at the early of age of 50, in 1982. If he had lived into our technological era, he would undoubtedly have had his own, compelling and highly original vision for music in this new environment. He would probably have found new ways to surprise, delight, and provoke his audiences. We can only imagine.

Picture on upper right by Don Hunstein/Glenn Guld Foundation and is published by courtesty of the author.

Picture on left is in the public domain.

Picture on lower right by Lars Frantzen and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Glenn Gould: Inventor of “User Rights”? Glenn Gould: Inventor of “User Rights”?   Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, October 07, 2020 Rating: 5

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