The idea of North: a musician investigates social distance

Glenn Gould is perhaps best known for recording keyboard works by Bach, and in particular the Goldberg Variations – first in 1955 and again in 1981. In the recordings, the Canadian pianist can be heard humming along to melodies.


He plays in an articulate, dry style, without use of the sustain pedal. It's eccentric playing, but the recordings show his fascination with the notes themselves and their counterpoint – how melodic lines are combined in a harmonious texture. Compared with other recordings of the pieces, Glenn Gould's Goldbergs are outsiders, isolated from the tools and techniques of piano playing that evolved through the previous century.

As well as recording Bach (and, notably, keyboard music by Mozart, Brahms and Schoenberg – all contrapuntalists in their way), he produced a trio of radio documentaries, the Solitude Trilogy, where he explores the experience of being an outsider in the physical world.

'The Idea of North' is the first of the three documentaries, originally broadcast in 1967 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It uses interviews with five people living in the far north of Canada: a nurse, a surveyor, a civil servant, an anthropologist and a sociologist. They each offer a perspective on how the idea of living the arctic differs from the reality of it, and themes that emerge are of isolation and loneliness, but also how in moving away from it all, people can find themselves more connected to communities and social systems than they did in the city.

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An arctic land train, 54-wheel drive. They did things differently in the 50s.

Glenn Gould breaks apart and combines the interviews in a collage, spliced with sounds of trains passing. His aim was for the documentary to have a contrapuntal texture, rather than a straightforward narrative, and the strands come together as the documentary ends with a clip from Herbert von Karajan's recording of Sibelius' Fifth Sysmphony.

'I've long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I've read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I've had no real experience of the North. I've remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid. This programme, however, brings together some remarkable people who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada, who've lived and worked there and in whose lives the North has played a very vital role.' Glenn Gould


Watch the LSO's YouTube broadcast of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony on Sunday 29th March, recorded in 2018 with Sir Simon Rattle.

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