by Matt Finch

Is a library just a machine for communities to make knowledge? From books to 3D printers, telescopes, or musical instruments, today’s institutions host collections and programs which inspire and empower people to create their own understanding and their own responses to the universe of knowledge, culture, and experience.

Putting so much computing and communication power in the hands of ordinary people has shaped the role of knowledge organisations, but libraries of practical and even artistic research tools long predate the advent of today’s digital technology.

That’s why you need to hear the story of CD 318.

*

The eccentric pianist and broadcaster Glenn Gould remains one of the iconic figures of his native Canada. Renowned as an interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music, Gould was a spiky soul whose life zigged and zagged: a concert musician who retired from live performance at just thirty-one years old; a recluse who was nonetheless a prolific broadcaster; a figure whose international fame spilled far beyond that which one might expect for a classical musician.

One of the ways in which Gould’s eccentricity manifested itself was the fuss he made over the action of his piano keys and his sitting position at the instrument. Perched in a distinctive hunch on a chair specially constructed by his father, Gould developed a special attachment to one piano which seemed perfect and “translucent” to him: Steinway CD 318, built in New York in 1943.

Gould discovered his ideal instrument in January 1960, at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium. From that date on, the piano was routinely shipped between Toronto and New York for use in concerts and recordings, and was Gould’s instrument of choice for virtually all of his Columbia recordings. 

One of Steinway’s most demanding clients, Gould made adjustments beyond factory specifications, always seeking the perfect action of the keys and the “harpsichordic” quality which he felt made it especially suited to the music of Bach. In 1973, as Steinway ended its practice of loaning pianos to high-profile artists, Gould purchased the beloved companion for just shy of six thousand dollars.

Although CD 318 served Gould for almost twenty years, crisis threatened from as early as 1971. On a return shipment from Cleveland, the piano’s crate was dropped, causing serious damage. The piano spent more than a year at the Steinway factory in New York, and from then on developed something of Gould’s own hypochondriac quality. The pianist’s private papers persistently refer to niggles and grumbles, from a “horrendous buzz” to an excessively heavy action. Throughout the 1970s, Gould would play on other Steinways and in June 1980, he confided in his diary, “I’m inclined to feel that 318 is a lost cause.”

*

You could call not just Gould’s relationship with the instrument, but Canada’s, a “romance on three legs” – that’s how Rosemary Thompson of the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa put it when I spoke to her last year. CD 318 currently sits on a pedestal in the mezzanine of the NAC’s largest hall.

Before CD 318 arrived there, however, its home was at LAC – Libraries and Archives Canada. At Canada’s national library, the piano was not only on public display, but available for use in performance. Canadian librarians had acquired Gould’s archive, including a substantial amount of realia plus the beloved Steinway Steinway, upon his death in 1982.

So what made librarians of thirty-five years ago think they needed to hear ivory in the archives?

Maureen Nevins is music archivist at LAC and supervised the transfer of the piano from the National Library of Canada to the National Art Centre in 2012. She is also custodian of the story of the piano’s original acquisition.

That begins with the National Library’s music archivist Dr Helmut Kallmann. The Berlin-born son of a lawyer and amateur musician, Kallmann fled to Britain in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission. Interned on the Isle of Man and then in Canada, he became a naturalized Canadian in 1946 and by 1950 had joined the music library of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

On Gould’s death, Maureen explains, “Dr Kallmann contacted Dr. John Roberts, a long-time close friend and colleague of Gould, to express concern about the protection and disposition of Gould’s belongings.”

Kallmann, Roberts, and Gould knew each other through work at the CBC. During Kallmann’s twenty year stint at the Toronto broadcaster, Roberts had been a CBC producer in addition to heading up their department of Radio Music. 

These informal connections and networks led Roberts to ensure that Gould’s estate consider Canada’s National Library as the preferred cultural institution for Gould’s archives.

“The National Library of Canada held and preserved the largest collection of musical Canadiana including the archives of many prominent Canadian musicians,” Maureen says. 

“Of particular concern was that the Steinway CD 318 piano, because of its specially adapted action and mechanism, be kept in active and playing order, to be available to researchers and scholars studying the technique of Gould. This would only be possible if the instrument on which he made both practice tapes and final recordings was in the same location as his archives. The piano was an integral research tool, because of its special modifications.”

The library acquisition was not just about saving the object to cherish and preserve it, but specifically to allow musicians to recreate the experience, texture, and technique of Gould’s performances in the moment. 

This business of making knowledge, not just storing it, is vital to the piano’s place as an item in a modern library collection. The transfer of CD318 to the National Arts Centre was not just about deciding where a nation keeps and displays its heritage objects, but about cultural institutions collaborating across disciplinary divides to ensure that a historic instrument remains a machine for making new art, new performances, and new knowledge.

By 2012, LAC was looking for a new home for CD 318. There was a push to move objects into the community where possible, and staff were considering how to move such interesting items into spaces where more of the public could see them. With 1.2 million visitors a year, NAC was a better location for the public to come into contact with Gould’s material legacy. 

Rosemary Thompson of the National Arts Centre takes up the story.

“You could build a Smithsonian around this piano and chair. 318 has an almost mystical quality to it: Gould would take it with him on tour, he loved the touch so much. He always wanted to have full control of the sound. Every time we do a Glenn Gould event with that piano, everyone shows up.”

Thompson explained that Gould’s chair is actually worth more than the piano, and rarely put out on display as it is both unique and relatively easy to steal. Arrangements are being made to put both chair and piano on permanent secure display in the new NAC building.

That security doesn’t mean CD 318 will be reduced to sitting untouched under glass. Thompson explains that artists of the highest calibre will continue to play it at the the NAC, with acclaimed pianists “making a pilgrimmage” to play on the famous Steinway.

“Heritage is not a pillar of our strategic plan at the NAC,” Thompson admits, “but we recognise the power of iconography and the need to honour artists. We’re not a museum, but CD 318 is in a specific space. If we can do something for artists who have done a lot for us, like Gould, we will.”

The custodianship of CD 318 honours not just a unique personality and his achievements, but also an attitude to the past and to music which is about process, not just product; which is about moving forward, not just preserving the past. The piano is not just a sentimental object but a research object, and this attitude chimes with the work of Gould’s latter years, when he devoted increasing amounts of time to “polyphonic documentaries” for the CBC. 

Gould’s broadcasts wove together interviews and ambient sound, creating immersive stories that captured a sense of place and history. Such works echo the latest innovations in using audio multimedia within libraries, such as Chris Gaul‘s Library Frequency Tuner:

Library Frequency Tuner from Chris Gaul on Vimeo.

In 1980s Canada, a piano could already be seen as a valuable working research instrument within a library. Nearly forty years later, as work like Gaul’s approaches the polyphony of Gould’s later work, should we be looking at directly linking music technology to our collections?

 

Pin It