Don’t Trust That Video of Virtuosity

Two weeks ago, I opened my social media feed first thing in the morning and found that a friend had posted a video of Glenn Gould in honor of the pianist’s birthday.  Being a fan of Gould’s music, I clicked on the video and found myself once again mesmerized by the intensity of the music, Gould’s technical virtuosity and his wholly identifiable sound.  No one else plays the piano like that!

I watched the video totally engaged with the image on the screen: Gould’s hunched posture, balletic hands, typewriter fingers.   I was moved by the video, and not just because I love the patterns and contours of Bach, but also because I felt close to Gould and his perfection.  I was sitting virtually feet away and felt the energy of his body and focus.  Great speed of his hands and the depth of his muscle memory.

I was moved by the essence of virtuosity.  The evidence of something I have never seen elsewhere; the fleeting sense of a once in a lifetime encounter.  When the video was over, I slid the red slider on the bottom of the screen to the left and watched it all over again.

What happens when the magnificent and transcendent can be manipulated so freely and shaped so easily by the viewer?  What was I really taking away from the experience of watching this video at my desk, alone, on headphones.  As much as I was experiencing the thrill of virtuosity, I was also tittilized by intimacy of my encounter.  In short, I was a voyeur.

As I often do in situations where I am encountering art, I decided to make a list of things I definitively noticed about the video.  In this mode of noticing, the only things that matter are those that are objective (inasmuch as objectivity is real).  Here are some of my noticings:

  • The camera moves slowly in and out 
  • Gould bobs his head and gesticulates with his free hand
  • There was a closeup of his hands from above, so we could see his lateral movement up and down the piano keybaord
  • Closeup of hands from the side so we could witness his claw-hammer fingers pecking at the keyboard
  • Close mic’d audio so we could hear Gould hum the melody.
  • Quick cut edits back and forth between these shots that reminded us that he was engaged in all of this activity at the same time.

This is what virtuosity looks like.  Not playing fast and accurate, but mastering the space of music.  The forward and backwards, inwardness and outwardness of energy, the sense that a single person, with the same biological traits that you and me have (Gould only had ten fingers after all) could live in the world so differently.  

When we see this kind of power on stage it feels momentary and fleeting.  The sounds in the air really are just waves bouncing over and over off walls and into our little ears like a miracle.  And we feel like we are in the same space as the performer in such a way that makes us implicit in the power of it all.

On video, Gould’s power is super sized.  His hands devasting machines that are well outside of our beings.  We hear his sounds, but usually through the mediation of microphones, and then headphones so our connection to the sound cheap and consumerist.  We have nothing to lose in the process.  On top of that, we can watch the clip over and over and it is always the same.  

In the end, I think there is a quiet relationship between this kind of video of virtuosity and pornography.  The power is all in the gaze.  The impact of the images and sounds too consumable to be anything other than transactional.  I may feel like I have touched the heavens, but all I have gained is the buzz of my hormones trotted out at a casual command for an encore performance.