There's a scene in Fran?ois Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould in which the pianist, played by Colm Feore, asks to hear some playback in the recording studio. As the music pours from the speakers, he begins a slow, ecstatic dance, his outsized white shirt clinging to him in a loose embrace.
The real Gould didn't dance much -- he had a bad back -- but his music is full of dancing, and not just because Bach wrote minuets. And since choreographers can visualize movement that the rest of us can only hear, it was perhaps inevitable that some of them should see dances in his music, and in his life.
James Kudelka is one of them. The artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada has just completed a new Gould ballet, with a score by John Oswald and designs by painter Attila Richard Lukacs. It's called A Disembodied Voice, and it unites the talents of three (four, including Gould) of the most interesting artists this country has produced. The ballet is part of Inspired By Gould, a program of four Gould-related works that opens Saturday night at the Hummingbird Centre.
Unlike Girard's film, or David Young's recent play Glenn, A Disembodied Voice is not biographical. It doesn't start from a unified perception of what Gould was about, because the collaborators didn't have one. Oswald, who is best known for his virtuoso tape collages, was steeped in Gouldiana, including the pianist's ideas about recording technology. Lukacs knew almost nothing about him.
"Before I took on this commission, I had really never even heard of Gould," said the painter from his New York studio. "I never really listened to classical music."
You may wonder how it's possible to be inspired by somebody you've never heard of. The answer is tangled up with the answer to the more basic and ultimately more intriguing question of how a new ballet, and this ballet in particular, gets made at all.
Kudelka got the idea going, but was paradoxically the last to lay his hands on it. The music came first, then the design, then the movement. Oswald didn't know what Lukacs was going to come up with, Lukacs didn't know what was in Oswald's score. And Kudelka had only a general idea of what to expect from either.
If that seems a bit under-co-ordinated, consider the case of Merce Cunningham and the late John Cage. The two had a successful working and personal relationship that lasted several decades, yet they never knew what the other had created for their collaborative works until music and dance were put together just before the show. They just trusted that the other would do something interesting.
"One invites collaborators not in order to sit on them, but to let them do what they do," Kudelka said. "If you're going to commit to work with someone, you have to let them have space."
Kudelka knew more or less what kind of space Oswald would claim. The two have made seven ballets together since they met at a workshop in 1981 that Kudelka regards as a "life-changing" experience. Back then, he thought his new partner was "the most scary kind of composer to work with, because he didn't seem to have any kind of dance background."
Oswald also didn't restrict himself to what other people might call music, or even composition. His score for their 1991 collaboration Case Of Death was a riotously funny tape collage of a dramatic reading of a story by Agatha Christie. His groundbreaking Plunderphonic disc of 1989 was made entirely from remixes, creative scramblings, and quasimechanical reinterpretations of existing music. One track on that album featured a new Goldberg Variation, achieved by running Gould's recorded performance of the theme through a computer with a flawed transcription program that "heard" and reproduced many notes that weren't in the original.
"A lot of this stuff blurs the line between interpretation and composition," Oswald said. "It's a transformation in which a lot of people would say, 'Hey, this isn't the original,' but they're constantly reminded of the original."
Oswald's ideas for A Disembodied Voice started coming together a year ago, as a series of 12 musical scenes, each of which considers Gould and his obsessions from a different angle. There are sections about Schoenberg and Wagner, whom Gould adored, including a Plunderphonic-style reworking of Gould's orchestral performance of the Siegfried Idyll. There's another about Mozart, for whom Gould had very mixed feelings, and still others in which Oswald painstakingly presents the pianist's words and music with more clarity and fidelity than they had even when they were originally recorded. The most contrarian section is probably the first: a transcription for solo tenor of some of Gould's famous obbligato humming.
"There are also blanks where the choreography replaces the Gould performance -- quite literally, in that the dancers are trying to do visual steps representing the notes that aren't there," Oswald said. Those blanks were a reference to one thing the composer happened to know about Kudelka -- his interest in choreographing silence.
The music, which includes some writing for live orchestra, was mostly done by July. Lukacs had by then been added to the team, after Kudelka and Oswald saw an exhibition of his paintings last year at the University of Toronto's Barnicke Gallery. Lukacs is known mainly for his heroic paintings of skinheads, but there was a more pastoral canvas in that show that was to exercise a strong influence on the ballet. It was a large painting of a leafy wood, somewhat in the style of Thomas Gainsborough, with a monkey in 18th-century court dress standing proudly in the foreground, next to the figure of a prone man with the face of Lukacs.
The painting is actually a double self-portrait. Lukacs said he is fascinated by "the 17th-century Flemish tradition, in which the monkey represents the artist, mimicking the outside world with his art." The monkey has been kept for the ballet, as well as a monkey orchestra based on porcelain figures from the same era.
But long before he decided on the monkeys, Lukacs spent a lot of time pondering a little black box. It was a scale replica of the stage of the Hummingbird Centre, which had been shipped down to him from Toronto.
"I spent many weeks just sitting and looking at this empty box, smoking one cigarette after the other, getting frustrated and going back and doing some painting," said Lukacs, who had never worked in theatre. His main concern was to create a space for music and movement, and to advance the ideas he was already developing in his painting.
"It made sense to me that the set design should be based on what I'm doing now, instead of something completely opposite," he said. That brought in an aspect of Indian miniatures, because he was and is very interested in them, and because "a lot of them have a sense of music about them." Eventually the monkeys followed, along with the forest, and the high terrace that became the set's major element.
Lukacs didn't think much about Gould, or listen to many of his recordings. "I hear his music now, and I wonder if I'd been listening to his music a lot, would it have affected what I came up with. Ultimately I think not."
He decided the ballet should follow the progress of a single night (a happy inspiration, since Gould lived a nocturnal life). He also wanted a sense of privacy for the scene, with the audience feeling it is looking in.
"The idea is that you are a voyeur looking into a private space that would inspire one to create music," he said. Strictly speaking, that's a stage illusion, since Oswald's music was already finished.
When the designs were brought up to Toronto, Oswald and Kudelka were "quite surprised" by what Lukacs had done, the composer said, though he added that he now finds the set "very satisfying, with some quite inspired elements in the way he's set up the relationship between the audience and what's on stage." Kudelka is more guarded about his first reaction. But he admits that for a little while he didn't know how the story he had put in motion could possibly have a happy ending.
"I was thinking, my gosh, how am I going to pull this all together? And then I found myself waking up one morning with this really extraordinary sense of freedom to do what I wanted to do, from this strange disparity of Attila's model and John's music."
He tried to enter Lukacs's world, and at the same time embrace the analytic spirit of Oswald's music. Young's play had three Goulds on stage; Kudelka's ballet has five, and they all have a different meaning.
"It breaks the personality apart into different bits that collectively make an eccentric artistic persona," he said. Since Gould was male, the ballet has more for the male dancers than the female, and since Lukacs included a monkey and a rooster (herald of the dawn), there is choreography to go with those characters and functions. There are also what Kudelka calls "signature movements" that appear and reappear through the larger rondo of the work, but beyond that he would rather wait for the eyes of the audience to see what he has done.
"I wanted to ensure that this stretched all of our imaginations in a very big way," he said. That's one reason why, as company director, he made sure the Gould program involved the whole company. His piece calls for 25 dancers, and Dominique Dumais's new piece (with Alexina Louie and Eric Cadesky) is doublecast to use 22 others. And he wanted a national scope to the show, which is why there's a work by William Forsythe that was first done in Canada by Ballet B.C., and a solo piece by Montreal dancer Margie Gillis.
Nobody knows how all this will look, or what life these pieces may have after the initial run and an Ottawa date next June 15. And not everything about the process has been smooth. Lately, steam has been generated by the realization that Cadesky is also working with Gould's vocalizations. But Gould has already supported an astounding range of creative responses. No doubt there's room in his dancing universe for several more.
Inspired By Gould runs Nov. 20-2, 1999 at the Hummingbird Centre, Toronto.