Review of Glenn Gould's
"The Quiet in the Land"
by Bradley Lehman
[Written for publication in
Solitude Trilogy: Three Sound Documentaries.
CBC Perspectives PSCD 2003-3 (3 CD's). Available through the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (P.O. Box 500, Station A, Toronto
ON M5W 1E6, or
(14134 NE Airport Way, Portland
OR 97230). $40-50, depending on source.
See also the listings at
and Yahoo! Shopping.
The Solitude Trilogy is
a series of hour-long radio documentaries which Glenn Gould (1932-82)
produced for the CBC.
All three deal with themes of deliberate
withdrawal from the world. The first program, "The Idea
of North" (1967), is a journey into solitude, through the
metaphor of Northern geography and climate. "The Latecomers"
(1969) is a study of the isolation of Newfoundland. And "The
Quiet in the Land" (1977), Gould's own favorite of the three,
is a portrait of Mennonite life: the identity of a community of
faith within a broader society.
All three programs are not so much documentaries
as compositions in Gould's unique genre of "radio as music."
In each, Gould manipulates taped interviews and sound effects
into a complex dramatic montage: often two or three characters
are speaking simultaneously, illuminating different aspects of
Gould's themes. This intense texture stretches the ear and mind
beyond normal expectations of comprehensibility, and can be perplexing
at first. Repeated listening, however, reveals remarkable depth
The primary focus of this review is the third program,
"The Quiet in the Land: A Portrait of the Mennonites at Red
River" (Winnipeg environs; any distinction between Mennonite
Brethren and Mennonites is blurred). Gould evidently found Mennonite
identity and faith worthy of intense attention. His program is
an artistic portrait of how Mennonites appear to a lapsed Presbyterian,
looking in with sympathy and respect. At the same time, the tight
focus of Gould's magnifying lens may cause some discomfort; the
program raises frank questions about uneasy inconsistencies in
Mennonite life. Such an independent evaluation of lifestyle,
goals, and motivations can be a useful measuring device against
the ways Mennonites might perceive themselves.
Gould constructed QITL from nine taped interviews,
most from a visit to the Winnipeg area in August 1971. He also
used tapes of a church service (Kitchener-Waterloo United Mennonite
Church), rehearsals by the Mennonite Children's Choir, and other
sound effects and music. The
National Library of Canada holds
more than a thousand pages of transcripts, letters, sketches,
and other documentation of the project, as well as more than a
hundred tape reels of his working materials. There is an interactive
index of this material at the website
QITL has a structure of five "scenes,"
demarcated by parts of the church service. Some of the themes
- Separateness; materialism; fashion; complexity of
life; reluctance to question one's own culture.
increasingly urban and cosmopolitan; appearance becoming less
distinctive; everything in moderation; challenges of philosophy
- Balance between evangelism and isolation; general
tendency to mistrust arts, technology, and sophistication; discrimination
among influences; specialization of individuals.
- Concern with
others' well-being; peace position; social concerns and politics;
- Mennonite labels; challenges; splits; unity; meeting
others; taking Mennonite identity inside oneself.
Does this complex and thorough portrait have much
relevance to Mennonites today, twenty years later? Indeed it
does. These issues, challenges, and conflicts are timeless. According
to Gould's portrayal, Mennonites are a sincere and generally admirable
people, who find an effective but perpetually delicate balance
among opposing trends, influences, principles, and goals.
If there is a negative side to QITL, it is that the
use of Mennonite voices is misleading. The program may sound like
Mennonites speaking about Mennonites, but it is not; Gould accurately
credited himself as not only the producer, but the writer. During
the production process, Gould altered his participants' responses
so thoroughly that these people became fictional characters. The
people are individuals, not a cooperative group in real conversation.
All responses are to Gould's careful probing rather than to one
another, yet Gould's own voice is absent. After his death, some
of the participants admitted dissatisfaction with the way that
Gould excerpted and transformed their words ultimately into his
own. That suggests several perpetually relevant questions of
conflict. How much is the individual's integrity to be sacrificed
to the goals of a group or enterprise? What are Mennonite communication
styles, with or without the presence of an inquisitive outsider,
and are they effective? How do Mennonites deal with fragmentation?
Since the 1992 release of this CD set, The Solitude
Trilogy is receiving increased attention from scholars of
Gould's career, most notably from Mary Jo Watts, who is preparing
transcriptions of the programs as part of her dissertation work
at Rutgers University. But the programs (and especially QITL)
are valuable not only to historians, philosophers, and Gould fans;
this is remarkably rich material for general study and discussion,
around issues of group and individual identity, mission, and presence
in the world. They can be useful resources for pastors, sociologists,
psychologists, educators, and church libraries.
© Bradley P Lehman,
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