Review of Glenn Gould's
"The Quiet in the Land"

by Bradley Lehman

[Written for publication in Mennonite Quarterly Review]

Glenn Gould's 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 "") or through Allegro Distributors (14134 NE Airport Way, Portland OR 97230). $40-50, depending on source. See also the listings at Amazon.Com 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 and subtlety.

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 "http://www.gould.nlc­".

QITL has a structure of five "scenes," demarcated by parts of the church service. Some of the themes explored:

  1. Separateness; materialism; fashion; complexity of life; reluctance to question one's own culture.
  2. Lifestyle increasingly urban and cosmopolitan; appearance becoming less distinctive; everything in moderation; challenges of philosophy and humanism.
  3. Balance between evangelism and isolation; general tendency to mistrust arts, technology, and sophistication; discrimination among influences; specialization of individuals.
  4. Concern with others' well-being; peace position; social concerns and politics; conflict.
  5. 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, 20-Nov-96

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