Recently I listened back to Glenn Gould's influential 1967 radio documentary The Idea Of North, part of his Solitude Trilogy. It features the voices of people who have had a 'direct confrontation' with the remote northern region of Canada's vast wilderness, describing the practical ins and outs of living there.
Gould was known as one of the greatest interpreters of Bach's Goldberg Variations. But he famously retired from live performance and instead spent long hours locked away in a studio, discovering ever more minute scales of perfectionism while cutting together choice recordings of his playing in an effort to create the most honed versions of the Variations.
He made the Solitude docs using what he called a 'contrapuntal' editing technique which mixed together multiple voices. It can sound noisy with the voices cancelling each other out in a kind of disorientating babble. But sometimes certain words and phrases leap out in quick succession, "endless", "ice", "nothing", "year after year" etc, creating a montage of verbal images.
At first it sounds odd that these intimate and warm voices are talking about such an expansively inhuman and cold place. Further into the recording a voice says: "You can't talk about the North until you've got out of it." And here's where the listener's journey enters into a more fictional space, the idea of The Idea Of North. Not only is the doc about hearing first-hand accounts of what the 'real' North is, it's about remembering it, re-imagining it and re-telling it from a distance.
Throughout the hour long broadcast the sound of a train rumbling along leads the listener towards this idea of North. There aren't any noises of nature like biting wind, wolves howling or footsteps crunching in the snow. Just the muffled sound of the Muskeg Express chugging its way further north along the tracks. The voices could have been recorded anywhere, but Gould places them inside the sonic and psychological space of a train. It's a space loaded with symbolism about fate, destiny, migration and nationhood (much like radio is too in the latter case). This mental space is also akin to that of Gould's perfect Goldberg Variations: it's a close, intimate and even claustrophobic space where one can focus intensely to the point of an epiphany (or hallucination). And though the people in the Idea Of North go to lengths to debunk myths about the north and of a macho 'northmanship' seducing travellers further and further north, the doc still creates a fantastical space, or at least a space where most anything could happen. For Gould, the north, is "a convenient area to dream about, spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid."
In his book The Spiritual History Of Ice: Romanticism, Science, And The Imagination, Eric G Wilson writes about this blurred borderline between real and imagined spaces: "Fantastical worlds can become real in two ways – in the systems of the tyrant or the visions of the liberator. Likewise real spaces can become fantastical in a twofold fashion. On the one hand, a tyrant might fictionalise a physical space so that he can exploit it [...] On the other hand, a liberator might transform a humanised region into the sublime laws sustaining the cosmos. A poet might release chthonic energies underlying city grids."
The Idea Of North documents first hand experiences with the real north, but it also documents Gould's journey towards a productive north, mapping a place of serenity and contemplation over vast and empty tundra. Surrounded by frozen calm, Gould's single-track journey is drawn towards an imagined centre point where the constraining delineations of reality cease and imagination can take over. It's at the centre of the world where the mind can focus on smaller and smaller points of attention, tapping into the creative chthonic energies emanating from the magnetic zero degree. But for Gould it's a place best visited rarely as an obsessive mind is easily subsumed by this vast fantasy, no matter how far away the body is.