Once upon a time I saw a documentary featuring black and white footage of Glenn Gould, shot soon after his first recording of The Goldberg Variations, in which he had taken such extraordinary liberties — excessive liberties, some thought — with Bach. Although by then in his mid-twenties, the pianist gave the impression of being still almost a boy, still very much the prodigy. Seated outdoors, he answered his interviewer reluctantly, as if unused to conversation. Shifting around in the chair awkwardly, as if also unaccustomed to furniture, he spoke in quick runs, punctuated with abrupt halts.
But gradually enthusiasm overcame diffidence. As he warmed to his theme, he became himself: voluble, playful, precise. The nimble fingers danced his ideas for the camera; the face radiated happiness and confidence. “I’ve often thought that I would like to try my hand at being a prisoner,” he said later in the film. “I’ve never understood the preoccupation with freedom as it is reckoned in the Western world… to be incarcerated would be the perfect test of one’s inner mobility.”I had known Gould’s recordings and writings for more than a decade when I heard this declaration, but though I had been incarcerated for just as long I didn’t think I understood freedom. I felt, rather, that prison had left me bereft. If I had been changed, it was not for the better.