The Quiet in the Land, Glenn Gould's 1977 experimental CBC Radio program about Manitoba's Mennonite community, does not, at first blush, seem like an obvious basis for dance choreography.
After all, the audio documentary was created by a musician who, at that point, had famously rejected and expressed disdain for all forms of live performance, and the doc is about a religious group that at times has discouraged dancing among its members.
But for Emanuel Gat, the Israeli choreographer whose latest work, The Goldlandbergs, is set primarily to Gould's mash-up of speech, music and ambient noise, The Quiet in the Land demanded movement from the first time he heard it. Indeed, for a year, every time Gat went jogging near his home in the south of France, that was the music in his earphones that kept him moving.
"It's really unbelievable, it's so well structured," says the quiet but congenial choreographer, tracing sound waves with his finger on a table outside of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. "You can listen beginning to end. It's like hearing a symphony. It's like watching a movie. It's like reading a book."
Gat's company performed The Goldlandbergs at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele during the city's Tanz im August dance festival last weekend, as part a tour that will eventually make its way to New York's Lincoln Center Festival in 2014.
It is an uplifting exploration of themes of separateness and community – themes of interest to somewhat isolated Mennonites and the sometimes reclusive Gould.
Eight of Gat's dancers form a kind of extended family on the stage, strutting about independently and together, communicating through movements that look like an elaborate but elegant secret language.
For all the spiritedness (and spirituality) that infused Gat's choreography, The Goldlandbergs is also attracting interest for having excavated a lesser-known part of the Canadian pianist's oeuvre. While Gould's recordings – particularly the two of Bach's Goldberg Variations – have frequently formed the basis of dance shows, Gat is the first choreographer to make use of Gould's unusual CBC audio documentaries, according to biographer Kevin Bazzana.
"I think they may still [form] the one aspect of his work that is still generally underappreciated," says Bazzana, the Victoria-based author of Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. After Gould gave up performing in public in 1964, he committed himself to his "love affair with the microphone." But his interests went beyond recording music and straightforward docs to experimental radio art that he made as part of a long and fruitful association with the CBC.
The Solitude Trilogy has been called musique concrète and audio collage, but Gould preferred the term "contrapuntal radio documentary." The Idea of North was the first to air, during Canada's centenary in 1967; it explored the northern temperament that Gould felt was a part of his artistic DNA. Next, in 1969, came The Latecomers, a look at life apart and together in Newfoundland.
The Quiet in the Land was the third and most technologically complex of the three. Though it only made it to air in 1977, Gould began work on it six years earlier, travelling to Manitoba to interview Mennonites about, in the words of one, the difficulty of being "in the world, but not of it."
In addition to talking with current and lapsed members, Gould recorded services in English and in German at the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church. He included other music to aurally illustrate the difficulties of the Anabaptist way of life: The intoxicating allure of spirituality is represented by a Bach cello sonata played by Pablo Casals, while the pull of the material world is represented by Janis Joplin singing "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz."
The Quiet in the Land isn't journalism: Gould was not interested in any strict concept of accuracy, but rather in juxtaposing his interviewees' words to create his own mood piece, which he would later describe as being close to autobiography. Indeed, not everyone heard in The Solitude Trilogy was pleased with the results. "They really complained after, the people who were interviewed, that he manipulated completely what they said in the way that he edited it," notes Gat, whose company is negotiating to bring The Goldlandbergs to Montreal and Ottawa.
Gat's dance is one of unsettling juxtapositions as well. Often compared to the late Merce Cunningham, the 44-year-old choreographer treats music and dance as elements created separately that are then brought into conversation with each other. In The Goldlandbergs, Samson Milcent's lighting – inspired by the random natural light that poured into the studio during the creation of the piece – is a third component that seems to follow its own private trajectory. Add in the disorienting audio of The Quiet in the Land – difficult to fully follow on a first listen – plus excepts of the Goldberg Variations and you see why Financial Times critic Laura Cappelle wrote that the piece "takes the notion of counterpoint to dizzying extremes."
But when The Goldlandbergs' disparate elements suddenly seem to connect, and the voices of Mennonites that Gould recorded in Manitoba over 40 years ago become the inner voices of the European dancers moving about in their underwear, there is a rush of joy. As with any moment in life when any everything seems to be on the same wavelength, and being becomes belonging.
While the embodiment is all Gat's own, The Quiet in the Land's disembodied voices have their own spatial movement, notes Bazzana, who believes the trilogy was ahead of its time. "[Gould] was thinking in terms of dimension, the body of space, not just time, and left and right, but depth of sound," he says. "Remember, we're still dealing with tape-and-razor blade [editing] era – he was really pushing the envelope in terms of what was technologically possible. … The programs really stand up."
And, thanks to Gat, now they dance, too.