Creaking Chairs and Metric Clarity: Microtiming Glenn Gould Recording Schoenberg Op. 19/1

by Richard Beaudoin (The Royal Academy of Music, London and Brandeis University)


Glenn Gould performed and recorded on an increasingly rickety, loose-jointed, swaying piano chair that his father, Bert Gould, had fashioned from a folding bridge chair in 1953. Its telltale clicking/cracking noises — made whenever Gould shifted his body — can be heard in this 1966 film of Gould discussing Schoenberg’s music with Yehudi Menuhin. Below are two photographs of the chair, in all its skeletal beauty:

I encountered Gould’s chair creaks up-close while microtiming his recording of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/1, to use as the basis for a series of new compositions called New York Mikrophon. I found the trajectory of Gould’s chair creaks intriguing, and I began to investigate.

My approach, which extends Paul Sanden’s writings on “corporeal liveness, considers Gould’s so-called “ambient” or “extraneous” chair noises as significant “sounded movements.” Quantifying sounds that are normally marginalized, my research connects sound studies, music theory, and performance analysis, and fuses published analyses about rhythm and meter in Schoenberg’s composition with the audio artifacts of Gould’s corporeality.

The elements of my analysis can be seen below:


Using the Lucerne Audio Recording Analyser [LARA], I made millisecond-level measurements of the number and location of all of the sound events — including each chair creak — in Gould’s recording of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/1, made in September 1965, at 30th Street Studios in New York.

This recording is very noisy, even by Gould’s standards; there are 85 creaks in this 86-second track. I noticed that the creaks were not spread uniformly across the performance, but, instead, followed a rough trajectory (see the image below). In addition, prominent gaps in the creaking were not easily explained.

spectrographRather than propose my own analysis (which might be seen as self-serving to the microtiming data I had collected), I surveyed the published scholarship on rhythm and meter in Op. 19/1. This led me to publications by Jonathan Kramer, Charles Morrison, and John Roeder. Kramer devotes a chapter of The Time of Music to Schoenberg’s 17-measure work, and singled it out as exhibiting “the emergence of a foregrounded meter” (Kramer 1988). His tracing of the work’s metric evolution is outlined in the three score-based examples below:



kramer-3I set about comparing the location the chair creaks in Gould’s recording with Kramer’s chart of the emerging metric hierarchy in Schoenberg’s work.

Within this specific recording of this specific work, the level of Gould’s body motion that is transferred to the chair correlates to the gradual emergence of a metrical hierarchy: as Schoenberg’s written meter becomes the sounding meter, Gould’s physical shifting largely abates. The image below presents the first stage of my findings; I presented more detailed analyses in a paper given at SMT/AMS Vancouver 2016, as part of the session called Performing Meter.


You can listen to how Gould’s creaking relates to Kramer’s metrical observations here.

The microtiming also turned up some wonderful ‘hidden’ details in the recording, including:

  • Gould re-attacking a tied note on the downbeat of measure 8 (the tie exists in Schoenberg’s manuscript and all printed scores), which affects the perceived metric clarity,
  • a peculiar gap in the creaking that corresponds precisely to measure 7, which Kramer highlights as the clearest meter thus far in the piece,
  • an unusual bit of vocalizing in measure 2, in which Gould sings a motive which is not simultaneously occurring in the piano (as was his common practice), but which instead occurs a few moments later — a kind of subtle, improvised vorimitation.

I’ll write more about these in the future, as I prepare a paper on this research.

I don’t, however, take these findings to be general proof of what pianists do when playing metrically irregular music. Nor do I use them to hypothesize about body movements by pianists, twentieth-century pianists, mid-twentieth-century Canadian pianists, or Glenn Gould in his mid-30s, etc.

Rather, what interests me is how all of the sounds captured by the microphone in New York in September 1965 work together to create a distinct impression of this unique piece. And in this single case, the proliferation and exact placement of the creaks made by Gould’s chair does, subtly, guide the mind across a trajectory of movement that is sympathetic with a recognized structural aspect of Schoenberg’s piece. In this way, they are perhaps analogous to microexpressions.

My work — in some ways the opposite of corpus analysis —involves detailed cataloguing of all of the sounds within a single recording. Doing so, I unearth little signals provided by overlooked, over-heard, so-called extraneous noises. Removing or suppressing such “insignificant” sounds — a common practice in the recording industry — deprives the listener of unique types of intimacy and musical understanding.