The Idea of North

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

In 1967 pianist Glenn Gould — then retired from live performance — produced for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation a radio documentary calledĀ The Idea of North. In it, he interviews a group of people who, for various reasons, have made commitments to spending time in the far north of Canada. There’s a nurse, a sociologist, a geographer, a surveyor, and a civil servant.

Their voices are backed with sound effects creating the illusion that the interview is taking place in some liminal interzone aboard a long, ponderous train journey into the Arctic. Their words fade in and out, overlapping (an effect which Gould termed ‘contrapuntal radio’). Eventually they merge with the stirring swell of Symphony no. 5 by Finnish composer Sibelius.

Gould introduces the documentary thus:

I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid. This programme, however, brings together some remarkable people who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada, who’ve lived and worked there and in whose lives the North has played a very vital role.

Gould’s title eventually supplied the title of an opening chapter in Philip Pullman’s novelĀ The Northern Lights, and the title of Peter Davidson’s excellent 2005 study of northern themes in literature and art.

The original soundscape-interview — available to listen online on CBC’s website — remains an evocative exploration of the fantasies and realities of the icy and often isolating Arctic climes. Ideal for a dreamy time with headphones on a chilly winter’s night.