Glenn Gould inspires Apple workers today just as he did Steve Jobs

When it comes to obsessively meticulous attention to detail, it seems Apple employees could learn something from late great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.
Glenn Gould's obsessive, meticulous attention to detail is part of what motivated Apple University professor Joshua Cohen to begin delivering three-hour seminars on the late, great Canadian pianist to high-ranking Apple employees. (The Canadian Press)

When it comes to obsessively meticulous attention to detail, it seems Apple employees could learn something from Glenn Gould.

At the company's internal Apple University — a somewhat secretive institution by reputation — professor Joshua Cohen delivers three-hour seminars on the late, great Canadian pianist to classes of 15 students.

Those pupils typically occupy "senior leadership positions" at the tech giant, says Cohen in a recent telephone interview.

"The conversations we have are conversations about the human qualities that Gould has that are important for doing something that's really extraordinary — in the way that his musical performance was extraordinary," Cohen says.

"That craft-person's attention to detail is an important focus of the conversation about him. And it strongly resonates with people here."

Detail focused

Cohen, a longtime faculty member at MIT who received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard, focuses much of his attention on Gould's 1955 debut recording "Bach: The Goldberg Variations."

At the time, it was rarely recorded and considered to be a preposterously demanding piece of music.

But the then-22-year-old Gould attacked it with characteristic doggedness and brazen self-assurance.

Cohen's presentation at Apple University touches on Gould's belief in music's "ethical importance," part of what fuelled his lofty ambition. He re-recorded certain arias for his debut over and over and over, in search of perfection.

The infamously eccentric Gould could be stubborn, a personality trait that seems to strike a chord with Apple decision-makers.

"It's his willingness to be unreasonable — meaning, not to worry about the conventional ways of playing things, and to have a strength of conviction about there being a right way to do them," Cohen says.

One might be tempted to draw parallels between Gould and exacting Apple visionary Steve Jobs.

The late Jobs was, in fact, a fan, and told biographer Walter Isaacson that he was fond of comparing Gould's original 1955 recording of the "Goldberg Variations" to the second edition he issued just before his death in 1981.

"They're like night and day," Jobs was quoted as saying in "Steve Jobs."

"The first is an exuberant, young, brilliant piece, played so fast it's a revelation. The later one is so much more sparse and stark. You sense a very deep soul who's been through a lot in life. It's deeper and wiser."

Which did Jobs prefer?

"Gould liked the later version much better. I used to like the earlier, exuberant one," Jobs said. "But now I can see where he was coming from."

Meticulous precision

The last section of Cohen's presentation explores Gould's decision to abandon live performance altogether in 1964, trading the stage for the precision of the studio.

Gould once mused excitedly on the idea of listeners being able to essentially remix their music (though of course he didn't use the modern term), a system he deemed more "democratic."

Apple employees do relish discussing Gould's curiosity and enthusiasm for technology.

"He thought that it was a moral imperative to use the technology," Cohen says.

"As a classical musician, (he said) using technology to improve the quality of performance wasn't negating musical performance, it was morally mandatory to use the available technologies.

"People find this really fascinating."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?