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Why did Glenn Gould choose Wawa?

One of the greatest of contemporary pianists called it an 'extraordinary spot'

One of the greatest of contemporary pianists called it an “extraordinary spot.”

An important aspect of the routine of visiting a single place and getting to know one area really well is taking the time to check in with your feelings and allow yourself to just ”be.”

It is why people look for camps and cottages and return to the same vacation spots time and again. At a local level many look for what is called a “sit,” “magic,” or “me” spot. It is a place for solace, inspiration and rejuvenation. We all seem to look for these special places within nature.

At the 2013 Grammy Awards, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was awarded posthumously a lifetime achievement more than thirty years after his death. Not many Canadians have been awarded Grammys (Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell and The Band). He has four wins and 21 nominations.  He shunned fanfare and actually retired at a young age from public performances, spending the rest of his performing life in the recording studio. He revolutionized the way we listen to the classics. He called Wawa his place of creativity. 

Glenn Gould was an amazing personality. He was perhaps one of the most unusual musicians ever to have performed. He retired from public performance completely at a young age, spending the rest of his performing life in the recording studio. He performed very little in comparison with the other great soloists, yet his connection with his audience was so incredible that the music-loving public was is devoted to him through the great strength of his musical communication.

He was one of the world's most acclaimed and renowned piano virtuosos and he chose Wawa as the place to “get away from it all.” Within documentaries, he described Wawa as “an extraordinary spot” that captured his imagination and acknowledged the location inspired some of his “best writing of my entire life.”

He was equally famous for his eccentricities which included the heavy overcoat worn during the summer, scarves, fingerless gloves, (before Michael Jackson), his ever-present cap and aversion to live performances.

Local historian, author of many books, Johanna Rowe knows a great deal about Glenn Gould’s (GG) haunts in and around the Wawa area.  “Wawa was important and soul-fulfilling for him.” 

Why Wawa?

The completion and opening of the Trans Canada Highway at Wawa occurred in 1962. For some unknown reason, GG drove north and fortuitously discovered the land of the ‘Big Goose.’ 

Johanna's friend’s mother worked the front desk, “She said he would always stay in the same room (101), (and 102 for a lady friend, it is surmised), at the Wawa Motor Inn. 

“He was rarely recognized by locals, though by this time (1960s), he was at the peak of his fame. The odd attire that made him so recognizable elsewhere, drew little attention in town. They found him a bit eccentric but welcomed him. Here in Wawa, there are many eccentrics and all were accepted so perhaps his style was deemed less 'odd' here.”  

GG may have suffered from a mild form of autism (Asperger's syndrome), a theory that may explain both the pianist's musical genius and his eccentricities, which included an over fondness for scrambled eggs and an aversion to shaking hands. Magpie, High and Silver Falls would have been their recommendations for him to see. It became a favourite haunt for him. 

“At that time, the falls were truly magnificent and powerful, and the site was not developed at all (as compared to the roadside stop of today). Rarely would one encounter many people there. GG relates that he felt inspired to compose while here at the High Falls;”(Google:  Wawa Ontario Silver Falls and Magpie Falls; for YouTube videos).

Wawa became a magical destination for him, a place of respite and restoration and renewed creativity. 

“GG also as a non-drinker but night hawk liked to drop in to a local restaurant, frequented by locals who would sit story-telling and drinking coffee late into the early morning hours. They remember him as the odd guy, often in a hat, who always drummed on the table while sitting with them. In that respect, we were a very non-judgmental community,” said Ms. Rowe. “Also, respectful of privacy and not too interested in celebrity.  As years passed GG was often recognized but few approached him. We speculate that he quite liked this relative anonymity that allowed him to be free of the Toronto persona he had cultivated. And that he also liked the friendliness and authenticity of the locals who just accepted him.”

His life became a quest for pursuit of many ideas and he played with recording techniques and wrote many articles for a variety of print media. Out of this came his famous CBC  ‘The Idea of North’ series, a beginning of his radio and film documentary phase of creativity. One of the best is a 4:54" (1968) segment highlighting many Wawa destinations such as the Sandy Beach, a number of Wawa waterfalls and Michipicoten Harbour; Google “Glenn Gould - Variations On Glenn Gould, "Interview: On Wawa.” Or go to his website.

GG didn't need a piano when he came to Wawa. He practiced on imaginary keyboards, he could “feel“ the music. There is a famous scene within the YouTube video of him walking by the falls and conducting the imaginary orchestra.

Complete with his long trench coat, double-breasted scarf and his trademark wool ivy houndstooth cap he discusses the virtues of a small town and the importance of his solitude there. 

“His life, acquaintances in Toronto were few and not diverse; perhaps Wawa represented a bit of an adventure for him. Into the wild in many respects and it certainly did spark his amazing existential musings about the north, the character of our country, the importance of isolation, solitude, nature,” said Johanna.  

Stay tuned for her next book on Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson who also summered in the Wawa area including many never seen before painting locations. 

Be with GG

You can visit some of GG’s favourite locations and discover his inspirations, Silver Falls and Sandy Beach are accessed, off of Highway 17, just south of Wawa on the road to Michipicoten Harbour. As part of a series of tourism-heritage initiatives, the Glenn Gould Heritage Door was unveiled in 2012 at Magpie Falls, just south of the Wawa, Highway 17 turnoff. The next time you wander and look at the falls, you might hear and become immersed, as Gould did, a little Beethoven amidst the flow state of the cascading water.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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