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COMMENTARY            

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Margaret Fisher. 

The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass

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Stephen Adams

 

I read everything that Margaret Fisher writes with great interest and admiration. She and her partner Bob Hughes have, of course, produced beautifully annotated editions of all of Pound’s original music, as well as performances of it; so she is in a better position than anyone to take on the most difficult issues related to it. But at the risk of classifying myself among the “deficient musicians” scorned by Pound, I confess that I can only read her exposition of Pound’s notion of “Great Bass” as a noble and instructive failure. The notion of “Great Bass” is developed in a few pages of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur, and it was seized upon by Hugh Kenner (no musician himself) in his first book about Pound in 1951 (see chapter 29). Murray Schafer’s edition of Pound’s music criticism tabulates Pound’s references to “great bass” and the allied concept of “absolute rhythm” in an appendix. But no one else, I think, has risked adventuring into this rarefied atmosphere until Margaret Fisher.

“Great Bass” seems to be Pound’s effort to locate what he called in his early “Osiris” essays the virtù of the truly great artist, that distinctive and unique quality by which each given work of art exists (SP 28). Pound there lifts his term directly from Walter Pater’s Renaissance, and it remains a purely abstract concept. But in Guide to Kulchur, he attempts to ground this concept in physical empirical reality. Elsewhere, as Fisher notes, he calls it gravitas or genius (or more provisionally, forma), but in each case he claims for it a material existence, and ultimately allies it to some deep kind of rhythm, detectable only by those artistic perceptors with the innate grace to hear it. 

In Guide to Kulchur, Pound advises us that his discussion is part of a larger collocation of ideas: “Gaudier, Great Bass, Leibniz, Erigena, are parts of one ideogram, they are not merely separate subjects .” Fisher does not explore these relationships, but all of them have to do with the relationship between language and referent, or in now familiar terms, signifier and signified. Leibniz’s “unsquashable monads” represent his effort to locate the underlying common principle of physical reality. Pound’s discussion throws in yet another weighty name: 

Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads. Both carry conviction. One may be a bit in the dark as to what constituted Swedenborg’s optic impressions but one does not doubt that he had such impressions. The standard of conduct among angels in his third heaven furnishes an excellent model for those of us who do not consider that we have entered that district.

Swedenborg, too, uses language tied directly to empirical percept, the record of the angels’ hats, even though the precise nature of Swedenborg’s angels remains uncertain. The reference ties Pound’s exposition, and the notion of Great Bass with it, to Pound’s lifelong search for a perfect language, as embodied in the language of Swedenborg’s angels.1

Margaret Fisher’s study argues that the phrase Great Bass does refer to some empirical reality. “Great bass is about practice; it is not abstraction,” she writes. “To make sense of the theory of great bass, one must make sense of Pound's music composition and of his claim that both the setting of words to music and new composition are viable means of practicing criticism.” But Fisher’s argument raises questions of credibility on many levels. Her virtue is that she takes Pound’s grasp of music seriously. Why does Pound not chart his own thinking directly? “One could argue a priori he did not know enough about music theory,” she replies;  “but I hope I have demonstrated that he prepared well to chart a course in reaction to what others had done and gave thorough consideration to how his course would interface with his personal ambitions for a canonical epic and lyric voice.” I read on, in my unshaken skeptical belief that Pound did not in fact know enough about conventional music theory.*

What in fact did Pound read? We know he read Arnold Dolmetsch’s book. Fisher also presents lengthy discussions of Zarlino and Thomas Campion and Jean-Philippe Rameau, three very plausible authors that Pound may have turned to – though there is no direct evidence that he did. And each of these sources raises additional questions about what Pound correctly understood or did not understand in his readings. And there are further questions about the logicality of his deductions from these (mis)understandings. Fisher is well aware of these issues, but she minimizes them: “It seems to me that the problems inherent in Pound’s ‘developing theory of great bass’ (Schafer’s phrase is an important reminder of the unfinished state of ‘great bass’) rest equally in questions of the breadth of its scope and in the theory’s tendency to oscillate between spurious thinking and a mechanism by which to work through a thought experiment.”

Campion, for instance, writes with a creator’s authority about both musical rhythm and poetic rhythm. The problem is, of course, that Campion’s theory directly contradicts his practice, his puzzlingObservations in the Art of English Poesie(1602) being a denunciation of the vulgar English habit rhyme, and praise of classical quantitative versification. (The Renaissance was quite accustomed to the disconnect between musica speculativa and applied theory.2) Fisher dwells instead on Campion’s role in establishing harmony built upon the bass line, in the baroque practice that culminates in Vivaldi and J.S. Bach, among others. Oddly, she makes no reference to the work normally credited by music historians in this development, Caccini’s Nuove Musiche (1602), probably because Pound shows no awareness of it either, although Caccini’s most famous song, “Amarilli,” shows up in Canto 79. 

In another instance, Pound seized upon a phrase of François Couperin that he discovered in Dolmetsch, “we write differently from what we play.” (EPM 15 and 44) and in his essay “Vers Libre and Arnold Dolmetsch” claims it as precedent for free verse. In one context the phrase may refer to the non-mensural notation of certain French baroque keyboard preludes; but taken in isolation, the phrase might also refer to the practice of notes inégales, or to the habit of improvised ornamentation. Fisher’s reading expands it even farther:

Couperin’s feeling for irregularity underlying ‘classical’ forms may give us the clue to a wider unexpressed feeling for a fundamental irregularity which would have made eighteenth-century classicism, classicism of surface, tolerable to those who felt the underlying variety as strongly as the first regularizers may have felt it. The statement places emphasis on something underlying the surface that can be felt, prefiguring Pound’s later expressions of interest in undertone and ground rhythm. Intrigued to produce the underlying form directly from music notation, Pound tried notating the “fundamental irregularity” in the great variety of Villon’s verse. The result was Pound’s first opera Le Testament. 

This is a bold effort to account for the finicky asymmetrical musical phrases of Le Testament, but whether it captures Pound’s line of thought is pure speculation. What remains clear from Fisher’s entire analysis is that Pound habitually sought refuge in unknowables. He appeals to rhythms of the troubadours – not given in the non-mensural notation of the manuscripts (“as of the nightingale too far off to be heard” Pound writes in Canto 20), the rhythms of other medieval non-mensural notations (unrecoverable with any certainty), the rhythms of the Confucian Odes (likewise lost in time), and finally to the perception not of the familiar overtone series, but the undertone series (theorized by Zarlino) which does not sound simultaneously with the fundamental pitch and is thus dismissed by many.

Fisher is well aware that her project bristles with such uncertainties. She is nonetheless willing to affirm that Pound, for example, “found a way forward through Dolmetsch that complemented and expanded his understanding of the literary theory of Dante.” The precise pathway from Dolmetsch through Couperin (perhaps), through the hotly debated rhythms of troubadour songs, to Dante’s analysis in De Vulgari, and then (presumably) to the Great Bass that underlies the Commedia, makes a perilous journey indeed. Pound’s readers are of course familiar with such widely separated connections. And it is often productive to pursue them. But in this case, I fear, the effort to literalize Pound’s affirmations leads only to a fiction, in the same way that a literalist belief in “absolute rhythm” can be said to discover an oxymoronic “precise emotion.” If I am right, Pound’s concept Great Bass remains a stubborn abstraction, a way of referring to the virtùof a masterwork, that distinctive and unique quality by which each given work of art exists.

 

NOTES

1           See Andrzej Sosnowski, "Pound's Imagism and Emmanuel Swedenborg" (Paideuma 20, Winter 1991: 31-38), and Lynn Wilkinson, The Dream of an Absolute Language: Emanuel Swedenborg and French Literary Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996). For a larger context, see Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language(translated by James Fentress, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

2           See John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700 (1961; New York: Norton, 1970).

*          See further discussion on this point in the correspondence below.