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“The Universe hums a very low Bb”

Fisher and Adams in correspondence


On 11/8/2014 11:32 AM, Stephen J Adams wrote: 


Speech after long silence. I have been meaning to get in touch with you and Bob for a long time, remembering that my last message was terribly rushed and abrupt. But I haven't done it until now, when an occasion has come up. I hope both of you are doing well, and there are a few newcomers to Pound-Music scholarship.

As I think I told you, my own work has turned away from Pound, though I haven't really turned my back on him. I am working on a book that's grown out of a grad course on the American Ode, a subject that has consumed me, since it takes me into American history, the distressing reaches of American politics, and my own lifelong expatriation. (You see the spirit of EP still hovers.) I have published a chapter on Philip Freneau's "Rising Glory of America," and another on James Russell Lowell's "Harvard Commemoration Ode" is due to come out. Now I'm at work on the Southerners -- Timrod (Poet Laureate of the Confederacy), Sidney Lanier (who's quoted in the Pisans), and Allen Tate (from whom I once took an undergraduate course). Meanwhile, I've reached the age of retirement, so there is time for both writing and relaxing.

The occasion came up when Roxana Preda asked me to review your book on Great Bass. I was flustered for many reasons, primarily practical. First, Roxana wanted the review on a week's notice or so, and second, I did not have Kindle at hand. But there was a deeper reason as well, in that when I read the study that you sent me in typescript, I read it with a great deal of scepticism. I have never been able to make sense out of Pound's theory. You make a valiant and serious effort to do that -- far more seriously than I've ever attempted to do -- but I'm still not convinced that Pound was actually hearing something the rest of us poor mortals have been unable to make out. 

I've sent my piece to Roxana, probably too late for her to do anything with it. But I'm sending it to you as well, both as a courtesy and as a souvenir of when we were working together. I hope the positives outweigh the negatives in my comments. The book really is a remarkable effort. And if you think I'm terribly wrong headed or mistaken, please tell me. As I say, Pound's thinking here really escapes me.

All my best wishes to you and Bob.

On 11/08/14, Margaret Fisher wrote:

Dear Stephen,  
How great to hear from you. …          
Re Great Bass, you are right to be skeptical. At the end of his life Pound wrote notes on scraps of paper (perhaps you saw these in the Beinecke). One had him lamenting that he mistook a theory for a mechanism. I read Great Bass into that - but there's no proof. 

I do think Pound could hear duration very keenly, as others hear perfect pitch. I don't know if he tried to hear overtones or if he could, or if yes, then how far he got. Lou Harrison used to speak of being able to hear up to the 17th overtone. But don't quote me - this is from memory of a conversation.

The proof I present that Pound could hear duration so well is in my essay in the facsimile edition of Le Testament (it is the same as my first kindle book). 
Meanwhile, I look forward to your arguments. I welcome a challenge (or multiple challenges) as I've been sparring with ghosts in a vacant corner of Pound studies for too long. (Maybe I shouldn't say this until I read what you've written!) Are you sending the piece by mail or can you attach it to an email?

Bob sends his regards as do I,

All best wishes,


On 11/8/2014 3:03 PM, Stephen J Adams wrote: 


It's good to be back in touch with you too. I know what you mean by sparring in a vacant corner. I wish a few more Poundians would enter the ring, now that you've made the materials so easily available.

I'm glad to hear your notes of scepticism about Great Bass as well. It's very likely Pound's late note refers to it. Let me know if I attribute less scepticism to you than is right -- you seem to downplay it very much in the book. And of course, any other howlers you will surely bring to my attention. I was writing very quickly, and I thought I'd attached the piece to my first message. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here it is.

And yes, I do agree that Pound had an extraordinary ear for duration, both musical and verbal. His ear for Greek and Latin measures was certainly better than most of the professors who professed them. I get at some of that in my "Metrical Contract" article.

Let me know your thoughts, good or bad.


On 11/09/2014 7:57 PM, Margaret Fisher wrote: [edited]

Your email arrived after I sent my "response" - sorry for things out of order. Maybe I was reading too much into your review because below, your expression re possible value as an abstract idea but not as a deep-seated rumble I find perfectly agreeable. But beware! Astronomers have determined that the universe hums a very low Bb.


On 11/9/2014 6:15 PM, Stephen J Adams wrote: 


I am relieved that you are grateful -- I wasn't sure you would be, and I'd certainly withdraw the review if it offended you since it's no more than an opinion. But I'm very glad you are responding. I think the dialogue is useful.

I'm not sure where you think you need correction. Yes, my phrase "empirical reality" does refer to the behavior of sound waves, which are certainly empirical enough. I know a small bit about the physical acoustics of sound waves, but not nearly as much as you do. So you have the advantage there. As for Pound's intuitions, preternatural or otherwise, well, sometimes they prove fruitful, sometimes not.

My background here goes back to my study of metrics, and years of butting my head against Pound's quantities -- his ear for durations, which we both agree was unusually keen. I was trying to get at Pound's verse rhythm, and kept getting fussier and fussier, with no results. I read books on phonetics, just as EP made his visit to Abbe Rousselot, where he saw God's own Englishman with a tube up his nose reciting verses into a machine. But it was only when I relaxed and took a longer, looser view that pieces fell into place, and I was able to write "The Metrical Contract" and the Free Verse chapter of Poetic Designs. So with Great Bass, my feeling is that whatever value it may have, it's as an abstract idea, not as some mysterious deep-seated rhythmical rumble. 

On the other hand, I know too that, as the phoneticists tell us, the ordinary human ear is capable of astonishing discriminations of sound, from onset and fade, to timbre determined by overtone structure, to vowel placement and coloration (in classical voice training), to tones (in Chinese) or durations (in classical Greek), and on and on. So perhaps there is a dimension of sound that I cannot grasp, and that EP had an inkling of.

So as I said before, Roxana and Margaret, feel free to use my comments or not, as you see best.

Best to you both,


On 11/09/14 11:50AM, Margaret Fisher wrote, [edited]

Dear Stephen and Roxana,      

I am grateful, Stephen, that you answered Roxana's request for a review, and grateful, Roxana, to learn that you too may have written a response to the Transparency of Great Bass.

I am counting on you both to tell me that the short statement I am formulating does or does not square with my writing of the past!


On 11/09/14 7:57PM, Margaret Fisher wrote,


Thank you for your review. Your positives do outweigh the negatives and I am grateful for your comments. Your arguments reflect my lacunae, something that perhaps might have been rectified had I gone through the vetting process with an outside publisher and readers . . . I neglected to address the first use of the term ‘great base’ by Pound and I neglected to state what I hoped the reader might gain from a long survey directly largely to the field of music. 

Because you take me to task using the term ‘empirical’, I question the meaning you intend (my most embarrassing moment in your article). I am not a hagiographer nor do I have implicit faith in Pound’s intuitions, though I do, as methodology, take his words at face value. The OED defines empirical in contradistinction to scientific knowledge but everyday use has it synonymous with both ‘scientific’ and ‘speculative.’  I’ve included the term below in the way I think it relates to the discussion (and to my perspective). 

I want to particularly thank you for the Caccini reference, which I did not know. As for Pound’s ideas about genius – I agree with you. I thought I had dismissed this aspect of great bass as too problematic to pursue very far. My intention was to show that Pound, thinking as a composer, despite minimal training, can be charted idea-wise and time-wise in the ongoing discussion of overtones, undertones and the perception of sound. 

I wrote my response to you formally in order to organize my ideas. I sign off here so that our conversational tone is not interrupted, because I most of all, I value the chance to exchange ideas with you. 


The “go to” Pound book for ‘Great Bass’ is Guide to Kulchur (1938). Not only does it have two chapter headings on the subject; it offers Pound’s last word on the subject. Adams concludes that Great Bass was Pound’s “way of referring to the virtù of a masterwork,” a slippery concept to be sure. But Guide also presents Great Bass as referring to something quite specific: the unheard pitch fundamental measured in beats (rhythm) that determines the sound we are physically able to hear: “Down below the lowest note synthesized by the ear and "heard" there are slower vibrations. The ratio between these frequencies and those written to be executed by instruments is OBVIOUS in mathematics. The whole question of tempo, and of a main base in all musical structure resides in use of these frequencies” (73). 

The term ‘great base’ first appeared in Pound’s article “Workshop Orchestration” (1927). The article advocated for a contemporary music based in the rhythms, for example, of the asphalt drill, and from those rhythms it would be possible to work out the fundamental (lower or unheard) octave to arrive at the overtones, i.e., the sound that is heard. Pound, reluctant to explain further, adds, “vide my book on Antheil.” He refers to Antheil and the Theory on Harmony, published in 1924. 

The premise of my book The Transparency of Great Bass is an investigation of “Pound’s references to this long-standing practical and theoretical tradition in music concerning the bass part and bass function.” Great base/Bass was the idea, based on Pound’s understanding of the science of acoustics—accurate or faulty as that may have been—that enabled him to articulate an original theory of musical harmony that took into consideration the perception of sound (its empirical reality) in relation to the fundamental and its overtone series (the science of sound). I believe Pound’s great base/ bass and theory of harmony are best understood in the context of work by Thomas Campion, Hermann von Helmholtz, Arthur Oettingen and Hugo Riemann, all of whom considered the role of psychology and logic on the perception of consonance and dissonance. 

Pound made statements in Guide to Kulchur about Great Bass that reach beyond music into other fields—literature, government and the physiology of genius—applications and ideas that are unique to Pound and that push the original ‘great base’ into spurious territory. 

It remains to say that the value of Pound’s formulation of a theory of harmony out of the notion of a great base/bass relates to our understanding of the structural role of time in art, particularly music and poetry.

On 11/09/14 8:49PM, Stephen J Adams wrote,


Your reply is excellent. Let it all stand.

A couple of quick comments:

            (1) On Helmholtz: Back in their London years together, Eliot and Pound used the pseudonyms Sebastian and (was it?) Hermann von Helmholtz for writing very funny satirical letters to various po-faced British journals.

(2) On B-flat: Murray says somewhere in Tuning of the World that according to his experiments, random individuals or groups asked to hum "any pitch" will most often settle on B-flat. I think he says it's the pitch of electric hums as well. I'd have to look it up.

My review does not raise issues of possible consequences of this deep rhythm: Does it mean that white noise and atonal music are really "in B flat"? Is tempo necessarily unitary and inflexible (as EP professed to prefer in Vivaldi-Bach as opposed to Schumann-Franck? Must all tempi have a proportional relationship to this deep rumble? How does the working composer take it into account? Etc etc etc.

I must say I'm enjoying this exchange, now, being so suddenly cut off from campus -- not that the intellectual exchanges there were all that abundant. I still love your phrase about shadow boxing in a vacant corner.


On 11/10/14 6:26AM, Stephen J Adams wrote,


I know you mention Antheil and Linda Whitesitt's book. But as I think about it, he seems EP's likeliest source for all this. I'm thinking particularly of the patent that he and Hedy Lamarr took out on a sonar device that was actually used by the Allies during the War for submarine detection. 

Is that a piece of the puzzle?