The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass

Kindle 2013.


review by Roxana Preda


Said the Philosopher: You think that I have learned a great deal,

and kept the whole of it in my memory?

Sse replied with respect: Of course. Isn’t that so?

It is not so. I have reduced all to one principle. (Guide to Kulchur 15)

Margaret Fisher’s e-book The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass is culled from a dissertation [Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera Collis O Heliconii] whose subtitle “The Transmission of History through Song” prepares us to treat Pound’s engagement with music seriously. The e-book as a stand-alone is a difficult read for two reasons. For a non-musician, it is very technical and goes into levels of detail where an untrained reader might well get lost if not careful. Moreover, Fisher builds on pre-existing research on Pound and music, including her own. The books published under the aegis of the Second Evening Art Publishing could be considered the Great Bass of the present volume, understood as a fundamental vibration determining both the tempo and rhythm of the melody built above it. Moreover, Fisher also relies on Murray Schafer’s edition of Pound’s music criticism, as well as his own annotations and comments, but does not revisit the basics. This is the task of her reader.

In the present volume, Fisher advances the hypothesis that Pound’s theory of a fundamental bass and his views on harmony more generally, should not be considered “opaque” i.e. derived from personal musical preferences consolidated into dogma, but rather have to be seen against a background of musical thinking on harmony and the bass along history. This is why Fisher formulates her research as an argument for “transparency,” aiming to discover a configuration of precedent for Pound’s musical theorizing. Her concern is therefore to establish analogies, contextualization, and comparisons between Pound’s ideas and musical thought, innovation, and change across the ages. By so doing, Fisher creates a history of musical theorizing tailored to Pound’s specific definitions and questions as a listener, composer, and theorist. In this enterprise she lets herself be guided by the names that Pound mentions in Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (ATH) as well as other works. Musical terminology is also relevant, even if the theorist’s name is not mentioned. If in ATH, for instance, Pound uses the term “node” or “wave node” to explain the rudiments of the overtone series by his example of a drum beat at the hearing threshold of 16 beats per second, we might infer that he was familiar with Joseph Sauveur’s ideas and terminology as they had filtered though the books he read, even if he did not expressly mention Sauveur’s name.

Fisher creates five successive zones of interest in her book: 1. starting from Dolmetsch as Pound’s first mentor, she explains the poet’s involvement with troubadour music, the technical side of old notation and the medieval understanding of motz el son from the musical point of view; 2. she explores Pound’s hypothesis of a continuity between Cavalcanti and the work of Thomas Campion going into the latter’s views on the bass and his modification of the cantus firmus; 3. she presents the first theorization of a fundamental bass and Rameau’s concept of corps sonore; 4. she compares Pound’s views to Henry Cowell’s presentation of the overtone series for the lay public, and finally 5. she speculates on the rarefied, almost mystical question of undertones, sound vibrations beneath the bass, first theorized by G. Zarlino in the 16th c. whom Pound mentions in his own Treatise and later in Guide to Kulchur.


I. Arnold Dolmetch and the old music revival

As every reader of Pound’s Treatise is bound to find out from the beginning of that slim volume, Pound’s animus against classical, chordal, or vertical harmony was very strong. Until the 18th century, harmony (or the vertical dimension of music, notes being sung or played simultaneously) was established by the intersection of a number of melodies, which could be the same (as in the canon, see our example, Sumer Is Icumen in included in the present issue of MIN), similar, or contrasting. Moreover, during the Baroque period of Vivaldi, Bach, and Händel, the bass line was largely improvised by the performer. A score written in so-called figured bass, used at the time, indicated only a fundamental note and two numbers to designate the intervals starting from it. A standard 1-3-5 chord (i.e. a chord composed of the root with the third and fifth notes of its scale on top) was not even written down. The performer could choose how to interpret the numbers creatively, for example he could choose to put the root note at the top of the chord, or even not to play it at all. The new rules, which Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie (1722) helped establish, changed all that: all the chord notes were written down in the score and the performer lost his freedom to improvise. 

 Eventually, the melody ceased to be the sole raison d’être of the music, but was rather derived from the top notes of a chord progression with a few passing notes to give it continuity and flow. If Pound championed the player’s obligation to the composer, he did not champion the reduced importance of melody. “Melody is the most artificial thing in music, meaning that it is the furthest removed from anything the composer finds THERE, ready in nature, needing only direct imitation or copying.  It is therefore the root, the test, etc.” (ABC 24)

This turn is at the basis of Pound’s Treatise, it is the rationalization of his preference for pre-classical music and for the continued animus he had against compositions from Beethoven to his own generation. He considered such chords “static” and compared them to “steam ascending from a morass:”

"The early students of harmony were so accustomed to think of music as something with a strong lateral or horizontal motion that they never imagined any one, any one could be stupid enough to think of it as static; it never entered their heads that people would make music like steam ascending from a morass.

They thought of music as travelling rhythm going through points or barriers of pitch and pitch-combinations." (ATH 11)

If this was a rather late rationalization, following more than a decade of interest in troubadour songs, Pound held strong convictions about the value of melody and more importantly about the precise gauging of time between the striking of a chord and the time it needed to play itself out in all its vibrations. Apart from that, Pound was dead against manuals of harmony teaching the rules of chord progression. In his eyes, only interesting progressions counted – these did not depend on recipes, or treatises, but rather on the genius of the performer or composer. Pound started his Treatise with what looked like a conclusion: “A sound of any pitch, or any combination of such sounds, may be followed by a sound of any other pitch, or any combination of such sounds providing the time interval between them is properly gauged” (ATH 10). No recipes, no clichés, only proper durations.

Pound’s ideas about music were profoundly influenced by Dolmetsch’s The Interpretation of Music of the XVII and XVIII Centuries Revealed by Contemporary Evidence (1916). Dolmetsch drew on old manuals to reveal the differences between the ways the music was notated and the way it was performed. Performers could follow “customary style” and not “strict time” – as practitioners, they had a feeling for a fundamental irregularity, something under the surface that could be felt. Fisher intends the reader to extrapolate the correlation between the irregularity practiced in music and the kind of irregular, yet disciplined and informed rhythms that could replace accent and meter in English verse; Pound’s defence, according to Murray Schafer, against free verse. 

If Couperin as cited in Dolmetsch could say “we write differently from what we play” (LE 439) and could count on a “customary style” defined by variation, improvisation and experience, the new practice of actually writing down the notes, contributed to standardize performance and reduced the player’s role to sticking exactly to what was written down (a role Pound later championed in GK).

Pound related Dolmetsch’s commentaries on music, especially those on musical ornamentation, to Dante’s poetics in Convivio: “Poetry is a composition of words set to music” (LE 437). Fisher compares passages in De Vulgari Eloquentiaand Dolmetsch’s Interpretation to relate Dante’s alternation of “smooth haired” (consonant) and “shaggy” (harsh or dissonant) words to Dolmetsch’s discussion of the ornaments, which produce a “discord, which when used with taste and emphasised on the beat with the Harmony, often produces rich and surprising effects; chords, in fact, which the composers would not have dared to write out plainly.” It is not much of a leap to proceed to Pound’s dictum to “pay some attention to the sequence, or scale, of vowels in the line, and of the vowels terminating the group of lines in a series.” (ABC 206)

With his face firmly turned towards medieval music, Pound referred favourably to Franco of Cologne who in his book of 1260, Ars cantus mesurabilis, changed the way music was notated. Troubadour music, judging from the little that survives, relied on the singer knowing the words. The early mensural notation conformed the rhythms to one of the so-called “modes” derived from classical rhetoric and applied to the syllables in a line. Out of the six possible modes only four were used regularly: 1. long-short (trochee); 2. short-long (iamb); 3. long-short-short (dactyl) 4. long-long (spondee). Fisher explains that the rhyming syllable would establish what mode would apply and music would ply itself to the words by backward scansion. The corollary to this state of affairs was that texts with the same rhythmic structure could be accommodated by the same melody. Franco of Cologne notated the duration of pitches by the stems, flags, and ligatures still in use today. The implication for poetry was that “his system liberated each note from the tyranny of its position in line determined by a modal template.” Fisher wants us to substitute poetic meter for modal template. She concludes, “In a general sense, because of the traditional bond of words and music in the medieval period, Franco’s innovations reflect on poetry as well as on music.” They also represent the first step in the musical emancipation from the word, since music could now be notated independently from a text and was not necessarily conditioned by the human voice. The irony was that words liberated from a template, an advance from a poet’s perspective, would then be expelled from the music, a retreat, which will repeat itself with Campion’s innovations. 

With the development of polyphony, separation became even more reasonable – the words could not be clearly heard in a contrapuntal structure and lost their importance. On the other hand, poets whose aim was depth and sophistication could best make themselves understood by giving up the melody, which would naturally draw attention to itself and away from the text. Pound may have felt that whole forms of thought were lost when the practices changed. He tried to recover them in Confucius’ Odes, in the troubadours, and in Campion’s songs for solo voice accompanied by lute.


II. Thomas Campion

In medieval polyphonic choir music, the tune emanated from the tenor part: the tenor voice sang the line that gave the piece its structure and direction, what came to be known as cantus firmus. This situation began to change in Italy around 1480 – in the new fashion, the upper voice carried the melody, supported by a harmony rooted in a bass and arranged upwards towards the top main line. For a long time the only music genre for solo voice with lute accompaniment was the so-called frottola – from it, two forms of vocal music were to develop: the madrigals and the German humanist odes. 

The flourishing of a song culture in Elizabethan England at the turn of the 17th c. began when English composers adapted the madrigal for a domestic interior. For Pound this period (1597-1630) was to be a brief revival of the lost troubadour tradition. 

Campion is significant because he was committed to composing poems and music as a unit; he also theorized the bass in his book A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counter-point, by a Most Familiar and Infallible Rule (1613-1616). Campion formalized the bass - it was no more the chance meeting of two or three notes as the voices were singing their parts, but rather a precise delineation of both triadic chord and chord progression to give depth to the melody. Having relocated the cantus firmus in the bass, Campion paved the way for instruments to play together without voices.

Fisher uncovers yet another interesting parallelism between Campion and Pound: the desire to experiment with quantitative verse, Greek and Latin. She analyses in detail Campion’s song Come, Let us Sound With Melody written in Sapphic meter. Music was designed to maintain a true proportion by correlating pitch alteration with intonation and pronunciation. 

We have no evidence that Pound was aware of Campion’s experiments with quantitative verse. The English poet-songwriter had disappeared from public attention and it was only between 1922-1926 that Edmund Fellowes arranged performance editions of his work. However, A New Way was available in Percival Vivian’s edition of Campion’s Works(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909); a copy of the first edition (1610) was in the British Library. One enticing bit of information that Fisher brings forward is that Part IV of this work included Campion’s translation and summation of Sethus Calvisius’ MELOPOEIA sive Melodiae condendae ratio (1592), a response to Zarlino’s experiments.

Pound as music critic for New Age reviewed two of Campion’s works in recital on two occasions in 1918 (EPM 76, 102). We might assume he heard Dolmetsch play the works for him or heard them at one of Dolmetsch’s home concerts, possibly accompanied by discussion, given the many critical references to Campion and admonitions to bring his work forward, that Pound included in his prose.


III. Jean Philippe Rameau

Robert Hughes surmises that Pound may well have read Herman Helmholtz’s Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, (4th ed., 1877, translated into English in 1895, newly available in the London bookstores in 1912 [CPMEP 138]); Pound may also have become familiar with Rameau’s ideas contained in the Traité de l’harmonie(1722) and Génération harmonique (1737). Pound never mentions Rameau but all the animosity against the “vertical” dimension of music could be interpreted as a protest against Rameau’s work as music theorist. The French composer produced chord templates and types of cadence (i.e. standard closing chord progressions), he went so far as to advertise in Paris that he could teach harmony to anyone, even to those with no musical training. Rameau also sought to derive laws of harmony universally applicable instead of relying on customary practices and the performer experience. 

In his search for templates for chord progressions, Rameau came across Joseph Sauveur’s work in acoustics (a term Sauveur coined himself) in his Traité de la théorie de la musique (1697). Relying on Sauveur’s measurements of pitch and overtone vibrations, Rameau made the overtone series the very foundation of his theory on harmony. Overtones are partial vibrations occurring together with the vibration of the main pitch. Rameau sought to apply these discoveries in acoustics to his theory of fundamental bass, maintaining that any object (corps sonore) could emit harmonic vibrations. For this he was attacked by the scientific luminaries of the day, Bernoulli and Euler.

Maybe in this spirit, Pound did not choose a vibrating string but a drum to make his explanation of overtones in his own Treatise. But while Rameau was interested in the overtones series in theorizing chords, Pound was only concerned in the overtones occurring in the horizontal movement of melody. For Fisher, the most important common ground was the nature of the great bass. For both Rameau and Pound fundamental bass was a phenomenon of the physical world, but for both it acquired transcendental dimensions: “The corps sonore and great bass were both generative principles. Rameau believed he had discovered a totalizing rationale for all intellectual life. Pound believed he had discovered a totalizing rationale for intellectual form and with it, insight into a certain kind of individual genius.”

IV. Henry Cowell

Together with journalist Robert L. Duffus, the American composer Henry Cowell published a series of three articles called “Harmonic Development in Music” in The Freeman in 1921. The thesis of the series was that the developments in the acoustics and the overtone series made certain intervals acceptable to the human ear along history. The perfect intervals, octave, fifth and fourth were known since Pythagoras and were the basis of consonance and armonia. In the course of history, new intervals, initially perceived as dissonant, were gradually accepted, making music an ever more sophisticated and complex art. Cowell’s look into the future was an argument pro domo, a belief and a hope that his own tone clusters, which were chords made of notes in the supremely dissonant interval of minor seconds, would in time be accepted.

A juxtaposition between Pound and Cowell makes evident how different Pound was from the American avant-garde. Antheil’s absorption in machines, mechanisms, and noise, Cowell’s experiments in acoustics and overtones are very different from Pound’s narrative of a musical decadence which starts from the original sin of the divorce between word and music and continues with the general preference for chords and chord progressions in the classic and Romantic periods. Even if, under Antheil’s influence, Pound was imagining a music made by factory machines which would empower and not tire workers, his long-term allegiance was to melody, preferably that of the pre-classical era. However, as Fisher points out, although Pound was vitally interested in Villon and Cavalcanti, his was not an antiquarian concern. He used modern notation, modern science and modern instrumentation for both his operas. “To reassert a primary role for horizontality in music he scored Le Testament as a ‘blending of varied rhythms’ and Cavalcanti as a study in the influence of tempo. Both operas rely on the assumption that the ear could hear the influence of the beat on the harmonies that were sounded.”


V. Undertones

Pound brings up the question of undertones in Guide to Kulchur, the compendium of the Great Bass:

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.

It is unlikely that great composers neglected this basis. (73)

Fisher researched this hypothesis. Were great composers aware of vibrations, partials below the fundamental line of a composition? In his Treatise, Pound mentions G. Zarlino’s Le instituzioni harmoniche of 1558 which was the first to theorize the existence of undertones: Zarlino demanded that the minor triad chord below the fundamental be given equal importance as the major triad above it. Rameau in his time looked for undertones as well, but could not find a physical basis for them. Mathematically possible, the undertones were beneath the range perceptible to the ear. Pound affirmed he could hear them in the playing of the pipe organ as a series of woof-woofs, therefore as rhythm, not pitch (ATH 23).

Cowell theorized undertones as well, stating that under laboratory conditions these could be heard. He was referring to the acoustics lab in the Moscow conservatory and the experiments of the Soviet scientist Garbusov.

But the undertones remained elusive as a musical concept.

Pound’s musical theoretical work did not aim to offer answers but rather to sum up personal findings, raise questions, and initiate research. Perhaps the most troubling and interesting direction is the extrapolation from music theory to larger cultural concerns that both he and Rameau found necessary: to effect a transition from the bass as slow vibration and foundation of what Pound called “absolute rhythm” to the essential definitions of culture and to the genius able to formulate them.


Caleon, I. S. and R. Subramanian. “From Pythagoras to Sauveur: tracing the history of ideas about the nature of sound.” Physics Education 42.2 (2007): 173-179. IOPscience. Web. 15 November 2014. 

Pound Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1987.

___. Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. With Supplementary Notes by Ezra Pound. Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1927. [ATH]

___. Ezra Pound and Music. The Complete Criticism. Ed. Murray Schafer. New York: New Directions, 2008. [ERM]

___. Guide to Kulchur. London: Peter Owen, 1978. 

___. Literary Essays. New York: New Directions, 1968. [LE]