Josh Epstein. Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

            review by Richard Parker

Pound was a composer, a musical impresario, a considerable theorist of rhythm and harmony and a music journalist. Music is central to Pound’s poetics, informing the shape, rhythms, development and some of the themes of The Cantos. At the same time his understanding of poetic metre informs his approach to rhythm in his own musical compositions. Pound’s musical activities and thought have been well curated—R. Murray Schafer’s edition of Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism and the exemplary series of Pound’s scores and recordings by Margaret Fisher and Robert Hughes are essential for any reader considering Pound’s music—and various works have analysed Pound’s composition critically and his poetry through the prism of music—including Brad Bucknell’s Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics: Pater, Pound, Joyce and Stein and Margaret Fisher’s Ezra Pound's Radio Operas: The BBC Experiments, 1931-1933, The Echo of Villon in Ezra Pound’s Music and Poetry and The Transparency of Ezra Pound's Great Bass.

Like Bucknell’s study, Josh Epstein’s Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer offers a reading of modernism as a whole, pursuing certain strands of modernist music and modernist writing about music through various oeuvres and locales, with a particular emphasis on the manner in which music and noise might be differentiated in the age of modernism. This entails an implicit re-imagination of what modernism does with sound; for Epstein the period’s interest in new kinds of noise does not primarily represent a liberatory aural inclusiveness, but an anxious effort to partition noise and music. Thus Epstein defines his project as a “focus on modernism not as diffusion but as (attempted) concentration—an anxiety about noise amplified by the consolidation of form” (184). Epstein traces this understanding of modernist music through chapters on a series of familiar and less familiar modernists. He begins with an illuminating background chapter on modernism and music in which the approach is theorised via the ideas of thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali. This is followed by a chapter in which The Waste Land is set in constellation with Adorno and Wagner, a chapter on Pound and George Antheil and chapters on James Joyce (with some material on John Cage), Edith Sitwell and William Walton’s Façade; and, finally, E.M. Forster’s and Benjamin Britten’s queer modernist musicalities. Epstein writes confidently on both literature and music, offering many close readings of both literary texts and musical scores. His musicological close readings, in which he introduces persuasive and relevant musical analysis alongside literary texts, provide the most original and enlightening passages of Sublime Noise.


For Poundians, the chapters on The Waste Land and Pound and Antheil are likely to be of most interest. In the first, “Beating Obedient, Thinking of the Key: Adorno, The Waste Land, and the Total Work of Art,” Epstein sets up a comparison between Eliot, Adorno and Wagner. The combination of Eliot and Wagner is familiar, as is that between Adorno and Wagner, but the manner in which Epstein brings them together—generatively bouncing Eliot’s Wagner off of Adorno’s—brings excitement to the material.

As he moves on to Pound, with a chapter entitled “The Antheil Era: Ezra Pound’s Musical Sensations,” Epstein’s book becomes somewhat more problematic. At this point Epstein maps the two energising principles of his work, music and noise (two antagonistic principles encapsulated in the title, Sublime Noise), onto Pound and Antheil, with their musical collaboration exhibiting a dialectical confrontation between the “perdurable” sublime of music and the potential chaos of noise, with the categories existing in varying ratios in the work of both composers.

Epstein reads Pound’s poetry primarily through his poetry of the 1940s (prominently Cantos LXXII-LXXV, the ‘Italian’ and early Pisan Cantos) and his composition through his collaboration with Antheil around Le Testament de Villon in the mid-1920s. This anachronism is a part of the problem with Epstein’s reading, making the provocative comparison between the two off-centre from the beginning. This problem is exacerbated by other elements of Epstein’s reading; Pound is the only one of Epstein’s chosen modernists to also compose at a recognised level, making the kind of thinking that Epstein has to perform in this part of the book different from the other chapters. Accordingly, Epstein includes apologies for the limitedness of his approach; writing that “I recognize that it is an eccentric bird who considers Antheil a major figure on a par with Pound” (106), adding the caveat that his reading of Canto LXXV (the most musical Canto) will be “brief’” (136) while his “account of the Cantos themselves may seem breezy” (104)—admissions which do not necessarily excuse this strategy, nor endear the work to readers with a developed interest in Pound. The anachronism is exacerbated by the fact that Antheil is the most modern of Pound’s musical collaborators, and while Epstein is good at tracing the distinctively modernist excitement that these men created in their working together, Pound is almost entirely heard through Antheil’s ears. This entails a marked limiting of Pound’s extensive musical world, minimising Pound’s interest in medieval music and neo-classicism and distorting Pound’s music rather savagely.

Epstein’s seems to want to cast the mature Pound of the 1940s as a radical modernist after the mould of Antheil in the 1920s. The Pound/Antheil chapter begins, then, with the provocative claim that the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “influence on Pound, however, resonates more with every tortured disavowal” (100), going on to read his presence in Canto LXXII as evidence of mature Pound’s Futurism. Epstein’s Futurist Pound is a hallucination; such tendencies were surely transcended by 1944 as LXXII was drafted, and were never core to the poet’s modernism, as we can see in a Pound’s ambivalent contributions to BLAST and his positioning in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Pound’s musical interests, tended more to figures like Arnold Dolmetsch than Luigi Russolo, with Antheil—contrary to Epstein’s thesis—rather an aberration.

Antheil, with the bangs and crashes of Ballet Mécanique, gets closer to Futurism than Pound, and Le Testament de Villon famously features complex rhythmical innovations that are somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky and repeat gestures from Ballet Mécanique, yet the Testament’s medievalism and harmonic eccentricity (which Epstein outlines effectively) evidence, once again, the other side of Pound’s music that Epstein largely ignores, and which is the central timbre of the music of The Cantos (Fisher is essential when it comes to the manifestation of the rhythms of Pound’s composition in the fabric of the poem). It is also important to remember that Pound and Antheil’s Testament was just one iteration of the project, with a version orchestrated in collaboration with Agnes Bedford preceding it and two stripped-down, rhythmically simplified versions following. Later, around 1951, in a period closer to The Pisan Cantos than the original composition of the Testament, Pound would disown the Antheil version as ‘a curiosity, due to inexperience and Antheil’s total ignorance of language and articulation of same’ (quoted by David Moody in Ezra Pound Poet, II, 24—Moody’s account of the Testament is useful throughout).

When we look at the significant intrusions of music into The Cantos it is almost always in the context of the medieval and/or neoclassical, with Antheil’s presence anecdotal, not as a Cantos culture hero—Epstein himself refers to it as a ‘cameo’ (143). Canto LXXV, the central musical iteration of The Cantos, is treated briefly, with no mention of Gerhart Münch, Pound’s collaborator in Rapallo (whose arrangement is included by Pound in the canto), little analysis of Clement Janequin, Pound’s ‘Amici del Tigullio’ musical evenings, which point towards a more multifaceted musical engagement than we get to see in Sublime Noise.

Epstein’s reading of Pound aside, there is much to enjoy in Sublime Noise, and the ambitious breadth of his project argues for a singular and inclusive reconsideration of modernism that this reviewer welcomes. His writing on the Sitwells and Walton and Forster and Britten is rewarding, and drawn from a quite different auditory and literary world from Pound—simply seeing such works as Façade and Peter Grimes juxtaposed with Pound is striking and revelatory.