The Echo of Villon in Ezra Pound’s Music and Poetry .
Toward a Theory of Duration Rhyme .
review by Roxana Preda
Margaret Fisher’s two volumes of 2013,1 The Echo of Villon and The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass make a very important claim, namely that musical thought and musical composition are not ancillary to Pound’s poetry but offer a veritable methodology for studying Pound’s prosody structures. Readers who are familiar with even rudiments of musical theory will be able to follow Fisher’s argument, which is written with a clarity especially valuable to a non-musician reader. The payoff is huge – if Fisher is right, we may be able to understand and study Pound’s very special melopoeia using music analysis and digital tools to develop new methodologies. Implicitly, Fisher asks us to acknowledge and study music theory as an obligatory discipline in the Ezuversity curriculum.
Her perspective and methodology in The Echo of Villon are derived from her computer-assisted analysis of Pound’s recorded readings. She discovered that Pound was maintaining a stable 88 beat per minute tempo in reading his poetry aloud – an unusual skill. Because Pound’s tempo provided a steady reference, it was possible for Fisher to measure line, phrase, word, syllable, and vowel durations in a precise way. She found a great deal of structural coherence in the relationships and proportions established among them. Pound’s compositional activities between 1930 and 1933, while scoring the successive versions of his opera, Le Testament de François Villon were not a simple diversion from poetry, as traditionally assumed, but rather the workshop in which Pound learned to think in “shapes cut in time” by teaching himself how to compose musical structures adjusted to French quantitative verse. Fisher calls these shapes “duration rhymes”: they were first theorized in the facsimile edition, Le Testament. An Opera by Ezra Pound, edited by her and Robert Hughes.
The Echo of Villon
Pound’s efforts to learn the art of poetry from Provençal and Italian poets from the 12th to the 14th century, through criticism, biography, translation, and new composition are well recorded. His effort to transcribe these poetries into music is less studied but constituted in Pound’s eyes a legitimate way to grapple with the technicalities and modes of expression inherent in these poetries. In his “Dateline” essay of 1934, Pound made it clear – setting words to music was a method of criticism (LE 74). We would add: it was a method to create a new prosody that had more to do with Stravinsky than with classical meters.
Fisher presents in quick tempo the outline of Pound’s activities as a composer: these are known and finely presented here for readers unfamiliar with them. For the purpose of this review I will concentrate on the essential parts of Fisher’s argument, which hinge on Pound’s notion of harmony and rhythm. For Pound music was “pure rhythm: rhythm and nothing else, for the variation of pitch is the variation in rhythms of the individual notes [that is the frequency of vibrations], and harmony the blending of these varied rhythms.” (Introduction to Sonnets and Ballate 1910)
The concept of harmony, Pound explained in A Few Don’ts, (Poetry 1913), refers to a poet’s technique of building a residue of sound from the tonal leadings of words. Pound remarked: “The term harmony is misapplied to poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base” (LE 6-7). Pound considered scoring a poem as an effort to transmit its emotional/musical virtues where words in the translator’s language fail. This rhymes well with W. Benjamin’s comment that translation can deliver not so much fidelity to the meaning of a poet but an echo, a “reverberation of the work” in an alien language. If the true voice of a poet is manifested through the construction of his particular sound, then music CAN translate where words cannot.
Fisher points out that French poems are the most difficult to set to music (or translate, we would add) because, quoting Susan Youens,
accents in French have nothing to do with beat and meter but rather with cadence or phrase, with measure governed by syntax. The language is syllabic before it is accentual… Rhythm and syntax are interdependent; grammatical and syntactical groupings form the smallest units of measurement. (418)
Meter in French is measured solely by the number of syllables in the line, the duration and pace/cadence are determined by moveable stresses (accents mobiles) which occupy varying positions within the line. Within Villon’s 8 to 10 syllable line, for example, the mobile accents offer variety and unpredictability, making irregularity a natural condition. In music, this would be analogous to variable time signatures changing very fast and also to “irrational meters” like 7/8, or 3/16, instead of a regular beat of say 4/4 or 3/4.
Fisher concludes that Villon’s poetry offered Pound a model on how he could write free verse without sacrificing structure; more specifically, on how to establish relative proportions between units of pattern within the lines. Fisher calls these “relative durations” and in her examples she shows how these “cross-brace” the seemingly random fragments, conferring upon the poem a “feeling of coherence, even if subconsciously.”
Pound had absorbed two very different examples of internal cross-bracing in art: the first was Wyndham Lewis’s Timon of Athens series: Fisher relies here on Ron Bush’s analysis of Lewis’s design as a system of interlocking pattern units in relation and repetition (Genesis 30, 41). The second example is the intricate construction of sound pattern, rhyme-schemes, assonances and alliteration in Cavalcanti’s poem Donna mi prega (Fisher 20).
Fisher coins the term “duration-rhyme” and “duration-resonance” for the proportional structures emerging out of rhythmic variation and precisely delimited intervals within the phrasing of the poem. From Pound’s acute sense of the duration of syllables, words, and phrases and their rhythmic correlation, he could construct a repertoire of design units he could combine in stable relationships, arrange in symmetries, repeat in new contexts. In a letter to Mary Barnard in 1933 Pound wrote:
“Get a metronome and learn HOW long the different syllables and groups of them take.
and don’t go telling everybody I said so/
I don’t want the NEXT “movement” smeared over by Lowells and people who WONT work.”
(letter to Mary Barnard, December 2, 1933 in Barnard 54)
Determining length, duration, and relative proportion of words and syllables was the integral part of Pound’s new aesthetic of 1919. “To compose in the sequence of the musical phrase not in sequence of a metronome” (LE 3) as he had insisted in his imagist credo of 1913 was not a rejection of the metronome (which would be contrary to his creating and relying on precise durations – ultimately this sort of precision can only be obtained by mechanical means) but merely avoiding the assignment of “each sonic event to the regularly occurring beat.”
Pound’s interest lies in how long it takes to say or sing the internal phrases and their combination as entire lines. The brain can remember proportional relationships between phrases and lines so that phrasal duration becomes a viable way to “cut a shape in time.”
The 1923 version of the Testament score aimed for the absolute – the musical rhythms were notated so minutely that they revealed if not the original breath then the supposed mathematics emanating from Villon’s words, according to Pound, we might add. They were impracticable because they had irrational time divisions, double dots assigned to very short temporal subdivisions, and continuous change from one unfamiliar time signature to another. However, Pound found that most of his rhythms could be contained in a 5/8 time signature and this is the meter he chose for the reworking of the Testament score in 1926 (letter to Isabel Pound 1926, Letters to his parents 588).
It was vital to Fisher’s argument for her to show that these procedures traduced musical composition into the actual writing of poetry. Fisher flowed Pound’s audio into a digital timeline viewed on her computer screen against regularly occurring time divisions so as to be able to transcribe into musical notation the durations and rhythms of phrasal groups in Canto IV, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and cantos 17, 30, 36, 45, as Pound recorded them for Harvard Vocarium (1939) and Caedmon records (1958). She wrote Pound’s rhythms as metrical proportions to indicate the durations of phrasal groups relative to a tempo of 88 metronome beats per minute.
Mutatis mutandis, Fisher’s analysis, based on a re-transcription of lines of verse as music, using digital tools is a variation of the method that Pound had used to transcribe Villon into an opera. She has the advantage that Pound actually recorded himself reading his poems so she can precisely establish both the tempo and the relative durations of Pound’s spoken phrases. Ironically, like Pound she too has to have recourse to double dots and irrational meter that has to change very often to render the inflections of intonation, syllable length and silences into musical terms.
In Canto 4 for example, the meter may change twice in just one line:
Saffron sandal so petals the narrow foot: Hymenaeus Io!
9/16 7/16 7/16 8/16
where 16 is a time subdivision lasting 1/6 seconds at a tempo of 88 beats per minute and the numerators 9, 7, 8 are the number of notes of the 16th time value in a rhythmic cell. (See Moody’s Ezra Pound Poet II: 20 for even more complicated rhythmic structures in the Testament, derived from Fisher and Hughes’s facsimile edition of the 1923 score.)
Fisher used scoring the words to the same purpose as Pound did, to reveal a new dimension of criticism, to understand the meaning and design of the poem via the concept and example of rhythmic cell or “rhythmicle” defined as a “modular unit joined into interlocking patterns.”
In her analysis of Mauberley, Fisher shows how symmetries are established across the verse lines from asymmetries arising in the rhythmic cells. This is what she calls cross-bracing, creating an underlying sense of structure and regularity that the brain might perceive as a trace – It would be interesting to test if these symmetries occur in the Testament score as well, facilitating the recognition of proportion and pattern.
The Duration rhyme
Fisher hypothesizes that Pound may have created a lexicon not of words and phrases, but of “phrasal units, catalogued according to duration and banked in his ear.”
The method allowed him to orchestrate a poem made of fragments similarly to the way in which Lewis had governed the pattern units in Timon. Pound used the aural properties of phrasal units much like a composer would combine rhythmic and melodic cells.
It is not that the composition of an opera influenced the writing of poetry by educating Pound to use rhythmicles and arranging durations in relation to one another. The analysis shows that Pound was already bringing musical understanding into his poems before the Testament was composed so that actually scoring these rhythms developed naturally out of Pound’s prosody/methods.
Still, the fact that Pound took so much time out of a busy schedule to learn musical notation, and notate the Testament four times shows that Villon was especially important not only in the essential task of renewing prosody but also in his agenda of introducing the quantitative element into English poetry (SL 181). People who listened to him recite his poems aloud observed this. In a letter that John Peale Bishop wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1922, Bishop remarked: “I got Pound to read one of the cantos, which was an extraordinary business, since he treats English, his English at least, as a quantitative language. I don’t mean that he treats words like lockjaw as spondees; the whole business is treated as if accent existed no more than in classic Latin and the combination of long and shorts were all there were to it.”2
Pointing to the period when Pound’s musical composition overlapped his writing of Mauberley, Fisher finds tantalizing hints that Pound reserved characteristic durations for the poets he loved and of himself as well: Villon at 7/16; Homer at 5/16; Catullus at 9/16 and his own voice at 3/16. Music was Pound’s domain of self-discovery that started in his first translations of Cavalcanti, even before his imagist phase and ended with an opera dedicated to the poet, Eleven New Cantos and the theorization of the ideogram in 1934. By that time he felt ready to involve himself with music in new ways: organise concerts, participate in musical research, even copy Vivaldi scores. But the duration rhymes remained his way of poetic thinking. As he remarked in “A Few Don’ts” about poetry and music: “The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.”
1 Since these books are published in Kindle editions, the present review will not have page references. Kindle ebooks are unpaginated, type size adjusts to individual requirements for comfortable reading thus changing the number of pages and placement of quoted material.
2 I owe the insights found in this letter to Joshua Kotin, who quotes from it at length in his article on Walton Litz in the current issue of Make It New.
Barnard, M. Assault on Mount Helicon. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1984.
Bush, Ron. The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Fisher, M. “‘Donna mi prega’ between Cavalcanti Rime and Canto XXXVI.” Make It New 1.1 (May 2014): 18-23.
Moody, David A. Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work. II: The Epic Years 1921-1939. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
Moody, David A., Moody J and M. de Rachewiltz. Ezra Pound’s Letters to His Parents, 1895-1929. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Pound, Ezra. The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Youens, S. “From the Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth: Considerations of Musical Prosody in Debussy’s Trois Ballades de François Villon.” The Journal of Musicology 2.4 (1983); 418-433.
The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass.
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.”
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.
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___. 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]
The Transparency of Ezra Pound’s Great Bass
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.
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.
“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:
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?