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26 November 2023

Ezra Pound’s experiments in sound

The poet’s music revealed his impulse to innovate and disrupt. Did it also hasten his slide towards fascism?

By David Perry

In 1923, a year after the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses, and at the high point of the modernist movement that he did so much to shape, Ezra Pound completed the stage version of his opera Le Testament de Villon. Pound’s musical endeavours have received far less attention than his poems, but he was a highly original composer, and described himself in the introduction to an early collection of his Cantos as both “poet and composer”. The life story of the 15th-century poet François Villon – a late-medieval bad boy; a Rimbaud avant la lettre – appealed to Pound, and conveniently enough Villon, in his 1461 collection Le Testament, offered a quasi-confessional account of the troubles he had with the Paris police and the Church.

Pound’s 50-minute opera follows the outlawed Villon’s move back to Paris despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest in that city. Old acquaintances gradually assemble around him: a former girlfriend called Rose and an old prostitute, Heaulmière, and her protégés. Joined by Villon’s mother, the group urges him to flee for his life but instead he pens his last will and testament. The drunken singing of friends and family attracts the attention of the constabulary, who arrest him. A final tableau depicts six young men hanging by the neck. Some suggest that Villon’s text implies that he himself was one of these, which would make his poem and the opera a sort of proto snuff movie.

[See also: Rachmaninoff’s enduring melodies]

Pound’s opera comprises a series of discrete songs, each portrayed by an appropriate musical idiom – the troubadour song, the jongleur’s song, and finally a drinking song and group dance, and a prayer that takes place outside the brothel: Villon’s view of the church of his time was less than respectful. There are even hints of the jazz idiom in this, and 1923 was also the year of the young Louis Armstrong’s sensational debut recording with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. While it is difficult to imagine Ezra Pound clutching a shellac disc of “Dippermouth Blues”, jazz was already in the zeitgeist. In his scoring, Pound collaborated with the American composer George Antheil to create rhythmic complexities reminiscent of those in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – but more extreme. The use of micro-rhythms and irregular bar lengths is an attempt to capture Villon’s idiomatic Old French. It is demanding music: there’s no comfort zone for singer or audience, no rests. Coughs, scratches and hiccups are referenced where the score outlines the percussion part.

The set is described as “a squalid square in Paris”, with a church wall as a backdrop and the tavern and brothel front of stage. Pound wanted to hire Jean Cocteau to design the sets and discussed the possibility with the artist Jean Hugo (a descendant of Victor). But Cocteau declared himself allergic to all things medieval. A shame: Villon’s strange and highly personal verses could be construed as a 15th-century anticipation of the modernist impulse: Je plains le temps de ma jeunesse…/Et ne m’a laissé quelque don (I weep for the time of my youth…/And now only scraps remain).

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Although Cocteau was not on board, Pound started discussions with WB Yeats about premiering the piece in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. In his pitch he described the opera as modelled on the Greek theatre – but when Yeats quibbled with this, Pound changed his mind and said that his model was the Japanese tradition of Noh plays. His mercurial change of tack and obsessive need to demonstrate his knowledge of world culture might have put Yeats off: he passed on the suggestion.

After its debut performance in Paris in the 1920s, the work remained unstaged for decades – until 1971, just a year before Pound’s death, when a production, conducted by the music scholar Robert Hughes, was staged at the Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley.

Pound tinkered with the score and libretto during the 1920s, but eight years after he had completed the stage version of his opera, he had a breakthrough. He made contact with BBC radio and discovered that the auditory medium could free him from the limitations of the stage and allow him to deploy sound-montage techniques to flash back and flash forward in fictional time. As described in Margaret Fisher’s meticulously researched book Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas, he worked on the radio version with a group of lounge-suited bohemians led by EAF Harding. That was Harding’s trajectory: a very different approach to the austere Reithian style that dominated Broadcasting House at that time. True to its word, the BBC broadcast the radio version of Le Testament in 1931.

Only later reconstructions of the original broadcast have survived, and we have few clues as to any audience response. But what we do know is that Pound became obsessed with the audio experimentation that went into this production – what a conservatively minded editor at the BBC once disparagingly referred to as “the fart in the bathtub” approach.

Back in Italy, where Pound lived, the poet started producing avant-garde audio experiments, intercutting text, music, echo and silence. He wrote to Harding saying, “This is what I would do were I minister of Kulchur in Utopia.” An amusing enough comment, in an infantile sort of way, but in the light of Pound’s infamous support of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s and 1940s, somewhat sinister. His experimental tapes were put out on Rome Radio a few years before the same station began broadcasting his notorious pro-Axis propaganda talks. Pound had met Mussolini and was impressed by the charismatic despot (the feeling was not mutual).

Did Pound’s butter-slide into fascism and anti-Semitism have roots in the modernist impulse? It is a disturbing thought. Take the figure of Filippo Marinetti, the Italian futurist who explicitly linked his form of modernism with fascism from the beginning. It was Marinetti as well as the blameless Harding who mentored Pound in experimental audio work.

This link between modernism and fascism is by no means universal but, despite TS Eliot’s high-church conservatism, the impulse to disrupt was central to the modernist agenda. And disruption for its own sake risks veering off into a narcissistic nihilism not unrelated to fascism.

Pound’s fate after the war is well documented, but no less shocking for that. He was arrested by partisans and gave himself up to occupying US forces. He was held in a metal cage in Pisa unprotected from the elements for three weeks, after which he broke down. He was deported to America and declared unfit to stand trial for treason “by reason of insanity”. He was confined to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington DC, for 13 years. Here he started to work again, writing The Pisan Cantos and translating Sophocles. He was released in 1958 and returned to Europe at the age of 73, living out his final days in Venice.

Near the end of his life, Pound met Samuel Beckett, a modernist comrade-in-arms, for one last time. The poet had retreated into a silent, Beckettian world without words. When I asked Beckett about their encounter in a meeting I was fortunate enough to have with him, he was clearly moved: “We sat together in total silence for an hour and shared a bottle of Lacryma Christi,” he said, “then Pound got up and started weeping. I embraced him and he left – without speaking a word.”

[See also: The women classical music forgot]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now