A Rare Opportunity to Hear the Strange and Fascinating Musical Compositions of Ezra Pound

Pound's music to be subject of UB presentation, discussion on Oct. 1

Release Date: August 27, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As a key American poet and critic of the 20th century, Ezra Pound is known for his intriguing and often baffling work on the music of language. Far less well-known, however, are his work as a composer and his deep interest in the language of music.

Pound's music was influenced in this regard by such sources as Sappho's poetry, Catullus, Provencal verse by northern Italian troubadours and the work of George Antheil, the enfant terrible of modernist composers. It is, said one critic, "of unsurpassing beauty and illuminates the practice of 'prosody' -- the elusive craft of setting texts to music."

The relationship between Pound's music compositions and his literary theories will be the subject of an October presentation and discussion at the University at Buffalo by Robert Hughes and Margaret Fisher, Ph.D., two artists who have made the explication and performance of Pound's music a personal crusade.

The event, which will feature Pound's music, will be sponsored by the UB Poetry Collection and will take place from noon to 2 p.m. on Oct. 1 in 420 Capen Hall on UB's North (Amherst) Campus. It will be free and open to the public.

Hughes is a composer, conductor, musical producer and a leading scholar on the music of Ezra Pound. Fisher is the author of "Ezra Pound's Radio Operas: The BBC Experiments, 1931-1933" (MIT Press), an exhaustive study of the operas that received the 2002 Ezra Pound Society Prize.

Michael Basinski, Ph.D., curator of UB's Poetry & Rare Books Collection, points out that Pound's artistic fame is connected almost entirely to his poetry and the fact that he did so much to advance the modernist movement in English and American literature. Pound also more or less "re-invented" Chinese poetry by translating and promoting it, re-introduced Noh drama and championed Greek and Roman writers whose work he translated.

As critic, editor and promoter, Basinski points out, Pound encouraged the critical acceptance of such writers as Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Frost, H.D., Aldington, Yeats, Williams, Joyce, Lawrence and Hemingway, and influenced as many writers as he promoted, including virtually every experimental poet of the 20th century, including Kerouac, Ginsberg and other "Beats" He agrees with Hughes and Fisher, however that Pound considered himself both poet and composer, and seems to have strongly influenced modernist music styles as well as literary ones.

What does Pound's music sound like?

Ivan Hewett of the BBC wrote that of all the poets who dabbled in music, "Pound was the most ambitious…(His) performances have a strange intensity, like a cross between 'Carmina Burana' and Diamanda Galas."

Galas' incomparable vocal instrumentation has been said to "place us at ground zero in a maelstrom of insanity," and, in fact, so does Pound, incorporating as he does, screeching, howling and other indefinable vocal sounds into his compositions.

Late last year, Hughes and Fisher published their book "Cavalcanti: A Perspective on The Music of Ezra Pound" (Second Evening Art Publishing/BMI, 2003) a systematic analysis of Pound's music training, the application of his musico-poetic theories, methods of composition and a music analysis of Pound's opera "Cavalcanti."

The opera never was performed during the composer's lifetime, and was for some years believed lost. Fisher covers the life of the author/composer during the turbulent years between the world wars in her critically acclaimed 2003 book, "Ezra Pound's Radio Operas."

Between 1920 and 1933, Pound composed two operas and several pieces for solo violin in a unique personal language drawn from diverse sources. Among his operas are the aforementioned "Calvacanti," a lyrical work involving texts by Dante's best friend and mentor, Guido Cavalcanti, and "Testament," a more raucous work with a libretto based on the work of medieval poet François Villon. Pound said he thought the poetry of Calvacanti and Villon was lost in translation and wanted to share his appreciation of their work with his contemporaries.

His third opera, "Testament," features "Hëaulmiere's Aria," in which an aging whore laments the loss of her beauty. Critic Joshua Rosenbaum writes, "The wailing and growling…is not terribly pretty, but the emotional authenticity of the woman's timeless agony resounds unmistakably through the centuries."

Hughes and Fisher, who are husband and wife, have shared an abiding interest in Pound's music for many years. Fisher, an experienced avant-garde choreographer, performance artist and video director, has been involved in many phases of Hughes' productions, which include the 1971 world stage premier of Pound's 1923 score for "Testament," which is notoriously difficult to perform as a result of the addition

of difficult metrics added by Pound's musical editor. Hughes also produced the world premiere of the "Cavalcanti" in the early 1980s.

Ezra Pound was called many things in his lifetime and beyond -- one of the most inventive, influential and ambitious poets of the modernist period; a gifted translator, editor, polemicist, and essayist; a fascist and anti-Semite; proponent of the modernist aesthetic in literature; a genius, madman and traitor, an artist who reflected the best and worst of Western civilization.

He was all of these things and more, and the subject of endless analysis and reportage. It primarily is through the highly respected work of Hughes and Fisher, however, that Pound's gifts as a composer have drawn public and scholarly attention.

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