An interview with the author of Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas: The BBC Experiments, 1931-1933
Molly Sheridan: Let’s first talk about what got you into writing an entire book on these two very specific Pound works?
Margaret Fisher: Robert Hughes, who is also my husband, got me started on this and you’ll see in the acknowledgements that the book is first and foremost grateful to him. Here’s an interesting detail that musicians would enjoy. Bob is a student of Lou Harrison‘s and Lou acquired from Henry Cowell a really heavy, enormous table where you could set up a very formal dinner. Lou gave Bob this beautiful table and in fact when we were first dating Bob would cook these Louis XIV dinners and we would sit at each end. But the poor table has simply held all of these Ezra Pound documents and manuscripts since about 1989 and we haven’t been able to access anything but a top layer for years. Bob’s been working on Pound’s music since the ’60s when he first tried to get Pound’s Le Testament produced. He finally did in 1971. It took quite a long time, and he thought that his work was done, but then when we were in Venice on a Fulbright, Pound’s companion, Olga Rudge, was going to show Bob some early music related to the production he had done. It was an earlier concert version that had been arranged with simpler meters and when she opened the suitcase there was the Cavalcanti opera, the second opera. I was there with him so I was sort of in on the beginning but I wasn’t involved until after he had put the opera together and realized he had a complete opera rather than half an opera as everyone had thought. After he premiered the opera he began to write about it and now he’s just about finished. His study is about the music and how Pound learned to compose—what his techniques and processes where, who helped him, and the one question that was a sort of extra-musical question, why wasn’t the second opera performed at the BBC as planned, because it was requested by Pound’s producer, in essence like a commission. When the BBC produced his first opera they paid him an honorarium and it was the same amount that they paid as commissions to their composers through their music program, but Pound was produced through the drama program. So the drama program asked him to do another opera and my task was to determine why it wasn’t performed. The big revelation in researching this was Archie Harding, the producer who was a consummate artist engineer and political activist. If he had been a run of the mill producer I probably would have settled with the explanation that the opera was postponed indefinitely and then WWII happened, but this man was so extraordinary…but he had not left any memoirs. The histories of the BBC talk about him but it’s just a small part of the enormous history of radio in Britain so I pursued Harding to find out more and an interesting story evolved—just the fact that Pound learned about radio from Harding, one of the most prominent experimentalists and artist/engineers in the field. And my background had been in art and technology, so I took the project and ran. What I’ve written in this book is kind of the other half of Bob’s story—how the music was actually composed and an analysis of the music and Pound’s particular emphasis given that he was self-trained—How did he work around that or take advantage of that? What were the obstacles that he had to deal with that he knew where limiting factors in his composition?
Molly Sheridan: Why don’t you talk more about his music then. I’m sure our readers are going to be very interested in that aspect of his work and I’m sure there’s a lot of material, but if you could just outline some of that…
Margaret Fisher:Well, I’ll leave some of that for Bob’s publication. I don’t want to pull the rug out from under him but I can talk about Pound’s overall output because most people aren’t even aware of even the two operas which are the more prominent pieces that have been performed in public. Pound started composing to learn more about putting words to music and the Canadian composer/scholar Murray Schafer has written a book on Pound’s music criticism and presents his efforts to understand rhythm as a rigorous discipline in the face of verse libre without the metrical constraints of traditional poetry. Pound was really seeking a way for his poetic voice to stand out from the others and rhythm was going to be this avenue. That took him into composing but before he even began he spent three years as a music critic in London. He would generally review the intimate chamber and vocal concerts. I like to thing of Pound, who was so flamboyant in that early period in London, this is 1917 to 1920, and he would wear a velvet jacket and carry a walking cane and look kind of like a wild avant-gardist coming into this. I imagine these subdued salon circles to hear these afternoon concerts and he reviewed about three a week and really stayed with this intimate vocal music, to train his ear—what was important about rhythm, about words, about setting words. When he left London in 1920 he had already begun composing his opera based on Villon, and because he was such an amateur composer, a pianist named Agnes Bedford helped him. She was a vocal coach as well and was very receptive. She allowed herself to just transcribe Pound’s ideas into musical notation and did not offer a lot of guidance because he had such strong ideas about what he wanted to do. This is something that Bob brings out in his study too. A lot of people think that first Bedford and then later George Antheil helped Pound with his notation but that they also helped shape the music, and by going through the many early drafts that are in Pound’s handwriting Bob can show that the unusual orchestration, the selection of instruments, the use of bones as percussion and the use of nose flute, these were all Pound’s ideas, so the performing forces where his ideas, the shape of how the music would culminate in a big orgiastic dance in Testiment was Pound’s idea and then Bedford and Antheil helped him notate the work. Pound had meanwhile been writing very consistently his ideas about rhythm and music and he even touched on issues such as the use of the bar line and metronome—how rigorous should a composer be, the question of tempo rubato, and so forth—and I think it was with his work with Antheil whom he met in Paris in 1923, that he began to revive his ideas and try new things so that suddenly the notation of the opera which was intended to bring forward the speech rhythms of Villon they got into these micro-rhythms, one could almost say absurd meters. They’re listed in the book, 11/16ths going into 22/16ths into 3/8ths into 2/4. Stravinsky had mixed meters but these were different and the BBC conductor who conducted the program explained the difficulty that while you’re playing one bar in one meter you’re going to be changing every single bar and it was just impossible to anticipate the next bar and adjust to that new meter. There was a kind of built in frustration in trying to be in two places at one time. So Antheil’s influence led them into…well, one of the pieces that’s a perfect example is “The Mother’s Prayer,” Villon’s mother sings a prayer and it’s written almost as plain chant on very few notes. She hammers out her sort of proselytizing prayer to the virgin because she wants all the people in the bar to be brought over to a more moral point of view and it’s like a futurist plain chant. She hammers out every single note with quite a strong dynamic. Each bar is a line of poetry and the poetry is written in 11 syllables, so configurations of 11 are often the top number in the meter and then they considered the note values that they wanted to figure out the rest of the meter, but what this did with the bar was it meant that everything was predetermined. There was no room for the performer to elongate or interpret and later Pound came back to the idea that the bar line should be the governing container and that perhaps the performer could move and adjust a little bit within the bar line. So I think originally what I set out to talk about was how Pound’s ideas about music were influenced and they changed and he allowed himself to experiment with different ideas and come back to early ideas. This kind of investigation of tempo and what was governing the movement of the music—was it the note duration, was it the bar tempo—this was crucial to his ideas about putting words to music.
Molly Sheridan: It seems like he was very much independent in this quest. He picked up support from those around him but he really had little formal training…
Margaret Fisher: Correct, his mother played piano and his father was an amateur violinist.
Molly Sheridan: So there was a very interesting mind at work here…
Margaret Fisher: Well, he was capable of reading music so he must have learned that at home. There’s no documentation of actual music lessons that we’ve seen, and some of his earliest research in the 1910s was in the archives of the large libraries in Europe—Milan, Paris, Britain, and even in Spain—and he would look up the troubadour documents. He was looking for music even at that early time so he had to then train himself in reading some of the medieval notation. His first activity was going into the archives and looking at the documents and transcribing them both as neume notation and also modern notation.
Molly Sheridan: Was he very much involved in the music community of that time or was he kind of on the border?
Margaret Fisher: In London he made a terrific friendship with Arnold Dolmetsch, and Dolmetsch’s career was devoted to recovering the music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and he was building clavichords and all of the other early instruments, so Dolmetsch was almost single-handedly responsible for the new interest in medieval music in London and it was a very small circle of people, people like Thomas Campion were not performed very often. So Dolmetsch set out to reestablish interest in those composers and revive performance in the Baroque style. Pound made this friendship and it was perfect because Pound’s field was the troubadours and the poetry and the Provencal language and so he had a lot of information for Dolmetsch, particularly this issue of barring. Dolmetsch published a book called The Interpretation of Music in the 17th and 18th Centuries and in the book he brought forward direct quotations from the music theorists of the early times and the arguments that, for example, even if you had 8th notes written on the page, it didn’t necessarily mean they were played as even 8th notes, they may have been played as dotted figures. Just the fact that Pound knew this makes him a more informed composer than we suspect from his amateur status. It kind of complicates the question of his insistence on non-interpretation. Did he put in all the dotted figures that he intended? Did he have the skill later, especially later in the second opera when he was composing without anyone else’s help, to notate exactly what he wanted or did he expect that the performers were going to fill in since it was in the style of medieval music?
Molly Sheridan: To kind of switch gears a little bit I’m really curious about the whole “composition as criticism” argument that comes up in the first chapter of the book. Can you talk a bit about your interpretation of those words?
Margaret Fisher:Well, I can, although part of my understanding is that I don’t understand fully the difference between setting words to music as a form of criticism and new composition. It seems to me that they overlap and maybe all that the fourth category implies is that there are no words in the music so the criticism is going to be harder to ferret out. In his body of work there are the two operas that are complete, and there’s a third that he claimed was half finished but I’ve only found two songs and I’m working on those now. He composed violin music so there are a number of those. Some are original and some are transcriptions or arrangements of early work from the 12th and 15th centuries, I believe. So when Pound composed violin music he might take a poem and take the rhythm of the words of the poem but put it solely in an instrumental voice, so that you could hear the rhythm alone and not be thinking about the sentiment of the words, in order to see if the sentiment came through in the movement or the melodic line. This was true in a violin piece he called Al Poco Giorno, which was also a poem by Dante. It goes exactly to the rhythm of the words and it was easy to trace because the title was the same. There’s another work, Frottola, that we don’t know if it goes to a poem, that’s why I say the categories are confusing. We don’t know if Pound actually composed it strictly for rhythmic interest or if he was doing a one-to-one correspondence with words but then leaving the words out. So the idea that the new composition would act as criticism in Pound’s rendition is a little different than perhaps a composer today who might be referencing other compositions, other debates in music, and working those debates out in their music or working on a style and their composition could be considered a commentary on a style. Pound’s commentary had a lot of literary intent. In the second opera particularly when he was more facile with his composing chops he was able to bring out different voices within a single poem and make critical comments using various musical devices. And there’s a lot of specific discussion of that in the book.
Molly Sheridan: So is it safe to surmise that he was interested in radio operas because they remove visual distractions? I know somewhere you say that removing the distractions of movement and costumes would really allow a listener to focus on details…
Margaret Fisher: It was an opportunity to do that. He didn’t envision that certainly when he started Testament in 1920. Radio wasn’t public until 1922 and then barely so, but at first I believe he envisioned his opera as being a rather full scale even like a medieval processional or entertainment in the court, that it would have the full dimension of costume. He wrote out stage instructions for Testament and they very much support the notion that the Noh theater was on his mind when he was thinking of the staging because the people who are not singing are absolutely still, the gestures are regulated, the wigs are extravagant. And then as circumstance happened the first full production of the opera ended up being for radio.
Molly Sheridan: So to come back to our discussion at the start of this conversation, why was Pound selected to do these radio operas in the first place and why was the second one never staged?
Margaret Fisher:The invitation from the BBC went to Pound because they were just looking for a translation of Villon for a New Year’s broadcast. They waited until the last moment and T.S. Elliot turned Harding down, but recommended Pound. Pound turned the translation around in about a week and Harding, realizing that he had a literary prize on his hands, tempted Pound by telling him that radio was the voice of the future and that it was going to liberate poetry by removing poetry from the confines of the printed page. Pound wrote back and said, ‘By the way I have an opera.’ So it wasn’t that the BBC knew of Pound as a composer, nobody did really, but he sent violinist Olga Rudge to London to play a few selections for Harding who was delighted and decided he would take on the project. Even before the initial broadcast in October of ’31, Harding was so excited about the project he asked Pound to write something else specifically for radio. There is no document that says exactly why the second one never happened, but the circumstances are so interesting that speculation is encouraged. The first opera alienated the music department and funds were being taken away from music and dramatic productions because of the tightening economy. Harding was getting into his own political hot water and had been sent to Manchester, so a lot of factors played into it.
Molly Sheridan: Why did the production alienate the BBC musicians?
Margaret Fisher:Well, the production was put on by the drama department, not the music department, and anyway, the music department was not about to touch Pound who had written only one piece of music in his whole life. They wouldn’t have anything to do with this experimental production. Opera itself was not produced at the BBC—they would go out on location and broadcast live from the different houses—so to be spending money on an opera production was usual and the budget was quite high. But back to the question of the second opera, the surprise was to find a letter in which Bedford in the ’40s wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington and said that Harding was thinking of doing the Cavalcanti as a kind of anniversary performance but at the point Pound didn’t know where the music was. Personally another surprise was the power of the Villon and the Cavalcanti poems in their original language. I thought I would not have to really analyze them. I wasn’t trained to analyze poetry and so I chose the ones that seemed to be the hot spots where it was obvious that Pound was making commentary with his music and I thought I would see first how he did it in a poem that offered the reasons a little more easily than others. It was great because by selecting and working intensely on a few poems I didn’t diminish their power over me, and that was a real added bonus to the whole project which wasn’t a poetry project for me but it certainly was a poetry project for Pound.