Academic journal article Chicago Review

Elliott Carter's Ezra Pound

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Elliott Carter's Ezra Pound

Article excerpt

On June 20, 2009, as a commission of Aldeburgh Music, Elliott Carter's setting of excerpts from two of Ezra Pound's late Cantos, titled On Conversing with Paradise, was given its world premiere by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with Oliver Knussen conducting and Leigh Melrose, baritone vocal soloist. The work's title--which Carter notes "is a quote from William Blake that Pound considered as a title for an early book of his own poems"--offers an arresting image of the goal of an artist, cast in the highest and most ultimate terms. The work is a monodrama or closet opera depicting an intense, sometimes hallucinatory encounter between memory, reality, and affirmed purpose; it has the force of an interior meditation. Its considerable emotional range is emphasized by the coloristic quality of the orchestration.

Carter set the selections from Pound toward the continuously engaged end of his own very long life, for he had, luckily, an extended and productive old age. Thinking of a major modernist poet--Pound for all his gigantic political and ethical problematic is certainly one--and thinking of a person writing of "paradise" in a particularly fraught way under strikingly damaged circumstances, both listener and reader enter the realm of ultimate statements. The composition raises the question of "late work" in the sense that Edward Said proposes; for both Pound and Carter this was a late work. Although Pound (1885-1972) did live for years after incarceration in the United States and then in Italy, this was not an assured outcome in 1945. After his arrest, he thoroughly expected (or mordantly projected an expectation of) his imminent execution for treason--he was apparently living on borrowed time when he wrote The Pisan Cantos (1948). (1) For Carter (1908-2012) this is a late work because he was 100 years old when it was written and premiered. It is a late work in content as well: the writer of the program notes to the CD The Music of Elliott Carter, Volume Eight (16 Compositions, 2002-2009) views it as "the nearest thing Carter has yet composed to a creative testament." Yet in an odd way, Carter might have been temporally and intellectually "beyond" even the category of late work.

Pound's work in every particular can be seen to conform to Said's identification of (and also with) "artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction." (2) What one finds in Pound's Pisan Cantos is a lively, jumpy, distracted, and febrile surface that, canto after canto, tries to close calmly, to reconcile, to make interior peace, but in almost every case returns immediately to the plethora of stimuli, the jostling between the real world and active memories. So such final lines as "Oh let an old man rest" (Canto 83) and "we who have passed over Lethe" (Canto 74) go to one pole and such final lines as "woe to them that conquer with armies / and whose only right is their power" (Canto 76)--a slap at the US Army--go to another pole. The curiosity of the Pound/Carter conjunction is that Carter chooses to seek "harmony and resolution," using Pound's "intransigence, difficulty and contradiction" as a stage to be overcome in the transcendence and transformation of art. One might see this music as emphasizing resolution rather than contradiction; this occurs first in the textual choices Carter made for his libretto from Pound's work and second in the musical interpretation proposed by the setting. If Pound's is "late" work in Said's terms, Carter's is even "later" work, emphasizing resolution, not contradiction.

At the same time, Pound made important if also characteristic poetry from his socioaesthetic meditations, from his imprisonment before being returned to the US, and from his unsettled--but not rethought--sense of purpose. The Pisan Cantos, written under the experience of caged isolation and some privilege (the after-hours use of a typewriter in the prison camp's medical office), record in a more intimate and personal way than many of The Cantos Pound's thoughts and emotions about his experiences, both retrospective and current. …

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