The Allure of Badness

Saturday 4 September 2010

Short, shameful confession: despite being interested in music, and interested in Ezra Pound, I’ve never heard so much as a single note of Ezra Pound’s music. I’ve read about it, sure, but never heard it. From time to time this troubles me as a significant gap in my knowledge, but then I forget about it.

The latest event to suddenly prick my conscience was a discussion originating on Alex Ross’ blog over what might be the worst recording ever made, a-and up came… Ezra Pound. Not that the performances are bad (sez Marc Geelhoed), it’s Pound’s terrible, terrible music.

Now I’m not expecting Pound’s minor career as a composer to have produced hidden masterpieces, but: worst ever? Worse than Nietzsche? Descriptions I’ve read of Pound’s music typically comment on its rudimentary nature (even the stuff assisted by Agnes Bedford) and unusual rhythms, and then broadly implying that it should be considered as an adjunct to his poetry. Pound himself said that his inital attempts to set Villon to music were spurred by his inability to adequately translate him into English. Yet, even though reading Pound’s poetry often requires you to wilfully misunderstand everything else in the universe, I’ve never seen even his most ardent detractor insist that his music sucks. Even Humphrey Carpenter, a biographer who displays little interest in making sense of Pound’s life or work, singles out the music for surprisingly lavish praise. Mind you, Carpenter’s attempts at interpreting Pound’s poetry are pitifully wrong-headed, so much so that his approving comments were my first suspicion that something might be amiss.

So, I’ve always meant to get around to listening to Pound’s music; but now that Marc Geelhoed has damned it as the definitive worst, I’ve really, really got to hear it bad.

Coincidentally, I’ve also just read another of Alex Ross’ blogposts, looking at depictions of imaginary music by imaginary composers in literature. He concludes with Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and the strange effect Leverkuhn’s fictional music has had on real composers:

The composer’s life may be one long descent into madness, but his music represents a quest to escape the horror, or, failing that, to capture it with all the resources at a composer’s command. I first read Doctor Faustus at the age of eighteen, and I remember feeling both appalled and thrilled by the all-devouring, chaotically conflicted concept of musical expression that it embodied, so different from the prim community of “classical music” that had been presented to me. … More than a few composers of the postwar era responded with perverse enthusiasm to Mann and Adorno’s descriptions, attempting to bring them to life. György Ligeti, in Hungary, first learned about twelve-tone writing through Mann’s eccentric account of it. Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Peter Maxwell Davies, Poul Ruders, Bengt Hambraeus, and Alfred Schnittke, among others, alluded to Leverkühn in their music.

It’s a tendency that goes back to Ovid: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. There’s something irresistable about art that violates the accepted rules of propriety, that is chaotic and conflicted, even if it doesn’t succeed. The chaos becomes a source of renewal. It’s part of why I was attracted to Pound’s poetry in the first place, and why, after hearing someone say it’s terrible, I suddenly believe I could learn something very interesting from hearing his music.