Alexey Syumak: “For the artist ‘creativity’ and ‘life’ are often synonymous with each other”

— What events led you to Ezra Pound? 
— Four years ago, I wrote an opera on Vladimir Mayakovsky. While working on it, I immersed myself in the work of modernist writers and the general cultural and civil state of affairs during the 20th century. Naturally, I came across Pound. Ezra Pound was one of the landmark figures of the period; a poet, artist, critic, publisher. He was a man who had been dealt a difficult hand in life, filled with an adoration of the complex epic. It would be impossible to talk about the 20thcentury without mention being made to him. 

The idea for the opera, which is dedicated to Pound, came about after Teodor Currentzis commissioned Sergei Nevsky and me to write a violin concerto. His directive right from the start was that it should be something amazing and unlike anything else. During our collective discussions, we came up with the idea that it could be a concerto for violin — except not with an orchestra, but with a choir. But at the start, I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to do it. It was only having read Pound, that I came to realise it was as if this form had been created especially for him.

Thomas Sterns Eliot: “Pound didn’t make poets out of people, but he did create the environment out of which modernism was born, of which American and English poets alike were members, they got to know each other’s work and influenced one another.” [1] 

— Cantos was written based on facts from Pound’s biography and on the grounds of his art. Which exact events from his life were the main reference points in the creation of the music? 
  — Pound was an altogether remarkable man. He was revered, condemned, and worshipped. Hemmingway said that he was the holiest man alive to have been so deluded by his own ideas. He was even prepared to refuse the Nobel Prize in favour of Ezra Pound. 

Throughout his life, Pound made a lot of mistakes, including supporting National Socialist ideas, from which, however, he would subsequently end up distancing himself. He was a complex and controversial figure. All his life he created fantastical epics, all imbued with his idiosyncratic language, with its signature structure and semantics. He was driven by the idea that the people of the world would once again unite, and go back to the historical period predating the construction of the Tower of Babel. I was completely fascinated by this unconventional fusion of personality traits. 

 Of course, I couldn’t help but draw on several facts from his biography. In particular, the vow of silence he took, upon leaving the hospital, where he had been placed in an electric chair after being certified as mad. His silence was the foundation for the violin solo in the opera. 

— Pound began his period of voluntary silence in the early 1960s and was one of the first writers to take such a radical step. Several years later, in 1965, Jerome David Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, took the silence vow, too. However, his vow wasn’t that categorical in nature. He didn’t make statements in public but he did keep in touch with his relatives. Pound, it seems, in the literal sense of the word, spoke to no one. Do you believe in the sincerity of his silence? 
 — I believe Pound was sincere in act of his silence. His biographers serve as proof of this; they confirm that towards the end of his life that his pronunciation was unintelligible. This could be the result of a long period without verbal interaction. 

In my opera, the violin symbolises Pound, while the choir represents his thoughts and stanzas of his poems — a metaphor for the poetry which always surrounded him, despite the external silence. 

A curious coincidence: Pound’s last female companion, who remained with him until the end of his life — Olga Rudge — was the violinist.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t able to immediately convince Teodor of making Ezra Pound the hero of the opera. Teodor was adamant that it should be about people who were living among us here and now. He himself is a big fan of Pound’s work. He knows his poetry very well and can recite much of it off by heart. Eventually, I managed to convince him.

Ezra Pound: “It is not I who seeks silence but it that seeks me.”

— Did you always have Teodor Currentzis in mind to conduct the premiere? Did the conductor leave his unmistakable mark on your Cantos?
 — Teodor played an active part in the composing of the opera. He suggested verses from poems to use; one of his recommendations in particular — M'amour, m'amour — appears in the score. Not only that, but he insisted that it should have an air of mystery about it. In the first stanza of M'amour, m'amour, the choir play the poet, and then the musicians pick up the slow pavane melody. As you know, the pavane is a European folk dance, which relates to events of life as well as death.

— At what point working on the opera did you come up with the idea to invite Semion Aleksanderovskiy and Ksenia Peretrukhina to participate? 
— Choosing the stage director was a long and excruciating process. Until Alexey Trifonov suggested watching performances in the doc style of Aleksanderovskiy. Teodor liked it straight away. It seemed to me that Semion completely embodied the sentiment and conceptualization of Cantos. For us he was the perfect fit. I hope that it will be the first of many collaborations with him. 
As for Ksenia, we also only got to know her through the course of working on this premiere. On our first meeting she bombarded me with questions. It was important for her to know how I perceived Ezra Pound, what was politics to him — was it conviction or just a game? I spent two hours answering her questions, and it seemed what I had to say resonated with her. 
— And what do you think politics did in fact mean to him? Was it merely a game or indeed a conviction?
 — I think he saw game to be played within politics, in the sense that he wanted to play around with the political aesthetic. 

Now and always, politics remains a game. But this was particularly so during the period in which Dadaism[2] was one of the main aesthetic principles in world culture. Everything was taken a little less seriously. When Mussolini came to power, Pound did not support him. Indeed, it was only when he began losing ground that Pound came to sympathize with his political ideals. 

Ezra Pound always tended to side with the opposition, in doing so, attempting to counterbalance good and evil. He was prepared to almost sacrifice himself, siding with evil, purely in order to be different. Was he sincere in regretting his wrongdoings? I think he was.

On the other hand, how could it have been otherwise? To go through such experiences (he was threatened with the electric chair and only saved from the death penalty after being diagnosed as clinically insane) and keep your peace of mind? While in Pisa, he was thrown into a roofless pit, where he fell victim to severe bouts of sunstroke. He was forced to make do with rags for bedding and a bucket for a toilet. Indeed, there are many dark chapters in his life story. Is all of this something you can let go of and move on from, or does it go on to plague you? It’s a big question. 
— And given what was at stake…
— Life. And creativity. For the artist ‘creativity’ and ‘life’ are very often synonymous with each other. Creativity can even supersede life in some cases.

Archibald MacLeish to Hemingway: “Poor old Ezra! Being accused by the state of treason would be an overly harsh punishment for a man, who has proved himself to be nothing but a total cretin, having achieved so little in the end.” 

Ernest Hemingway to MacLeish: “He is clearly a madman. It’s impossible to believe that anyone of sound mind could speak aloud such vile, utter idiotic gibberish, as he has been broadcasting.”[3] 

— There are several authors behind the libretto for the opera Cantos. What role have each of them played? 
— All of them helped to create the first part of the opera, the most conversational part of: featured within it through various means, more than fifty world languages. And all these people helped to write them. Initially, I shied away from working on this material, in order to ensure it was as diverse as possible, and therefore I invited various authors to work on the texts independently. 

I tasked Nastya Nutrikhina with writing the dialogues relating to the different periods in time — from antiquity to far off in the future, let’s say the 22nd century. I think she made excellent work of it. She did one dialogue, for instance, between Niels Bohr[4] and Albert Einstein[5] on the subject of quantum mechanics. There’s a conversation between some strange people, most likely from the future, who speak English with a Russian accent. 
Kristina Ioffe was also given a specific task: I asked her to write the start of the dialogues which arise between people in bars, restaurants, and other similar areas of recreation. Kristina is a polyglot and I turned to her, knowing that she would be able to grasp the lexical scenography of the different environments. 

It was then Olga Vlasova’s job — having received all the texts — to blend them together and mould it all into a common format. I wanted the result to take on the appearance of the worldwide timeless nature of the pub. Towards the end of the first part, this lexical melting pot is transformed into the poetry of Pound. 

So, that was how the first part of the score was organised, but it is also a reflection of the structure of the whole opera. The start focuses on the ‘acquiring’ of language — about halfway through appear accuracy and clarity: this moment feeds in to the cadenza of the violin solo. This is the culmination after which everything falls away. The ability to pronounce sounds is lost; they dissolve into mere electronic vibrations. And subsequently this is followed by a full-blown silence; all that remains of the music is the memory. 
— Ezra Pound tried to unite the East and the West. Following in the footsteps of Dante, Goethe, Hölderlin, and quoting the words of the translator Vladimir Mikushevich, he “strove toward the indivisible sky of Europe”, to a point at which time, history, culture and the soul would intersect. A scholar of Pound’s work, the translator Ian Probstein, notes that this phenomenon was borne of sensation of a loss of harmony, with which many 20th century poets were afflicted — William Butler Yeats, Thomas Eliot, Gottfried Benn, Osip Mandelstam… However, in striving to unite the people, Pound opted to use a complex technique — his poetry wasn’t all that easy to interpret, his verse and imagery required extensive commentary. In achieving what he was looking to accomplish, doesn’t it seem like it should have been the other way round, with less esoteric, clearer language? 
— As I explained earlier, Pound very much shied away from trends. At the start of the 20th century a process came about in poetry in which people tried to look for new forms and new language. And Pound retreated from this movement. He wasn’t looking for a new language; he was attempting to create one on the back of what already existed. That is, to eke out a metalanguage, which would become the glue to bind the people together.

In terms of the imagery he was creating, Pound chose to employ the epic as the principal genre at the heart of his creative work — as something indivisible and which encompassed all types of art. As it was in Ancient Greece: for example, Sophocles was both an actor and a composer of music and texts. 
— Epic is a genre grounded in the oral tradition. To what degree do Pound’s poems possess a musical quality? 
— They are very musical. You can often see that alongside lines of verse, Pound would scribble a notational stave next to them. In doing so, he was essentially designating these lines for a choir — to perform such epic phrases. It was common to see similar musical annotations in his work. And this is aside from the pair of hisown operas. Pound tasked himself with creating hyper art, in which there is both singing and verse — with new content and ideas, created for the new man. 

— What for you as a composer were the necessary criteria that you were looking for in the choir you chose to work with? What were the distinctive features in the opera, which made it more suited to a choir and not soloists?
— In so far as the idea was initially linked to the concert, there was therefore a danger of it running away with itself. But I especially tried to lend an operatic quality to Cantos. It was therefore because of this that I decided to break up the internal content of the production into separate canvases and bring them together as recitatives. The result was something along the lines of a Baroque opera.
As far as working with a choir was concerned, I had already had previous experience doing so, for example, when doing the Requiem. By and large I was aware of the capabilities of the musicAeterna chorus, but consciously sought to challenge them, so that they didn’t serve simply an as accompaniment. In Cantos, the choir performs many different functions. They compete with one another in the first part, and cast a shadow over the music in the last part. Sometimes they symbolise stanzas from Pound’s poetry, while sometimes they don’t symbolize anything apart from the abstract.
— Last question: do you yourself believe in the unification of humanity?
— I can’t answer that question. I am the one asking it. On a compositional capability level. I can only say that in my opera, what was once a man becomes a shadow, and where there was once poetry there is silence.

Interview: Natalia Ovchinnikova
Interviewed in 2016
[1] Eliot T.S. Introduction to Literary Essays of Ezra Pound // Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. L., 1985. P. XI.
[2] “Dadaism, according to the idea of its founder immigrant poet Tristan Tzara, was the answer to the absurdity of the world war. Dadaists believed that the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. The term dada was borrowed by Tristan Tzara from the child’s talk and meant a rocking-horse. Although Aldington warned Pound that “by discrediting literature, Dadaists are destroying it.” (Ian Probstein Ezra Pound: Perpetual rebel). 
[3] Moody David. Ezra Pound: Poet. Vol. III. The Tragic Years 1939—1972. P. 129.
[4] Niels Bohr (1885—1962) was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Bohr was also a philosopher and a promoter of scientific research.
[5] Albert Einstein (1879—1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist. He developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). He received Nobel Prize in Physics for his “services to theoretical physics”, in particular his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, a pivotal step in the evolution of quantum theory.