30 Jun 2017

Andrew Ford’s first professional performance

The English-born Australian composer shares his musical experiences in his new memoir The Memory of Music


In my second year as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, I set to music two rather sensual (not to say sexual) poems from Ezra Pound's Lustra. I understand why "Coitus" and "Doria" might have appealed to a 19-year-old, but I can't say I like the poems much anymore, and I certainly can't imagine setting to music the line, "The gilded phalloi of the crocuses are thrusting at the spring air".

The resulting piece, Flowers of Orcus for soprano and small ensemble, didn't seem to me as effective as some of my earlier pieces, however, at my teacher's suggestion, I submitted it to the Society for the Promotion of New Music in London, and promptly forgot about it until I received a letter informing me that the piece had been selected for inclusion in their 1978-79 season. The concert would be at London's Southbank, the conductor would be the highly respected John Carewe (Simon Rattle's teacher), and this would be my first ever professional performance.

Unfortunately, I hadn't sought permission to use Pound's words.

I wrote immediately to Pound's publisher. I could hardly tell them I'd already used the poems, let alone that the piece had been scheduled for a London performance, so I played the helpless student card. This was an error.

I received a letter back asking me to provide references addressing my ability to make "a satisfactory musical work" from Pound's poetry. I was running out of time. The performance was only a few months away.

One of the women I shared a house with, Jayne Gill, wrote poems and so together we set about the task of ripping Pound's words out of my score and putting in Jayne's. This was a less straightforward task than, say, giving the vocal part to an instrument, because in order to fit the notes, the new words had to have the same stresses as the old and, where possible, the same or similar vowels and consonants. They had to sound like Pound's words, without actually being Pound. They also had to make sense, and ideally share the same mood as the original poems.

The day came for the performance of Ford and Gill's Flowers of Orcus. It was a rehearse-and-record session in an anteroom at the Royal Festival Hall in which the public could hear a new piece rehearsed from scratch, then performed a couple of times. Lynda Richardson sang it admirably, John Carewe was affable and assiduous, and a boy came up to me at the end to say how much he had disliked the piece. Suddenly I felt like a real composer.

A year later, I received a letter from Fabers granting me permission to use the two poems by Pound, but of course it was too late.

Flowers of Orcus has never been performed with the correct words - indeed it has never been played again - and the score is now lost. Perhaps it's just as well. Thrusting "phalloi" indeed!

This is an extract from Andrew Ford's The Memory of Music (Black Inc, 288pp, $32.99). You can buy the book here.