Paul Bowles on Music

Buy this book at Amazon.comEdited by Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann
University of California Press ($34.95)

by Mark Terrill

Though known primarily for his novels, stories and translations, Paul Bowles was also an accomplished composer and widely published music critic. An intimate of Aaron Copland and protégé of Virgil Thomson, Bowles first met Thomson in Paris in 1931, when both were members of Gertrude Stein's circle. Then only 20, Bowles was vacillating between music and writing, still unsure as to which direction his artistic career was going to take him. After his experimental poetry received some harsh criticism at the hands of Stein, Bowles concentrated on polishing his skills as a composer. But he didn't abandon writing altogether and had soon written his first article for Modern Music, where Copland had been publishing articles for some time. In a letter to his mother from Paris while recovering from typhoid in 1932, Bowles wrote:

I became ambitious the other day, and wrote an article for Modern Music. They used to pay $20. What it is now, I don't know. Probably the same. The editor, as you know, has asked me two or three times to do some articles, and I have always shunned the task. It's an easy enough job if one has something to say, I discovered.

Published from 1924 to 1946 by the League of Composers, Modern Music was among the most important music journals of its day, and still makes lively reading. Edited by Minna Lederman for its entire lifespan, Modern Music was academic by nature but also intended for a broader audience than just composers. This was achieved in part by Lederman's insistence on clear, straightforward prose and plain English. Copland, Thomson and Roger Sessions were all regular contributors, as well as many other luminaries of the time, including Arnold Schoenberg, Colin McPhee, Henry Cowell, Elliot Carter, Marc Blitzstein, Lou Harrison, and others, earning Lederman a reputation for having nurtured a generation of composer-critics.

From 1931 on, Bowles contributed translations of articles on music, then his own criticism, to Modern Music. Then, from 1942 through early 1946, he served on the music reviewing staff of the New York Herald Tribune, where Thomson reigned as chief critic. In his few years at the Herald Tribune, Bowles wrote more than 400 music reviews and columns. From 1939 through the first part of 1945, he published nothing in prose but music criticism.

Paul Bowles on Music collects the music criticism Bowles published between 1935 and 1946, and includes an interview (the last) conducted by Irene Herrmann just five months prior to Bowles's death in 1999. Bowles wrote on an incredibly wide range of subjects—jazz, film music, classical music, popular music, avant-garde music, ethnic music—in a lucid, straightforward style that revealed both his incredible musical knowledge and his dry, understated humor. Apparently Bowles made a point of following Thomson's editorial edict on writing about music, which Bowles partly paraphrased in his last interview:

[Thomson] always said you must consider what you're doing is reporting on an event, like a fire in the Bronx or something. You go, he says, tell what you see, you don't say, "I didn't like the color of the fire. I don't like the smell of the burning rubber." Don't tell what you like or what you don't like because no one cares. That was always very important, not to push your person into the review by complaining. It's always considered that you were simply reporting on an event, which is what you were doing—a recital at Town Hall or Carnegie Hall was an event. What happened. And that was the important thing. He always stressed that: What happened?

Whether reviewing Frank Sinatra, John Cage, the Trapp Family Singers, Shostakovich, a child accordionist, or a theremist, Bowles's style remained for the most part austere and dispassionate, foreshadowing the same stylistic approach he later employed in his fiction. There are brief glimpses of enthusiasm, both positive and negative, but Bowles's criticism is primarily level-headed and analytical. And while he made no attempt to hide his preference for American music of the Boulanger school, as well as for non-German European moderns, he always managed to remain objective and open-minded, the final criterion being whether or not the piece "worked."

In the interstice created where the divergent spheres of music and writing overlapped, Bowles was, consciously or not, forming a bridge from one art form to another. As Gena Dagel Caponi wrote in Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage: "The work gave Bowles invaluable experience in producing a straightforward narration of events and in putting nonverbal experiences into verbal expression." Or as Bowles said later in a 1953 interview: "I only returned to writing through music criticism."

Bowles's extensive travels were put to use as well, and he wrote several in-depth articles on indigenous folk music in Mexico, Morocco, Cuba and elsewhere. He also wrote extensively on film and theatre music. In 1943 and 1944, two of his most prolific years as a music critic, he wrote some 280 articles for the Herald Tribune, most of them concert reviews. These pieces give the collection an autobiographical aspect as well, painting a portrait of the young composer-critic hustling through the streets of Manhattan to the next concert, recital, film or theater premiere—producing an image quite at odds with the reticent, sphinx-like inveterate outsider and expatriate writer who disappeared into the Sahara in 1947 to write The Sheltering Sky, and later such sinister works as "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode."

After a falling out with Minna Lederman, Bowles's critical writing began to dwindle. As guest editor of the May 1945 issue of Charles Henri Ford's surrealist magazine View, Bowles translated a number of mythical stories and anthropological texts, paving the way for his own return to fiction writing and translations, which would soon be appearing in such magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Horizon, and Partisan Review. As Bowles wrote in his autobiography, Without Stopping:

Little by little the desire came to me to invent my own myths, adopting the point of view of the primitive mind. The only way I could devise for simulating that state was the old Surrealist method of abandoning conscious control and writing whatever words came from the pen . . . It was through this unexpected little gate that I crept back into the land of fiction.

The words that then came from his pen formed the story "The Scorpion," a disturbing and exemplary work of fiction that set the style for much of Bowles's later work, an oeuvre which would establish him as one of the preeminent authors of the 20th century. Besides documenting over a decade of cultural history, Paul Bowles on Music greatly enhances our picture of a composer/writer otherwise draped in obscurity, and sheds much new light on his own artistic development, expanding and buttressing his already voluminous artistic legacy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004