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Paul Bowles on Music
Timothy Mangan & Irene Herrmann, eds.
Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2003.
$34.95 / £22.95, 292 pages, ISBN 0-520-23655-6.

Claude Chastagner
Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier III


No good piece, symphonic or otherwise, needs to be explained in words to be understood. All it needs is to be listened to. [105]

While Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky is located in Morocco, another novel of his, Up Above the World, takes place in Central America. Typically, these are the two countries whose music Bowles describes and analyses with empathy, knowledge and grace in the articles collected in this recently published compendium. For Paul Bowles does not deal with the imaginary or the approximate. He writes of what he has experienced at first hand: he did travel extensively in Central and South America, and in North Africa as well, before settling in Tangiers where he lived till his death in 1999. Similarly, the first period of his professional literary life was devoted to musical reviews and rested on his experience as a prolific and quite celebrated composer. His first published texts, apart from poetry, were translations (from the French and the Italian) of articles on music he contributed from 1931 onward to Modern Music, the journal of the League of Composers (founded by his friend and teacher Aaron Copland), of which he was a member. In 1942, he joined the music reviewing staff of the New York Herald Tribune. He worked for them until 1946, writing about 400 pieces.

The careful selection made by Timothy Mangan, a classical music critic, and Irene Herrmann, a lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz (and the executrix of Bowles music estate) allows us a rare glimpse of this wealth of articles. The selection, mostly from the Herald Tribune, with a few pieces from Modern Music, covers the years 1935 through 1946 and includes the last interview given by Bowles in 1999, five months before his death, to Irene Herrmann precisely. If Bowles is now mostly celebrated for his novels and short-stories, and if before the war he was famous for his musical production (ballets, music for films and plays, and concert works which are currently receiving renewed attention), few, including myself, had heard about his career as a reviewer. Hence the importance of this book inasmuch as it reveals what served as a sort of passageway between his two artistic lives, from the music note to the written word.

Most articles are short reviews of concerts, written a few hours after (or sometimes during) the very performance and published the next day. Some deal with the week's or the month's records (or even books) releases and a few are longer, anthropological pieces evoking Bowles's musical encounters in Cuba, Trinidad, Mexico, or North Africa. Although a majority of texts cover classical music (including contemporary avant-garde composers), Bowles’s eclectic tastes and open-mindedness (he steadfastly supports African-American, Indian, or Jewish musicians) lead him to comment on jazz, country, popular, and folk music, both American and foreign. That he was himself a composer shows in the sometimes rather technical language used in the reviews:

The waltzes, incidentally, they play quite well, outlining with percussion the particular distortion of waltz rhythm consisting of a rapid 6/8 in three, with secondary accents on the second, third, fifth, and sixth eighths [...] Double-tone [calypsos] may be in major, in which case the four phrases of a refrain will be: 2A unresolved + B + A resolved, or a variation of it. If it is in minor, the third phrase will modulate rather complicatedly to the relative major, and the fourth will modulate back. [18]

However, Bowles uses such language infrequently and primarily out of a desire not to resort to vain hyperboles. This is indeed a practice he openly criticizes (about Panassié's The Real Jazz for instance: "In these chapters of summaries occur most of the examples of imprecise overwriting for which other jazz books have been justifiably censured" [75], or the "dubious hyperboles" [178] of Robert Goffin in Jazz). Indeed Bowles's style is never showy nor flowery. He can be scathing in his dismissals but never gratuitously, always giving simple and technical reasons for his critiques rather than merely displaying personal tastes: "The non historical material is superficial and inadequate because Hobson attempts to explain jazz without actually showing that he knows what it is himself" [6]. Or again, about a new Ellington composition, he writes "a gaudy potpourri, some pretty corny riffs, trite tunes" [81].

However, the major problem with such books is that they offer, 60 years later, what were originally topical pieces, published in a daily paper, with no other purpose than informing the readers of the time of what was going on in their city (hence the frequent mention of the audience's reactions). One may wonder what interest today's readers may have in such brief, ephemeral notices. Presumably the serious music lover or the Bowles scholar, will find it informative, in so far as it gives "a vivid sense of the quality, variety, and abundance of musical life in New York during the 1930s and 1940s" [260]. But the general interest of such endeavors is certainly limited. Besides, as Timothy Magan writes in the introduction, "one occasionally senses routine creeping into the writing" [xvi]. Magan's short but informative introduction may incidentally prove quite sufficient a read.

Exception should be made though for the half-dozen longer pieces on non-European popular music which show Bowles as a knowledgeable music anthropologist, whose insights are still relevant today. He captured vanishing idioms just before the "evils of commercialization" turned them into standardized, conventional fare. The elegant and moving pages on this topic have an appeal the rest of the book lacks. Bowles repeatedly attacks and laments the disappearance of musical traditions under the assaults and "pitfalls" of commercialization ("the monstrous bastard kitsch" [41]), and the social disintegration which results, though is he perceptive enough to wonder if his attitude is well-founded: "Is it the attitude of a musical tourist to resent the changes which take place in folk music, depriving it of the picturesque local color it has retained during the period of its isolation, and to decry the newly hybridized and urbanized product which results from contact with other manifestations of musical culture?" [192]. These graceful and moving pages (as well as Bowles's last, though short, interview) are among the book's best moments.


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