I wanted to read this book of Paul Bowles's (1910 - 1999) music reviews for several reasons. I am an admirer of Bowles's fiction, including the novel "The Sheltering Sky," which he wrote as an expatriate American in Tangiers beginning in 1947. Furthermore, before he began his career as a novelist, Bowles was a rising and prolific composer. A self-taught protege of Aaron Copland, Bowles wrote ballets, suites, art songs, film scores, and scores for the theater, including plays by Tennessee Williams. Music and literature are two of my passions.
This leads me to the third reason for wanting to read this book. Bowles spent several years reviewing music of all sorts, chiefly for the "New York Hearald Tribune" and for the periodical "Modern Music". He wrote this work as a journalist, for little pay, and with tight deadlines. Yet he managed to write well and to find something important to say. It is this work-a-day world of writing that reminds me of my efforts, and those of my fellow reviewers, writing on this site It is a challenge to write short pieces with regularity on subjects one loves and to try to produce something others will find valuable. In short, Bowles's reviews, and his progress from composer to critic to novelist somehow became emblematic and inspirational to me of the Amazon reviewing process.
In this book, Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann have gathered together Paul Bowles's music reviews written primarily from 1940--1946. Bowles writes in a spare, understated, succinct style that will be familiar to readers of "The Sheltering Sky". His reviews cover a broad spectrum and include reviews of scores for films, record releases, and concerts. They cover too a wide range of music, including the then-recent works of Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and other contemporary classical composers, to folk music of Mexico, North Africa, South America, and Cuba, through American jazz and blues. I was intrigued by his references to the blues singer Memphis Minnie (p. 230), the blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree (sings "with a fine primitive self-accompaniment on the piano", p.205), and Arthur Crudup (p.230) who would become the most direct and immediate influence on young Elvis Presley.
Bowles's reviews give a lively picture of concert life in New York City during the war years as he describes for us the venues for music, and the performers and performances that he witnessed. Many young composers and performers he reviewed were just starting out and would subsequently become famous, such as the 25 year old Leonard Bernstein (Bowles reviewed the premier of his "Jerimiah" symphony) and the young 18 year old pianist Eugene Istomin. But he also reviewed concerts by composers and performers then considered to be of promise who have subsequently been forgotten. It is good to remember these composers and flegling performers and their efforts. The book allows the reader to see the manner in which musical tastes have changed from the 1940s to the present.
Bowles was a composer and writes about music from a composer's viewpoint. He writes eloquently about structures, harmonies, music periods, textures, interpretations and performance practices. One can learn a good deal about listening intelligently to music from these reviews, even though the performances, and in some cases the music he describes, has long been forgotten.
I noticed that Bowles had a predeliction for early music and, in particular for the music of the harpsichord. In a review praising a 1942 concert by harpsichordist Ralph Kilpatrick, Bowles wrote: "it is difficult not to be enthusiastic over such a concert, if only because it involves the harpsichord itself, that antidote to the poison sounds of our era's daily life. It is the instrument which allows every note of every voice of a piece of contrapuntal writing to be heard with complete clarity; remote and recessed as a voice may sound, it is never hidden." (p.58) In a 1991 interview included in this book, Bowles offered similar observations in discussing his reactions to the performances of Wanda Landowska (pp 267-269). Bowles's criticism of "the poison sounds of our era's daily life," echoed in many reviews in this collection, perhaps help explain his decision to leave New York City in favor of the life of an expatriate in Tangiers.
Bowles decried what he viewed as a growing commercialization and uniformity in all types of music, from folk, to jazz to classical and cherished music as a way of life rather than as a casual entertainment. It is fitting to quote the end of his final review, written in 1946, in which Bowles decried the increasingly sterile character of traditional folk music. He wrote:
"In Latin America as elsewhere, the radio and cinema are systematically exterminating folk music before its creators and consumers are in a position to participate in the creation or enjoymnent of art music. What fills the gap? Commercial music. But there are still thousands of small villages in that part of our hemisphere where radios and projectors have yet to arrive, and where the people still make their own music just as they have for centuries, not for entertainment, but because it is an absolute essential to their living." (p.257)
It is this ideal of music as "essential to living" that I found most lasting in these reviews by Paul Bowles.