Paul Bowles meets with Ken Smith and Frank J. Oteri



Frank J. Oteri and Ken Smith with Paul Bowles
Photo by Melissa Richard

January 1, 1998
Tangier, Morocco

KEN SMITH: I’d like to talk a bit about your life in New York, the days when you were writing for the New York Herald-Tribune.

PAUL BOWLES: It was years…

KEN SMITH: The years, then, that you wrote about music. You were part of a great era of music criticism.

PAUL BOWLES: Virgil [Thomson] really knew what he was doing, and most critics don’t. Their writing is about as interesting as, well, Olin Downes at the Times. Then there was Frank Perkins. He was a nice man, but he always sat on the fence so that you never knew what he liked. You’d read his pieces and still not know why it mattered. Nothing changed. I think something should change when you read a piece.

KEN SMITH: It was an interesting time to be covering the music scene in New York.

PAUL BOWLES: It was?

KEN SMITH: The pieces from the mid-century that are not just coming into the repertory were being heard for the first time.

PAUL BOWLES: I suppose that’s true, yes.

KEN SMITH: And because the Herald-Tribune critics were composers themselves, you had some insight into what those composers were doing.

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, I think that composers are better fitted to say what’s in a new piece of music than most critics.

FRANK J. OTERI: What interested us about your writing is that you were one of the first daily critics to respect jazz and non-western music and talk about these musics as equal to the western classical tradition.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, as far as I was concerned they were. And are.

FRANK J. OTERI: But nobody else said so.

PAUL BOWLES: Not at all. It just wasn’t done.

KEN SMITH: Did you face any barriers then? Were your readers and peers receptive to that idea?

PAUL BOWLES: I think they were. At least I did it for a long time and no one objected. They were willing to read a piece even if they didn’t know the music, and very likely they didn’t.

KEN SMITH: What kind of feedback did you get?

PAUL BOWLES: None, but I didn’t expect any either. People don’t react directly to that kind of criticism. Maybe they do with literary criticism, I don’t know. Other critics may have wondered why [I would write about it], I suppose, or spoken about it in a derogatory fashion. But who else was there? The Times had not a single good critic that I could see. One had been a weatherman, but they needed an extra critic so that they could say they covered everything. The Herald-Tribune said with pride that they were the only paper to cover every musical event in town and the Times couldn’t allow that. Of course, they mainly had Mr. Downes, who couldn’t really hear any music except Sibelius.

KEN SMITH: There are still large Sibelius festivals in New York where Olin Downes is prominently mentioned.

PAUL BOWLES: Oh, I’m sure he would still be there if he could.

KEN SMITH: You first began writing music criticism for Modern Music. How did that invitation come about?

PAUL BOWLES: Probably from Aaron Copland but possibly Mina Lederman. They were great friends.

KEN SMITH: Did they give you any guidance or did they just ask you to submit something?

PAUL BOWLES: I wasn’t aware of any guidelines, if they had any. I doubt that they did. Either Mina liked the piece, or she’d mark it up and say, “This is impossible. You can’t say this.” Or “Explain why you say this.” That’s the only guidance I was aware of. She wasn’t trying to form a style; she was trying to get pieces that she wanted to print.

KEN SMITH: What were the kind of things she wouldn’t print.

PAUL BOWLES: There were certain people she would not let you attack. You couldn’t be negative about Roger Sessions, for example. Did you hear about his death?

KEN SMITH: No.

PAUL BOWLES: He was ill for quite a while before he died, and he was talking with Babbitt and said suddenly “I’m dying-what a bore.” Those were his last words.

KEN SMITH: I’ve never heard that.

PAUL BOWLES: I did (laughs). I thought it was very funny, using one’s own death as material. I wonder if he was aware that his last words would be quoted.

KEN SMITH: Do you remember your own…

PAUL BOWLES: My own death?

KEN SMITH: No, no, your own manuscripts being marked up for any reason?

PAUL BOWLES: No, it was usually just typos, and the desire to be as accurate as possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Were there ever reviews sent in that were negative?

PAUL BOWLES: I don’t know; if there were they were never published.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you never wrote anything negative about Sessions?

PAUL BOWLES: I never wrote negative things about anybody. That was all Virgil. He used to say “Nobody gives a damn if you like it or don’t like it. Who are you? Describe what happened. Include everything except your reactions. If you cover a fire in the Bronx you don’t write about your reactions. You write about how many people they carried out.”

KEN SMITH: What kind of day-to-day guidance did you get from Virgil?

PAUL BOWLES: Virgil and I saw things pretty much eye to eye, so he didn’t have much to correct. We were both Francophiles-and Germanophobes.

KEN SMITH: What was it like when you started writing on deadline?

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I was very nervous for a while, because time was so much the element. The big clock stood over you as you tried to get as much down as possible to the possible. If anything came back wrong from the topographers you had only a few minutes to correct it. I was nervous for about 2 weeks until I fell into the swimming pool and stayed there.

KEN SMITH: What reviews do you still remember?

PAUL BOWLES: I remember I was assigned to cover Wanda Landowska-the problem being that I not only had to review her concert, but go to her studio beforehand and have her go through the program, just for me. And at that time, she not only played but explained why she did certain things that weren’t written. She knew exactly what the composers meant. She was a strange woman, but a marvelous harpsichordist and a very good pianist. I remember she played Scarlatti and Mozart sonatas at the concert. But what was strange in her studio was she had five harpsichords and under each one was a girl who kept them in tune. You have to tune them everyday, you know? I didn’t because I never had one.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did hearing her play ever inspire you to write for the harpsichord?

PAUL BOWLES: No, to do that I would have had to have one myself. You can’t write for harpsichord on a piano very well.

KEN SMITH: Did you ever determine your own assignments?

PAUL BOWLES: Not much. It was all Virgil. Sometimes he gave me things he would’ve liked to cover himself, but he wanted to see how I would react.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was that with record reviews as well?

PAUL BOWLES: No. If I liked a record, I would write about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You only reviewed things you liked?

PAUL BOWLES: There’s no point in writing bad things, “bad” only meaning not worthy to the reviewer. In [jazz and non-western] music you can hear what is authentic, what is good and what isn’t. You don’t have to be trained in that musical tradition. You just know. I’d traveled and listened carefully to other musics.

KEN SMITH: I’ve heard that most of your jazz education came from listening to John Hammond’s collection.

PAUL BOWLES: John used to live on Sullivan Street in the Village, lived right below Joe Losey, as a matter of fact, and he was very enthusiastic about all black music-making. He used to take me up to Harlem because he had friends there. There was Billie Holliday and someone…I’ve only smoked one kif cigarette today but I still can’t remember anything…Teddy Wilson, Very good pianist and intelligent, in touch with contemporary music. And then John was very enthusiastic about a record he found by someone named Meade Lux Lewis, but he had no idea how to find him. He’d found a record called the “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” and was determined to find this man and bring him New York to play for audiences who would appreciate him. He went traveling around to find him, stopping everywhere asking questions. Finally he found him washing cars in a garage in South Chicago. He’d given up music for something that would keep him alive.

FRANK J. OTERI: He began recording again?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, thanks to John. They all used to play down at Cafe Society in the Village. Maybe uptown too.

FRANK J. OTERI: That was about the time the whole bebop revolution took place up at Minton’s.

PAUL BOWLES: An editor at the Herald-Tribune called me in and asked me what I knew about bebop, I said nothing. He said, “Well, what do you know about a man named Gillespie?” And I’d heard of him but I knew nothing about him. He wanted me to write a special article, but I couldn’t, not having heard the music.

KEN SMITH: What was your reaction when you finally heard the music?

PAUL BOWLES: It was nervous jazz. I liked it.

KEN SMITH: You mentioned the assignments came from Virgil. Occasionally you reviewed concerts where Virgil’s music was performed, and there was one occasion I found where your own music was being performed.

PAUL BOWLES: I didn’t choose those concerts. That was Virgil.

KEN SMITH: I haven’t seen any precedent for that that in the daily papers. Usually an editor would find someone with no ties to the paper to cover it.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, Virgil didn’t think there was anything wrong with that and he would cite examples where it had happened in Europe. I said that I would like to be able to mention all the pieces that are played or sung, and Virgil said when you listen you just cross out the name of the composer and pretend they are all written by John Smith.

KEN SMITH: Virgil always claimed he could review his own grandmother objectively, but how did you deal with reviewing a concert in which, say, Aaron’s music was being played.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I showed my preference for his music if, let’s say, Ross Lee Finney was being played on the same program. I could say it was well done and not go into it. There’s no point in going into it if you don’t like it.

KEN SMITH: That seems to sum up your approach. As far as individual reviews went, did you ever think about shaping the piece as a critical essay, over and above daily reporting?

PAUL BOWLES: You mean was I conscious of what I was doing? No, not really; there was no time for that. Even if it was a Sunday piece, which I had to have in by Wednesday, there was no need for it. They were more familiar in tone, and to make a planned essay out of it would have removed some of the feeling of familiarity. When a point is made offhand, you need to continue to be offhand. Virgil sent me to Boston to review Stravinsky’s new Symphony in Three Movements. I’d never heard it and there’s nothing to talk about unless you know it. It was an important piece-still I think one of his best pieces. But I stressed the conducting of Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And I had to go in and have tea with Stravinsky and we got on very well. I had never met him before, or since.

KEN SMITH: The Rite of Spring had been a big influence for you.

PAUL BOWLES: I think it influenced more composers all over the world than any piece in the 20th century, don’t you think? I remember I went with Marc Blitzstein in a concert in Town Hall where they played Rite of Spring, and afterward he said, “But it’s all so old fashioned.”

KEN SMITH: That’s what struck me about reading many of your reviews. You were on the front line hearing many pieces that have lasted till today. It’s hard listening to Symphony in Three Movements today and trying to imagine the conditions of its first performance.

PAUL BOWLES: You have to have a real conception of the period.

KEN SMITH: Did you follow much music criticism after you left New York?

PAUL BOWLES: None whatsoever. I had no idea what was going on. There was not much connection between New York and Tangier, musically or in any other way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there any sort of music criticism in Tangier?

PAUL BOWLES: None, because there’s no music.

KEN SMITH: Not even in the Arabic press?

PAUL BOWLES: No, and by that I mean they don’t usually think of music as a entity unto itself. Usually it’s a religious accompaniment to a rite, or some festival. It’s not the same idea at all. Music is much more gebrauchsmusik here, as it is all over Africa.

FRANK J. OTERI: But there are also entire suites of classical Arabo-Andalucian music performed by ensembles.

PAUL BOWLES: Where?

FRANK J. OTERI: I saw it on television this week.

PAUL BOWLES: Moroccan or Spanish?

FRANK J. OTERI: Moroccan. It was really quite impressive.

PAUL BOWLES: Broadcast from Rabat, I suppose. When I made my recordings for the Library of Congress I favored Moroccan music over Arabic music because, after all, Morocco is only an Arab colony. They were trying to instill their culture and Arabize the Moroccans, who don’t take to anything with much interest if there’s no money in it.

KEN SMITH: Lou Harrison also wrote for the Herald-Tribune after you left.

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, he and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, I’m not sure which came first.

KEN SMITH: You both were very interested in music outside the European model. Did you have much of an association in New York?

PAUL BOWLES: None. I met him and thought he was crazy, which he turned out to be-I mean crazy as in not being in control.

KEN SMITH: He, too, did much better after leaving New York City.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you have any messages for Lou Harrison?

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I hope he’s going strong. He’s still composing? He’s not as old as I am but he’s getting on.

FRANK J. OTERI: He just turned 80.

PAUL BOWLES: Tell him I got there first! [laughs]

KEN SMITH: Are you still composing these days?

PAUL BOWLES: Not much now. Oh, I did a score on synthesizer, but I don’t consider that composing. There’s no compositional technique involved. I suppose it is composing, though, in a different way.

KEN SMITH: What have you been writing?

PAUL BOWLES: Theater music. This year I did it for the American School. They always put on one big production every year. That’s the main interest of the headmaster. He’s more interested in theater than the school.

KEN SMITH: Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ music is starting to come back too. Did she get involved in music criticism the same way you did?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes. Sometimes there were too many concerts for us all to cover. Often I did three concerts on a Saturday afternoon, grabbing a taxi from one concert hall to another. Virgil said, “Well if it’s too much you’ll have to call in outsiders. Here’s Peggy’s number. Call her in advance and see if she’s free.” And she was good. There’s a wonderful film about her made in Australia, which I have not seen where somebody mentioned my name to her in her later years and she said, “He’s so difficult.” They asked why and she said she’d arranged for a recording with MGM of my zarzuela. Directed by Carlos somebody.

FRANK J. OTERI: Surinach?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, that’s it. And she said I did nothing but fuss because she left out a certain dance and included other things which I thought were inferior. And as she was remembering it, she was getting angrier until finally she said, “All the work I did on his scrappy little opera, and I’m much better composer than he is.” I would agree, because she was a true composer she devoted her whole life to it. You have to get credit; she knew what she was doing. She fell under the spell of Vaughan Williams, which was too bad because it remained in her. Even in music she claimed voraciously had no harmony, she still had to have thirds and sixths going on. But she did a lot of work for me, copied out hundreds of pages of my music, which I wouldn’t have had copies of otherwise.

FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of your scores for the theater no longer survive, and we wonder whether any of your music was ever improvised.

PAUL BOWLES: No, it was composed, exactly like my regular music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was there ever a time you improvised music publicly.

PAUL BOWLES: I wouldn’t have dared. It would’ve been like undressing in public.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve read that before you started writing music, and in fact before you wrote poetry, that you were a painter.

PAUL BOWLES: No. I studied painting at the School of Design and Liberal Arts, but it was only because I was graduated from high school too young to go to university. I never had a good visual sense.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve taken a lot of good photographs.

PAUL BOWLES: But that’s different, I guess

FRANK J. OTERI: So none of your paintings survive.

PAUL BOWLES: It’s just as well. I don’t know why anyone would want it to survive.

KEN SMITH: Has anyone made an effort to collect your reviews?

PAUL BOWLES: Those do survive, though many of them are not interesting enough. You’d probably have to go to Modern Music to find reviews that stand out.

KEN SMITH: I still remember your columns on Cuban and North African music from the Herald-Tribune.

PAUL BOWLES: Really? I remember writing on Mexican music and calypso. Does that even exist anymore?

KEN SMITH: Yes but not in the same form.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a derivative called soca that’s infused with a steady rock beat, electric instruments and elements of rhythm and blues and soul. A lot of it is reminiscent of recent Jamaican music but it has a calypso harmonic backdrop. Most of it’s not very good. I found some things I like, but nothing compares to say Wilmouth Houdini.

PAUL BOWLES: The old Trinidadian? Whatever happened to him?

FRANK J. OTERI: He died. I recently read a fascinating story about Houdini’s years in New York written by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for the New Yorker.

KEN SMITH: Have you ever read his work? He had a very interesting way of capturing a place through its people. They are actually similar in a way to your travel essays in Their Heads are Green.

FRANK J. OTERI: Your book made a nice companion for us this week as we traveled all through Morocco. It’s been inspiring.

PAUL BOWLES: Did it have much to do with Morocco? I don’t remember.

KEN SMITH: “The Rif to Music” was about your travels through the country recording the indigenous music.

PAUL BOWLES: Oh that’s right. Wasn’t “The Route to Tassemit” in that collection, too? That one is just as authentic-a real travel piece about a real place. I have a picture of it right here. I didn’t take it, but that’s not the point.

KEN SMITH: Many times the photos can upstage the writing.

PAUL BOWLES: You mean like Leni Refenstahl? Susan Sontag claimed that Riefenstahl’s book The Last of the Nuba was Fascist, which was ridiculous. Leave it to Susan Sontag to go so far on the branch that she couldn’t crawl back.

KEN SMITH: I remembered that review mainly because it had so little to do with the book at hand.

PAUL BOWLES: She was more concerned with Riefenstahl than the Nuba. Riefenstahl didn’t make any bad films, regardless of what Susan Sontag said. But she even implied that being interested in Native Africa was a Fascist attitude. I suppose you have to pretend they don’t exist.

KEN SMITH: That’s an interesting position, that Riefenstahl even acknowledging the people at all was a form of colonization.

PAUL BOWLES: And I would ask Ms. Sontag, what was the alternative? She has yet to tell us. She was too obsessed with the fact that Riefenstahl chose a society where everybody ran around naked. That’s absurd. I like Susan Sontag, but you can’t always agree with her. She came here once and we talked about this country. But (laughs) I introduced her to Jane, and Jane had nothing to say. I told Jane she was very intelligent; after she went back to New York I asked Jane what she thought of her. She said, “She has unfortunate gums.”

KEN SMITH: Have you ever heard any similar criticisms of your own work? Your recording the music of North Africa could be construed in the same way.

PAUL BOWLES: I don’t see how.

KEN SMITH: Just the fact that you are taking the music out of its gebrauchsmusik context and into people’s homes for their private listening.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I don’t know. What would you do with Monteverdi?

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s part of the problem. The people who make that argument play mostly Mozart and Brahms, but they play that music in the wrong context, too. If they listened to their own argument, they’d play only contemporary music.