February 25, 1944, New York Herald Tribune
While Strauss’s glorification of the Uebermensch was in the act of being played last night, one found oneself wondering why, unless he wished to make as obvious a contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous in music, Dr. Rodzinski had chosen to expose the ugly form and character of Also Sprach Zarathustra to the Carnegie Hall public directly after the miraculous G Minor Symphony of Mozart. Throughout the course of its convulsions, one thinks of the behavior of some venomous insect or reptile which refuses to stop moving even after it has been hacked to pieces. When the last harmonica-like chord had been uttered and the piece had come to its end, one understood why the time necessary to a sonorously integrated performance such as last night’s had been spent on the work — the public likes this kind of music!
Thus there is no more to say on the subject, save to express one’s ingenuous wonder that this same public should not demand, in a work where the composer screams “wolf!” so very many times, that he should produce such an animal somewhere between the beginning and the end of the piece.
Bad music had social consequences for Bowles. His criticism traveled between two poles, from the reportorial on one end, to the adversarial on the other, as the case, in his mind, warranted. Sometimes he managed to mix the voices, as in his unusually astute reviews of new music to which he was sympathetic. On the other hand, the Mahler and the Strauss reviews quoted, whether one agrees with them or not, are worthy of inclusion in Slonimsky’s famous “Lexicon of Musical Invective.”
He seems to have loathed Rachmaninoff above all practitioners of his art, at least in print. (Out of a sense of self-preservation, perhaps, he never committed his distaste for Beethoven to writing.)
“The piece itself,” he wrote of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, “is couched in an unamusing, degenerate style whose sole point seems to be that of keeping the textures every moment at the highest possible degree of richness. Unfortunately that richness palls almost immediately, as greasiness does in cooking.”
Bowles was a good critic. But writing fiction — Berlioz, too, turned to fiction, though of a very different kind — began to have its pull.
Bowles produced a small amount of music criticism for other periodicals. In April, 1943, he wrote an article on current jazz records Mademoiselle (the popular women’s magazine) which was largely a reworking of material found in another article, “The Jazz Ear,” which appeared the same month in View. Published in New York from 1940-47, co-edited by friend Charles-Henri Ford, View was a surrealist arts publication that would eventually play a significant part in Bowles return to fiction writing. As a guest editor of the May 1945 issue of View, entitled “Tropical Americana,” Bowles translated of number of mythical stories and anthropological texts, including “The Story of the Sage Earth Fish” and “The Fertile Serpent of Bat Mansion” from the ancient “Popol Vuh” of the Quiché people in Guatemala.
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 immediate result was the disturbing short story, “The Scorpion,” first published in View. But the method would serve him well for the rest of his life.
The short fiction began pouring from his pen, and magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Horizon and Partisan Review were publishing it. Early in 1946 Bowles resigned from the Herald Tribune. At the time, he viewed it not as a divorce from music, but a re-engagement. “I’m not ‘going in’ for writing instead of music at all,” he told the composer George Antheil. “On the contrary, I resigned this past winter from the Herald Tribune staff where I’d been working three years and a half, precisely because I wanted to write music instead of having to write about it.”(17) He did indeed continue to compose, but the fiction slowly grew in importance. In 1949, when his first novel “The Sheltering Sky” was published, his reputation was sealed as the writer-who-once-composed.
At least one person remembered Bowles as a critic, though. In 1954, when Thomson finally left the Herald Tribune, he recommended Bowles for the job. Bowles never got the chance to turn him down – the position had been filled by the time Thomson got around to plugging for Bowles – but he no doubt would have. He later told Thomson: “I don’t think I could have handled it, any more than I could have followed a career in composition. I lacked the musical training that you and Aaron had.” And so, Paul Bowles the music critic became a chapter in the life, not the whole book.