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"I NEVER LIKED TO RAISE MY VOICE."

An Interview with Paul Bowles about His and Others' Music (1995)

by Phillip Ramey

 

 

PHILLIP RAMEY:  When did you begin to compose?

 

PAUL BOWLES:  I started as a small child, with songs.  At one point I thought I was writing an opera.  It was titled Le Carré and subtitled "an opera in nine chapters," so you can see how, even then, I got my arts mixed up.  The plot concerned two men who decide to exchange wives.  The setting was Stanley, in the Falkland Islands.  This was just after the First World War and nobody had ever heard of the Falklands.  Nor had I, except that I found them on a map.  

 

What was your early training?

 

I had two lessons a week, one in piano, the other in ear-training and theory.  I wrote some small piano pieces at that time, when I was eight or nine.  What I liked particularly was popular music, so I tried to write Broadway-like tunes.  Of course they were no good.  Nothing I composed then was any good.  Naturally.   

 

The composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland

How did it happen that you were able to study with Aaron Copland?

 

Henry Cowell arranged that. I met Aaron in late 1929, when I was eighteen.  Of course, I knew of him because of the Copland-Sessions Concerts, but I had never heard a note of his music.  

 

You came to admire him as a composer?

 

At that age I think that if one admires at all one admires wholeheartedly, and I did.  He seemed to me the ideal of what a composer should be because he knew exactly why he put down every note.  

 

Aaron once told me that you were hardly an exemplary student. 

 

True.  He gave me figured basses to do every day, and we analyzed Mozart sonatas.  I didn't enjoy any of it.  Who would?  It was no fun.  Aaron used to shrug his shoulders and say, "If you don't work now when you're twenty, no one will love you when you're thirty."  Aaron also called me "militantly non-professional."  I love that word militantI suppose he meant anti-academic, which I certainly was.  But learning meant studying.  (I did, however, compose my little Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet when I was with him in Morocco in 1931, but I didn't consider that to be work.)  I thought that I could do what I wanted to do without any rigorous training.  

 

Is that why you refused studies with two important figures of twentieth-century music, Nadia Boulanger and Sergei Prokofiev?

 

Of course.  The key word there is study.  It's a dirty word.  

 

Did you think they might be too-strict taskmasters?  

 

I could tell from Boulanger's personality that she would be strict.  I had never met Prokofiev, but I had a Russian friend in Paris, Madame Daniloff, who knew him, and she said she would arrange for me to see him.  I liked his music very much, especially a ballet I had seen performed by the Diaghilev company, Pas d'Acier, but the idea of meeting him frightened me.  Nonetheless, Madame Daniloff made an appointment for three o'clock the following Monday.  That day, after lunch, I found myself packing suitcases and taking a taxi to the Gare de l'Est.  I bought a ticket to the farthest destination, which was Saverne in Alsace, and got on the train.  I don't know what was the matter with me.  

 

You didn't even want to meet Prokofiev? 

 

No, because if I had then he might have accepted me as a student.  Later, we exchanged letters, and he wrote me something like, "I am sorry that you were prevented from coming to see me last May, but I should like to warn you against the people you are seeing in America.  Music is not headed in that direction."  I had mentioned Copland to Prokofiev, and when I showed Aaron the letter he loved it.  He laughed and laughed.  I finally did meet Prokofiev in New York in 1936, just before he returned to Russia for good.  At lunch he was serious and forbidding, and never smiled.  Perhaps he was worried.  I thought he was mad to go back.  

 

Musically, you are a self-confessed miniaturist, primarily a composer of brief, episodic pieces.

 

For me, short, simple pieces were the most satisfying, perhaps because I didn't know how to appreciate long, complex ones.  I wasn't certain how such pieces were made.  

 

But didn't you want to find out?  You weren't stupid.

 

It was not a question of intelligence.  I'm not complaining that I was dumb.  I think that, largely, it was a matter of what Gertrude Stein called self-sufficiency.  

 

 

Phillip Ramey, Tangier 2009 (photo by Cherie Nutting)

You never desired to create large-scale worksa symphony, for instance?  

 

No!  I didn't think in those terms at all.  My ideal was to write small pieces with only as many notes as absolutely necessary; pieces which could be listened to many times and would be fun to hear.  I admit that's rather limiting.  Formally, those pieces scarcely exist.  As a composer, I think of myself as someone as marginal as Louis Moreau Gottschalk or Reynaldo Hahn.  

 

Is that part of your philosophy, that composing music and listening to it should be fun?

 

Of course.  What else is there in life but fun?  

 

Some composers of my acquaintance say that writing music is an agony.  

 

[Laughing] If they want agony, that's fine.   

 

What do you see as the function, if any, of concert music?

 

First, I suppose, it has to entertain.  When one hears the word entertainment, one thinks of show biz, but of course that isn't it.  Music should engage the attention of the listener and make him more aware of what sound can do to him.  

 

Just that?  You don't think that concert music might have, in the old Teutonic-Romantic sense, some high moral purpose?

 

None whatever.  Good concert music expounds the philosophy of sound: where sounds come from and what they do.   

 

By citing an entertainment factor, are you suggesting populism?

 

No.  I'm presupposing a sophisticated ear.  The unsophisticated earthe so-called man in the streetwill probably not be in a concert hall.  

 

Did you take any pleasure in the ultra-sophisticated programs that the League of Composers gave in New York in the 1930s and 1940s?

 

Not unless they played a piece of mine, which was seldom.  But, then, I think my music was more entertaining than the other things they were presenting, which tended to be by the academic crowd.  By entertaining I mean easy to listen to.  Those were highly specialized concerts.  The general public never attended them.  

 

The music they played was deadly serious, with little charm?  

 

Yes, and there is no entertainment without charm.  

 

But others might consider, for instance, an earnest Beethoven quartet entertaining.  

 

[Laughing]  You're not interviewing those others.  

 

Why do you find Beethoven's music distasteful?  

 

For one thing, because you have to wait so long for it to change.  

 

Is it too serious and determined for you, not episodic enough?  

 

Probably.  

 

Of course, generally speaking, Beethoven was uninterested in charming the listener.  More in impressing him.  

 

Ah, I was afraid of that!  

 

You don't care for impressive, self-important music.

 

How could I?  In my own music I never liked to raise my voice.  It was often more in the manner of an aside.  That's partly why I prefer French music to German.  The French were not striving to be impressive.  It was something else they sought: exactitude of tone, starting with Couperin and continuing to Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.  The German aesthetic is foreign to me.  

 

So you have never attempted to write any "serious," "impressive" music.  

 

It would embarrass me too much.  I would be ashamed of it.  It would be like writing prose that seeks to impress.  

 

Then your music is not meant to be taken seriously?

 

I don't mind if other people take it seriously, but I don't.  I certainly never intended it to be impressive.  But, of course, you can take the lightest piano piece of Satie seriously.  

 

Although Copland had his lighter side, basically he was a serious composer.  I know that you admire many of his works, especially the Piano Variations.

 

Aaron was very serious, and most of his music is meant to be impressive.  It expounds, often using rhetoric familiar from the nineteenth century, even from Beethoven.  The Piano Variations is my favorite of all his serious concert music, and certainly its gestures are meant to impress the listener.  But I admire the Variations for another reason: as I listen, I am aware of every detail of its construction; its beams and struts are beautifully visible, unmarred by any ornamentation.  You cannot say that about "impressive" music by Germanic composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Jan Sibelius.  

 

I knew you didn't like Mahler, but I didn't realize you felt strongly about Strauss and Sibelius.  

 

To my mind, Richard Strauss is a perfect example of what shouldn't be.  

 

I remember Copland saying that during the 1920s and 1930s he considered Sibelius to be "the Enemy." 

 

As far as I'm concerned, you can have all seven of his symphonies, with my compliments.  

 

Sibelius is said to have composed an eighth symphony and then destroyed it.

 

He finally caught on.  

 

Am I right in thinking that Igor Stravinsky is your favorite composer?  

 

Yes, although I don't suppose I would put him ahead of Johann Sebastian Bach.  But certainly ahead of anybody in the past two centuries.  

 

I think it's extraordinary the way Stravinsky kept reinventing himself.   

 

So do I.  When I was a kid, I liked the early Russian phase, especially L'Oiseau de Feu.  But the later neo-classic works seem to be more solid and interesting, for instance, the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instrumentsa great piece.  I very much admire Stravinsky's intellect.  I think he was brighter than other composers and you find that quality especially in the neoclassic scores.  He had a wonderful gift for orchestration, perverse orchestration.  He made the instruments sound as they hadn't sounded before, by using the "wrong" registers, by which I mean unusual registers.  And his music was emotionally cool, which I appreciate.  

 

As a young man, were you bowled over by Le Sacre du Printemps?  

 

Of course.  Like everyone else.  Except that the first time I heard the music I had the misfortune to see it danced, by Martha Graham.  If I'd just been listening to an orchestral performance, I probably would have been even more bowled over by Le Sacre.  But there was this visual thing on top of it that got in the way of enjoyment.  

 

The awkward, even grotesque gestures of Martha Graham?   

 

Which didn't necessarily come out of the music.  Someone else could have made other gestures that might have been more in keeping with it.  

 

What are some of your other favorite Stravinsky works?

 

The Gluck-like, very end-of-the-eighteenth-century Apollo, which holds together beautifully from beginning to end.  Le Baiser de la Féeso very Tchaikovsky without being Tchaikovsky. Les Noces.  The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements.  

 

Oedipus Rex?

 

No, because I don't like vocal music.  Also, it sounds to me like fake Stravinsky.  And that old recording is so ridiculous, with Jean Cocteau coming in every few minutes, crying in French:  "The terrible things that have happened to Thebes!" 

 

How about the late, serial-inflected pieces, such as the Requiem Canticles?

 

No, no, no, no.  I don't like his twelve-tone music.  It's as though someone had rewritten some Schoenberg to sound like Stravinsky.  It's Stravinsky-orchestrated, so you couldn't really mistake it.  But even so, the material is so sad.  Stravinsky went out of his way not to make the kind of music he would naturally make.  

 

Did you ever meet him?

 

Yes, once.  In Symphony Hall, Boston, in what was probably Serge Koussevitzky's salon.  He seemed very civilized, not eccentric in any way.  We had tea, and he poured it for me from a teapot.  I liked that.  

 

I had a dream about Stravinsky last night.  We were in the same hotel and I went to his room to see him because I wanted to hear certain of his pieces with which I was unfamiliar.  He said, "It's all right, I have them on compact discs and will lend them to you, but just for a day."  For some reason I had brought my parrot with me.  It was screaming its head off and I kept yelling, "Shut up!"  Stravinsky just smiled, a very ironic smile, as though he knew ahead of time how I would react to the music.  He told me the titles of the pieces, but I had never heard any of them.  I carried the CDs down the hall in my right hand and the parrot's cage in my left.  I didn't know where to put the parrot, but finally left it on the balcony, where it continued to scream so loudly that it was impossible to listen to the music.  So I never heard anything, but Stravinsky did at least lend me the CDs.  

 

Of course in his day there were no compact discs.  

 

No.  But it might just as well have been Mozart, agreeing to let me have his player-piano rolls.  

 

Concerning your unusual dual careers in music and prose:  you once mentioned that you thought they involved different parts of the brain.  

 

Who knows how the mind is divided?  I always found it a great relief to write if I had been composing; and if I had been writing it was wonderful to sit down and compose.  

 

Why do you suppose your prose is so often "dark," your music light?  

 

Perhaps because I didn't know how to compose "dark" music.  

 

Did you ever try?  

 

Oncein 1931, in Berlin.  It was a piano piece, now lost [see: Sixty Years in Limbo: the Rediscovery of Tamanar], called Tamanar, named after a place down in southern Morocco where the High Atlas mountains fall into the Atlantic Ocean.  The music was loud and sinister, by which I mean the harmony was sinisterdissonant and heavy.  When I worked at it, people would begin screaming, "Fenster zu!" (Shut the window!) across the courtyard, threatening to call the police.  They didn't want to hear such a racket.  

 

Ultimately, your serious side came out in your books.  

 

Certainly not in my musical compositions.  Lenny Bernstein always said that my music sounded post-coital.  

 

Your fiction is full of horrific incidents that might, in a sense, be considered gestural.  They catch the reader's attention somewhat in the way musical gestures catch the listener's.  

 

But I don't think that's so shameful in prose because it's connected with the meaning of the story.  

 

Copland once told me that you wrote "engaging music that had its own style, though it wasn't demandingly moderne."  He also said, "I've never known Paul to write a dull piece."  

 

I don't object to that.  Would you?  Though my music certainly wasn't trying to be "modern," and Aaron never suggested that I write dissonant music.  He would point out my failings, but apparently they were technical rather than stylistic.  

 

Do you compose sequentially, from beginning to end?  

 

Always.  

 

Copland often did not work that way.  He would compose bits and pieces of a movement and eventually fit them together so that everything was coherent.  

 

That wouldn't work for me.  That's a synthetic way I couldn't manage.  

 

In that sense, Copland's approach to composition was more intellectual than yours.  

 

It would have to be.  

 

I know you seldom revise your prose, for you are intent on getting things right the first time.  But did you make major revisions in your musical scores?   

 

No.  I would have lost everything if I had.  

 

How much influence has jazz had on your music?

 

A lot of Copland is strictly out of jazz, but I never used it.  Even if one loves jazz, it is very difficult to have anything to do with it.  By jazz, you mean American Black music.  As a composer, I was always careful to stay away from it because I wasn't black and, thus, wouldn't have been able to get the exact effect.  

 

Although you have written a great many songs, I suspect that your real forte is instrumental music.  

 

That's true, because instrumental music is not so damned human.  When I listen to music I don't want to be reminded of human beings all the time, and when someone is singing you can't help but be.  You have a mental image of either a man or a woman with an open mouth, and it's not pleasant.  I hate most vocal Western art music, although I don't mind choral music.  I do not like listening to art songs.  

 

Does it strike you as unnatural to see someone standing by a piano emoting and agonizing?  

 

Of course.  Singers spend years learning to be unnatural.  Bel canto!  It's a horrible noise, like a bull bellowing.  The way Asian singers sound is much more natural and satisfyingmore like instruments.  However, Gregorian chant is beautiful.  I don't find a group of people singing so objectionable, even in harmonization, which is not so good as in unison.  That is certainly better than a soprano or a tenor singing solo.  

 

Yet the published collection of your solo songs is nearly an inch thick.  

 

That's fewer than half of them.   

 

Your activity in this area must have to do with texts.  

 

Obviously I had an itch to set words to music.  

 

Texts, of course, add another human element.  

 

That can be annoying.  It's nice if the text is in Hungarian, then you don't have to bother trying to find out what is being said.  If it's in English, you just get a word here and there anyway.  If it's in French, it's part of the ambience.  If it's in German, you can always get out fast!  I like Bartók's opera, Bluebeard's Castle.  I don't know what is being sung, but at least the words don't interfere with the music.  

 

Despite your dislike of songs in general, do you enjoy hearing your own?  

 

If the performer is really good and simpático.  Then sometimes I think: yes, that's the kind of singing I was hoping for.  To me, the best singers are simply immersed in the music.  They are not saying, "I am singing this." 

 

You wouldn't care for an operatic voice.

 

No, because most of my songs are only lyrical.  It goes without saying that singers ought to have decent voices, but they seldom do.  

 

Which singers who have performed your songs have you liked?  

 

Few.  Jennie Tourel.  Romolo de Spirito.  Libby Holman.  Nina Tarasova.  Donald Gramm.  More recently, William Sharp.  

 

During the 1930s and 1940s, when you lived in New York, you produced a considerable amount of Gebrauchmusikscores for the theater and for films.  

 

I made my living doing that.  It was satisfying because I was able to hear the music almost immediately, to see what it did and how it fulfilled its function.  

 

And there were no problems of extended form.

 

Right.   

 

Before the commissions for functional music, you were composing solely for yourselffor instance, the early piano pieces and songs, the Flute Sonata, Violin Sonata, Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, the Scènes d'Anabase for tenor, oboe and piano, the Suite for Small Orchestra?   

 

Yes.  I thought that was natural.  Nothing was commissioned until 1936, when Virgil Thomson arranged for me to do the score for the John Houseman and Orson Welles production Horse Eats Hat.  I was enthusiastic because it was a marvelous play, a clever adaptation of a farce by Eugène Labiche.  Virgil gave me a good deal of help with the orchestration, which was for chamber orchestra, because I was an inexperienced orchestrator and the music had to be done very quickly.  He did most of the tuttis and I concentrated on sections which didn't require more than five or six instruments.  For the second theater commission, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Orson asked me directly and I did it alone.  Virgil was in Paris at the time, and when he came back and looked at the billboard he said, "I see you got your name on the front of the theater all by yourself this time!"   

 

Was he miffed?   

 

A little, I think.  He didn't say he was, but the fact that he mentioned it indicated that.  

 

Let's talk about some of the pieces being played at the 1995 Paul Bowles Music Festival, presented in New York by the Eos Ensemble.  First, Noonday (Mediodía), written in 1937.  

 

It's a suite of Mexican dances with restricted instrumentationflute, clarinet, bassoon trumpet, two percussion, piano and strings.  The three parts are "The Snake" (La Culebra), "The Dust" (El Polvo), and "The Sun" (El Sol).  The third dance was originally a piano piece, Huapango No. 2; it is strictly rhythmicalpersistent, with the same pattern throughout.  The first and, as far as I know, only performance of Noonday was given in February 1938, on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel in New York.  I played the drums.  

 

The double piano concerto of 1946 was written for the duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.  Was that a commission?   

 

Yes, the second I had from them, the first being for the Sonata for Two Pianos of 1945.  The commission specified two pianos with a small instrumental ensemble, something they could perform in New York at Town Hall.  

 

The concerto is your most extended instrumental work.

 

Yes.  The Picnic Cantata (also a Gold and Fizdale commission) lasts longer, but it is more episodic, eight separate pieces with singers, whereas the Concerto has only four movements.  I especially like the second, the scherzo, which is just for two pianos and percussion.  I wrote some of that material way back when I was sixteen.  

 

How did the orchestral version come about?   

 

Gold and Fizdale wrote me that they had been approached by the Brussels Philharmonic, and that they thought it a good idea for me to make an arrangement of the Concerto for full orchestra.  It took quite a while; I started it in 1947, on the ship coming to Tangier from New York, continued it in Fez and eventually finished it in 1949.  The new version was premiered in Brussels, but I was unable to go and have forgotten the date.  I must say, the orchestration was a job.  The parts had to be extracted, of course, and at the time the place to have that done was East Germany.  But the copyists there were violently against the music, saying it was fascist.  You know how the Comrades feel: no sense of humor.  Some of them refused to have anything to do with the Concerto.  

 

Why would Communist copyists have viewed your ebullient and melodic piece that way?  

 

Because, I suppose, it was their idea that all music should sound like Anton von Webern.  

 

I assume that your Suite for Small Orchestra, dating as it does from 1932-33, was uncommissioned. 

 

Yes.  I wrote it for my own pleasure.  There are three movements: Pastorale, Havanaise and Divertissement.  The Pastorale is made up of simple and repetitious North African melodies that I remembered from a trip to Algeria in 1933.  It's lyrical and very brief.  

 

Do those melodies sound exotic to Occidental ears?

 

Paul Bowles composing music using a synthesizer for Salomé, presented by The American School of Tangier.

I would think so.  I used exactly the same melodies in my incidental music to Salomé, which was written two years ago for synthesizer, for one of Joseph McPhillips' productions at the American School of Tangier.  

 

And the Havanaise and Divertissement?  

 

I remember composing the Havanaise in Agadir [southern Morocco], in 1932.  It's the longest of the three pieces, really a tango.  The Divertissement is a fast piece.  There is one melody that is obviously in Latin American (but not Mexican) style.  I recall what Elliott Carter, at his meanest, wrote:  "Bowles' procedure is to take folk tunes and deprive them of their meaning."  But I never used Latin folk tunes; rather, I invented melodies in the manner of Latin folk music.  When you do that, people think you've cribbed the tunes.  Of course they are deprived of meaning, because they never had that meaning in the first place.  

 

The Glass Menagerie score was the first of your four theatrical collaborations with Tennessee Williams.  

 

It was premiered in New York at the Playhouse on 31 March 1945, after a tryout in Chicago the previous December.  I had to compose the entire score in one weekend.  The problem was that the producer wouldn't give me a contract.  He said he didn't think music needed to be paid for.  Naturally I disagreed.  Finally, on Friday evening, my agent got a lousy contract drawn upfor, I think, only fifty dollars.  The music had to be ready by Monday.  

 

What was the genesis of The Wind Remains.  

 

In 1941, I had a Guggenheim grant to write an opera.  I was in Mexico at the time, and I didn't have a subject.  But I had been corresponding with William Saroyan, for whose play Love's Old Sweet Song I had composed the music the year before.  He said he would write a libretto, and he did.  It was called Opera! Opera!, and I couldn't make any sense of it.  About as sensible as the least sensible Gertrude Stein.  I suppose he was confusing me with Virgil Thomson, and maybe Virgil could have used it but I didn't know what to do with it.  So I turned to Federico Garcia Lorca, whom I was always busy reading, and I came upon his Surrealist play Así que Pasen Cinco Años (which translates, "In Another Five Years or So") and thought several excerpts from that would make a good libretto.  I began the music in Mexico and finished it in New York in late 1942.  

 

Where did you get your title?  

 

From the end of the play, where the clown says:  "The wind remains, and the sound of my violin."  Instead of a violin, I used a wind machine, which I myself ran when the work was given at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on 30 March 1943.  Leonard Bernstein conducted, the choreography was by Merce Cunningham and the sets by Oliver Smith.  The two singers were Romolo de Spirito, tenor, and Jeanne Stephens, soprano.  I remember that the hall had no proscenium and that poor Lenny did not seem happy having to conduct the orchestrawhich was positioned onstage amidst the setfrom the back wall of the stage where he was invisible to the audience, but he bore it bravely.  Although there was a subsequent performance and recording (slightly abridged) of a concert version of The Wind Remains in 1956 (both arranged by my friend the composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks), the work has never again been staged.  The trouble with The Wind Remains as an opera is that its text means nothing and goes nowhere.  Of course, it isn't actually an opera, but rather a zarzuela consisting of solo songs, spoken dialogue, various instrumental sections, dances, and choruses. It lasts about half an hour.  

 

After you switched to prose and relocated yourself in Morocco in 1947, your music, especially the concert music, was largely forgotten.  How do you feel about the present revival of interestthe various concerts and new recordings?  

 

It's flatteringego massage.  I see my music as part of the past.  I'm curious to know how it holds up, but in the context of 1935, not 1995.  

 

Aren't you curious about how audiences respond to it today?  

 

I suppose the best they could think about it is it has charm.  That's already saying a lot.  

 

 

June 1995, Tangier

Copyright © 1995, Phillip Ramey

 

PHILLIP RAMEY is an American composer and writer and long-time friend and neighbor of Paul Bowles in Tangier, whom he first met in New York in 1969 through their mutual friend Aaron Copland. From 1977 to 1993, he was annotator and program editor of the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned and premiered his Horn Concerto to celebrate its 150th anniversary. He has written hundreds of essays for recordings, along with the biography Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time, published in December 2005 by Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress, which subsequently received the prestigious Deems Taylor / Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography. Phillip Ramey recently finished his autobiography. In March 2006, the British label Toccata Classics released a CD containing a forty-year survey of his piano music, performed by Stephen Gosling, available internationally (TOCC 0029). Ramey’s most recent large-scale works are J.F.K.: Oration for Speaker and Orchestra (with texts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy) and Piano Sonata No. 6. Ramey divides his time between New York City and Tangier, Morocco. This interview originally appeared under another title in the book Paul Bowles: Music (Eos Music Inc., 1995).

 

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