Musical Authors: Paul Bowles (1)
The artistic reputation of Paul Bowles (1910-1999) rests on his four novels, his many short stories and various autobiographical writings, most of them written during the fifty years he spent as an expatriate in Tangier, Morocco. Bowles turned to writing fiction fairly late in life, having failed to establish himself as a poet in the Paris of the 1920s and then – against all the odds – having succeeded in making a living as a composer during the 1930s and 1940s in the US. Under the mentorship of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson he became a central figure in the New York music scene, writing a considerable amount of theatre music while also working as a music critic.

 But Bowles appeared to reach some kind of a barrier in his musical development. His pieces are mostly cast in short forms that rarely span more than ten minutes and show little evidence of symphonic development. Due to the constant demand for him to write more incidental or film music, he only occasionally had the opportunity to compose more ambitious works, such as The Concerto for Two Pianos (1946-7) and the opera The Wind Remains (1941-2). Depression set in. “I felt: ‘if this goes on, my creativity will always have to be poured into a vessel held by others,’” he told music journalist Robert Schwarz in 1996.  

 His rapid transition from composer to successful author occurred just as he left America for Morocco in 1947. “There were a great many things I wanted to say that were too precise to express in musical terms,” he said. The Sheltering Sky, his first novel, was published in Great Britain in 1948 and the following year in the US. It entered the New York Times best seller list in January 1950 and stayed there for ten weeks.  Influential literary friends such as Tennessee Williams and William Carlos Williams helped the process along with highly positive reviews. Bowles explicitly compared the novel to music in a 1952 letter to Harvey Breit. “I did think of the three parts as separate ‘movements’ but I can see that was an error. A novel is not a symphony or a sonata. If it’s anything that can be compared to music, it’s a melody.”

 The Concerto has been recorded on a CD, The Music of Paul Bowles, issued in 1996, which also includes excerpts from The Wind Remains and songs setting words by his wife Jane Bowles and others. The four movement Concerto is a work of weird juxtapositions, alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) sounding like Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Poulenc and even Steve Reich and John Adams, with a bit of jazz thrown in for good measure. The descriptive  final movement, Galop, is a good sampling point.