Musical Authors: Paul Bowles (2)
Essentially a miniaturist in both music and literature, Paul Bowles’s most lasting work is likely to be his sixty-odd short stories, described in a recent collected edition as “orchestral in composition and exacting in theme”. A typical Bowles story features a “civilized” outsider struggling to understand and connect with an alien culture – and often failing to do so with disastrous consequences. As Lawrence Stewart has pointed out: “In Bowles’s world, music frequently traps man into expressing his primitive instincts.” The theme of music’s “deception and appeal”, which first surfaced in the concluding episodes of The Sheltering Sky, becomes a structural device in one of Bowles’s best short stories, “The Delicate Prey.”

The two activities of literature and music come closest together in the art song settings, which Bowles continued to compose even after his literary career took off. Ned Rorem has said that Bowles remains “the finest craftsman of art songs that America has produced” (a label others have bestowed on Rorem himself or on Samuel Barber). He produced settings of the poetry of Stein, Cocteau, Tennessee Williams, Lorca and his wife Jane Bowles, as well as settings of his own texts, such as the slinky “Once a Lady Was Here”, a fascinating fusion of art, jazz and popular song with meters alternating between 4/4 and 5/4. Virgil Thomson highlighted how tightly the text and music are matched in the songs. “The texts fit their tunes like a peach its skin,” he said. Like his short stories, the art songs are essentially dramatic in conception, contrasting apparently simple means – such as folk and popular song like melodies – with more complex material often held in reserve to maximize the theatrical effect.

Bowles’s ethno-musicological activities, collecting the traditional folk, art and popular music of Morocco for the Library of Congress, are often overlooked today, though these interests are reflected in both his writings (the travel collection Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue) and in his own music (the piano piece Tamanar, for instance). Even though his compositions were overshadowed by his subsequent literary fame, it’s clear that music remained one of the key driving forces behind his work, and during the 1990s it became the focus of a significant revival. Gore Vidal has identified the combination of music and literature as his defining characteristic: “something most writers don’t have, the result of which are his disturbing stories, like nothing in English literature.”