Paul Bowles30 dec 1910 (New York) - 18 nov 1999 (Tangier)
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Paul Frederic Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999) was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making various trips to Paris in the 1930s. He studied music with Aaron Copland, and in New York wrote music for various theatrical productions, as well as other compositions. He achieved critical and popular success with the publication in 1949 of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, set in what was known as French North Africa, which he had visited in 1931.
In 1947 Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, and his wife, Jane Bowles followed in 1948. Except for winters spent in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) during the early 1950s, Tangier was his home for the next fifty-two years, the remainder of his life.
Paul Bowles died in 1999 at the age of 88. His ashes are buried in Lakemont Cemetery in upstate New York.
1910-1930: Family and education
Paul Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City the only child of Rena (née Rennewisser) and Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist. His childhood was materially comfortable, but Bowles senior was a cold and domineering parent, opposed to any form of play or entertainment, feared by both his son and wife. According to family legend, he had tried to kill his newborn son by leaving him exposed on a window-ledge during a snowstorm; the story may not be true, but Bowles believed it was, and it encapsulates his relationship with his father. Such warmth as there was in his life as a child came from his mother, who read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to him - it was to the latter that he later attributed his own desire to write stories such as "The Delicate Prey," "A Distant Episode," and "Pages from Cold Point"
Bowles could read by the time he was 3 and within the year was writing stories. Soon, he wrote surrealistic poetry and music. In 1922, at age 11, he bought his first book of poetry, Arthur Waley's A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, and at age seventeen one of his poems, "Spire Song," was accepted for publication in the twelfth volume of Transition, a literary journal based in Paris that served as a forum for some of the greatest proponents of modernism — Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and others. His interest in music also dated from his childhood, when his father bought a phonograph and classical records (Bowles was interested in jazz but such records were forbidden in the house). His family bought a piano and the young Bowles studied musical theory, singing, and piano. When he was 15 a performance of Stravinsky's The Firebird at Carnegie Hall made a profound impression: "Hearing The Firebird made me determined to continue improvising on the piano when my father was out of the house, and to notate my own music with an increasing degree of knowing that I had happened upon a new and exciting mode of expression."
Bowles entered the University of Virginia in 1928, where his interests included T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Prokofiev, Duke Ellington, Gregorian chants, and the blues. He also heard music by George Antheil and Henry Cowell. In April 1929 he dropped out without informing his parents and sailed with a one-way ticket for Paris and no intention of ever returning - not, he said later, running away, but "running toward something, although I didn't know what at the time."] Nevertheless, by July he returned to New York and took a job at Duttons Bookshop in Manhattan, where he began work on an unfinished book of fiction, Without Stopping (not to be confused with his later autobiography of the same title). At the insistence of his parents he returned to the University of Virginia, but left after one semester to go back to Paris with Aaron Copland, with whom he had been studying composition in New York. It was during the autumn of 1930 in Paris that Bowles began work on his own first musical composition, the "Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet", which he finished the following year and which premiered in New York at the Aeolian Hall on Wigmore St, 16th December 1931, the whole concert (which also included work by Copland and Virgil Thomson) was "panned" by New York critics. although his first known completed compositional work was to translate some vocal pieces of Kurt Schwitters to piano music in Berlin.
1931-1946: France and New York
In France, Bowles became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle. On her advice he made his first visit to Tangier with Aaron Copland in the summer of 1931. They took a house on the Mountain above Tangier Bay. Morocco was later to become the home of Bowles (and the inspiration for many of his short stories). From there he traveled back to Berlin, where he met Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, before returning to North Africa the next year to travel throughout other parts of Morocco, the Sahara, Algeria and Tunisia.
In 1937 he returned to New York, and over the next decade established a solid reputation as a composer, collaborating with Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams and others on music for stage productions as well as orchestral pieces. In 1938 he married the author and playwright Jane Auer. It was an unconventional marriage: their intimate relationships were with people of their own sex, but they maintained close ties to each other, and despite being frequently anthologised as a gay writer Bowles always regarded such typecasting as both absurd and irrelevant. After a brief sojourn in France they were prominent among the literary figures of New York throughout the 1940s, with Paul working under Virgil Thomson as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune. His light opera The Wind Remains, based on a poem by García Lorca, was performed in 1943 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. His translation of Sartre's play Huis Clos ("No Exit"), directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critic's Award in 1943.
In 1945 he began writing prose again, beginning with a few short stories including A Distant Episode. His wife Jane, he said, was the main influence upon his taking up fiction as an adult, through the publication of her first novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943).
1947-1956: Early years in Tangier
In 1947 Paul Bowles received a contract for a novel from Doubleday and moved permanently to Tangier, where Jane joined him in 1948. Bowles commented "I was a composer for as long as I've been a writer. I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I had a commission to do it. I was sick of writing music for other people - Joseph Losey, Orson Welles, a whole lot of other people, endless." Bowles traveled alone into the Algerian Sahara to work on the novel. Bowles commented: "I wrote in bed in hotels in the desert" The Sheltering Sky - the title came from a song, "Down Among the Sheltering Palms", which Bowles had heard every summer as a child - was first published by John Lehmann in England in September 1949 after Doubleday rejected the manuscript. Bowles commented "I sent it out to Doubleday and they refused it. They said "We asked for a novel." They didn't consider it a novel. I had to give back my advance. My agent told me later they called the editor on the carpet for having refused the book - only after they saw that it was selling fast. It only had to do with sales. They didn't bother to read it."A belated first American edition by New Directions appeared the following month. The plot follows three Americans, Port, his wife Kit and their friend, Tunner, as they journey through the Algerian desert, culminating in the death of one (Port) and the descent into madness of another (Kit). The reviewer for Time magazine commented that the ends visited upon the two main characters "seem appropriate but by no means tragic", but that "Bowles scores cleanly with his minor characters: Arab pimps and prostitutes, French officers in garrison towns, [and] a stupidly tiresome pair of tourists—mother & son." Tennessee Williams in The New York Times was far more positive, commenting that the book was like a summer thunderstorm, "pulsing with interior flashes of fire". The book quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list, going through three printings in two months.
The Sheltering Sky was followed in 1950 by a first collection of short stories. Titled A Little Stone (John Lehmann, London, August 1950), which excluded two of Bowles' most famous short stories, "Pages From Cold Point" and "The Delicate Prey", on the advice of Cyril Connolly and Somerset Maugham, that if they were included in the collection distribution and/or censorship difficulties might ensue. The American edition by Random House, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, followed later in November 1950 and contained the two stories that had been excluded from the UK edition. When responding to the claim that almost all of the characters in "The Delicate Prey" were victimized by either physical or psychological violence, Bowles responded: "Yes, I suppose. The violence served a therapeutic purpose. It’s unsettling to think that at any moment life can flare up into senseless violence. But it can and does, and people need to be ready for it. What you make for others is first of all what you make for yourself. If I’m persuaded that our life is predicated upon violence, that the entire structure of what we call civilization, the scaffolding that we’ve built up over the millennia, can collapse at any moment, then whatever I write is going to be affected by that assumption. The process of life presupposes violence, in the plant world the same as the animal world. But among the animals only man can conceptualize violence. Only man can enjoy the idea of destruction."
A second novel, Let It Come Down, (John Lehmann, London, February 1952); like The Sheltering Sky, was set in North Africa (this time explicitly Tangier) and dealt with the disintegration of an American (Nelson Dyar), who was unprepared for the encounter with an alien culture. The first American edition by Random House followed later in the month.
A third novel, The Spider's House, (Random House, New York, November 1955) was set in Fez (immediately prior to Morocco's Independence and Sovereignty in 1956, away from the French Protectorate) and charted the relationships among three expatriates and a young Moroccan: John Stenham, Alain Moss, Lee Veyron and Omar. Reviewers noted that it marked a departure from Bowles' earlier fiction in that it introduced a contemporary political theme, the conflict between Moroccan nationalism and French colonialism. The UK edition (Macdonald) followed in January 1957.
While Bowles was now concentrating on his career as a writer, he composed incidental music for nine plays presented by the American School of Tangier. The Bowleses became fixtures of the American and European expatriate scene in Tangier. Visitors included Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso followed in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. In 1951, Bowles was introduced to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, having first heard the musicians when he and Brion Gysin attended a festival or moussem at Sidi Kacem. Bowles' continued association with the Master Musicians of Jajouka and their hereditary leader Bachir Attar is described in Paul Bowles' book, a diary entitled Days: A Tangier Journal. In 1952, Bowles bought the tiny island of Taprobane, off the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he wrote much of his novel The Spider's House, returning to Tangier in the warmer months.
1957-1973: Moroccan music and translation
In 1957 Jane Bowles suffered a mild stroke, which marked the beginning of a long and painful decline in her health which was to preoccupy Paul Bowles until Jane's death in 1973. This period also saw the first years of full Moroccan independence and Bowles, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and sponsorship from the US Library of Congress, spent the months of August to September of 1959 traveling throughout Morocco with Christopher Wanklyn and Mohammed Larbi recording traditional Moroccan music.
Another major project of these years was translating Moroccan authors and story-tellers including Mohamed Choukri, Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi (under the pseudonym Driss ben Hamed Charhadi), and Mohammed Mrabet.
In the autumn of 1968, at the invitation of his friend Oliver Evans, Bowles spent one semester at the English Department of the San Fernando Valley State College, (now California State University, Northridge), teaching "Advanced Narrative Writing and the Modern European Novel."
In 1970 Bowles and Daniel Halpern started the Tangier literary magazine Antaeus which was to feature many new authors, such as Lee Prosser, as well as more established authors such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his own work, such as "Afternoon with Antaeus", some fragments of an unfinished novel by his wife Jane Bowles along with excerpts from "The Summer House", and works by Daniel Halpern and others. Antaeus was published until 1994.
1974-1999: Later years
After the death of Jane Bowles on 4th May 1973 in Málaga, Spain, Bowles continued to live in Tangier, writing and receiving visitors to his modest apartment. In 1985 he published his translated version of one short story "The Circular Ruins" of Jorge Luis Borges which was published in a book of sixteen story translations (all by Bowles) called "She Woke Me Up So I Killed Her". This Borges story had already been translated and published by the three main Borges translators: Anthony Kerrigan, Anthony Bonner and James E. Irby and it is interesting to note the difference of styles amongst these four different translations. Bowles's version is in typical Bowles prose style form and is very identifiable from the other three, which all tend to stick to a more conservative idiomatic form of translation.
In the summers of 1980 and 1982 Paul Bowles conducted Writing Workshops in Morocco, (under the auspices of the School of Visual Arts in New York) at the American School of Tangier which were both very successful, so much so that several of his former students including Rodrigo Rey Rosa who was the 2004 Winner of the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature and who is also the Literary Heir of the Estate of Paul Bowlesand Mark Terrill went on to become successful authors.
In 1988, when Bowles was asked what his social life was like, he replied "I don't know what a social life is... My social life is restricted to those who serve me and give me meals, and those who want to interview me." and in the same interview when asked how he would summarize his achievement, replied "I've written some books and some music. That's what I've achieved."
Bowles made a cameo appearance at the beginning and end of the movie in the Bernardo Bertolucci film adaptation of his novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) in 1990. Bowles music was mostly forgotten until the 1990s when a new generation of American musicians and singers became interested in it again. These charming, witty pieces are a treasure to be savored by art song enthusiasts.
In 1995 Paul Bowles made a rare and final return to New York for a special Paul Bowles Festival celebrating his music at the Lincoln Center under the conductorship of Jonathan Sheffer with the Eos Orchestra and later a symposium and interview held at the New School for Social Research.
Bowles was interviewed by Paul Theroux in 1994, documented in the last chapter of Theroux's travel book, The Pillars of Hercules.
In 1998, Bowles' wit and intellect remained as sharp as ever. He continued to welcome whomever turned up at his door into his apartment near the old American consulate in Tangier. However, on the advice of his doctors and friends, he began to limit interviews. One of his final reminisces about his literary life occurred during an interview with Stephen Morison, Jr., a frequent visitor and friend who was teaching at the American School of Tangier at the time. The interview was conducted on July 8, 1998 and appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. His final formal interview took place on 6th June 1999; it was conducted by Irene Herrmann, the executrix of the Paul Bowles Music Estate, focused on his musical career and was published in September 2003.
Bowles died of heart failure at the Italian Hospital in Tangier on November 18, 1999 at the age of 88. He had been ill for some time with respiratory problems. His ashes were buried in Lakemont, New York, next to the graves of his parents and grandparents.
Paul Bowles and Tangier
Paul Bowles lived for 53 of his 88 years in Tangier. Not surprisingly, he became identified with the city: during his life visitors would seek him out, and on his death obituary-writers without fail linked his life to his residency: he became a symbolic American expatriate, and the city became the symbol of his expatriate status.
At the time of his first visit with Aaron Copland in 1931 Tangier had an anomalous status, a Moroccan city which was not Moroccan, with a population at once Berber, Arab, Spanish, and European, speaking Spanish, French, Berber and Arabic, under the control of a consortium of foreign powers, one of them the United States. Paul Bowles was entranced. On his return in 1947 the city had already changed, but not enough to rob it of its aura of strangeness and wonder. In 1955 there were anti-European riots, and in 1956 the city was returned to full Moroccan control.
Paul Bowles' reputation as a composer was ultimately overshadowed by his writing. He studied with Aaron Copland. He wrote chamber music and incidental music for the stage. The score of his 1955 opera Yerma is especially memorable and gets much radio-play. He collected Moroccan folk music. His compositions are being re-released.
Bowles' recording of Moroccan music
Bowles was a pioneer in the field of North African ethnomusicology with his field recordings of traditional Moroccan music for the US Library of Congress. The collection includes Gnawa music, dance music, secular music, music for Ramadan and other festivals, and music for animistic rituals. The motivation for the recordings was Bowles' realisation that modern culture would inevitably have an impact on traditional music. There was also a political element to his work, with Bowles commenting: "Instrumentalists and singers have come into being in lieu of chroniclers and poets, and even during the most recent chapter in the country's evolution - the war for independence and the setting up of the present regime - each phase of the struggle has been celebrated in song." The total collection of this recorded music is known as "The Paul Bowles Collection" and is archived in the US Library of Congress, Reference No. 72-750123. The Archival Manuscript Material (Collection) contains 97 x 2 track 7" reel-to-reel tapes, containing approximately sixty hours of traditional folk, art and popular music, one two box of manuscripts, 18 photographs and a map along with the 2 LP recordings called 'Music of Morocco' (AFS L63-64).
In the 1960s Bowles began translating stories from the oral tradition of native Moroccan storytellers. His most noteworthy collaborations included Mohammed Mrabet, Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (Larbi Layachi), Mohamed Choukri, Abdeslam Boulaich, and Ahmed Yacoubi.
He also translated Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean-Paul Sartre, Isabelle Eberhardt, Guy Frison-Roche, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Ramon Gomez de la Serna, Giorgio de Chirico, Si Lakhdar, E. Laoust, Ramon Beteta, Gabino Chan, Bertrand Flornoy, Jean Ferry, Denise Moran, Paul Colinet, Paul Magritte, Popul Buj, Francis Ponge, Bluet d'Acheres and Ramon Sender
Achievement and legacy
Paul Bowles was one of the last surviving representatives of a generation of artists whose work has shaped 20th century literature and music.In the Introduction to Bowles's "Collected Stories" (1979) Gore Vidal ranked his short stories "among the best ever written by an American," writing: the floor to this ramshackle civilization that we have built cannot bear much longer our weight. It was Bowles's genius to suggest the horrors which lie beneath that floor, as fragile, in its way, as the sky that shelters us from a devouring vastness".
His music, in contrast, is "as full of light as the fiction [is] of dark...almost as if the composer were a totally different person from the writer." During the early 1930s he studied composition (intermittently) with Aaron Copland; his music from this period "is reminiscent of Satie and Poulenc." Returning to New York in the mid-30s, he became one of the preeminent composers of American theater music, producing works for William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, and others, "show[ing] exceptional skill and imagination in capturing the mood, emotion, and ambience of each play to which he was assigned." In his own words, incidental music allowed Bowles to present "climaxless music, hypnotic music in one of the exact senses of the word, in that it makes its effect without the spectator being made aware of it.” At the same time he continued to write concert music, his style assimilating some of the melodic, rhythmic, and other stylistic elements of African, Mexican, and Central American music.
In 1991 Paul Bowles was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story, an award that is made annually "to a writer who has made a significant contribution to the short story as an art form". The jury gave the following citation: “Paul Bowles is a storyteller of the utmost purity and integrity. He writes of a world before God became man; a world in which men and women in extremis are seen as components in a larger, more elemental drama. His prose is crystalline and his voice unique. Among living American masters of the short story, Paul Bowles is sui generis.” His works were added to the Library of America (aimed at preparing scholarly editions of American literary classics and keeping them permanently in print) in 2002.
In addition to his chamber and stage compositions Bowles published fourteen short story collections, three volumes of poetry, numerous translations, numerous travel articles, and an autobiography.
Travel, autobiography and letters
Film appearances and interviews
Biographies and memoirs
Literary criticism on Paul Bowles
Published interviews with Paul Bowles
Catalog and archive editions on Paul Bowles
The Tangier of Paul Bowles
Writing and music
Interviews with Paul Bowles
More interviews on the official Paul Bowles website
Reviews and obituaries
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