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Paul Bowles (1910-1999)
Black Star At The Point Of Darkness - Music, Stories, Recordings (1989)
Engineer, Producer [Assistant] – Forrest Trenholm
Producer – Frédéric Walheer, Guy Marc Hinant
Recorded By – James Laugelli
Recorded By, Producer, Edited By – Randall Barnwell
Written-By, Narrator – Paul Bowles
The Music of Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles · Music. Pastorela: First Suite; Suite For Small Orchestra; Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; The Wind Remains; Secret Woods: A Suite of Six Songs. Eos Orchestra; Jonathan Sheffer, cond. Catalyst/BMG 68409-2 (69’52).
I first heard Paul Bowles’ lively music on the radio, and then found his "Night Waltz" on an old Columbia album of piano works by various composers played by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Years later, I read about New York’s Eos Orchestra giving a Bowles festival at their first concerts in 1995 – the music hadn’t been heard in over four decades – and I finally caught them live at the Guggenheim this October. The composer, who died November 18 and would have been 90 on December 30, was also a fiction writer who served as a sort of spiritual godfather to the Beats. And everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Mick Jagger went to see him in Tangier, Morocco, where he’d lived since 1947. He was also a staff critic at the New York Herald Tribune when Virgil Thomson ran its classical department.
Bowles’ music and his literary works – his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky became a not quite successful 1990 Bertolucci film with John Malkovich – are usual considered polar opposites, the music "light," the writing "dark." Yes, the music is often witty, and yes, the stories that stick most in the mind are "dark" – the castration of the Berber boy in "The Delicate Prey" is hardly an upper. But there’s a link between them and that link is Bowles’ complete mastery of style – every note and word is telling.
Eos’ five-work CD Paul Bowles: Music has style to burn. This is unpretentious yet sophisticated music that has a French exactitude of tone. Unlike German music it doesn’t strive to impress or want to beat you into aesthetic submission. The six-song suite "Secret Words," orchestrated from the original voice-piano version by founder-conductor-artistic director Jonathan Sheffer, is sung here by baritone Kurt Ollmann (he did part of the AIDS Quilt Songbook) who makes it sound spontaneous, even artless.
The 1947 "Pastorela: First Suite," which Bowles wrote for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, sounds just as natural. It’s also a lot snappier than his teacher Aaron Copeland’s piece based on Mexican material, "El Salon Mexico" (1933-36). "The Wind Remains" (1941-42) is a theatre piece by Garcia Lorca which Bowles has set as a zarzuela, a Spanish hybrid similar to a comic opera or musical. Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer and tenor Carl Halvorson are touching and funny, the orchestra richly colored. The transparently scored "Suite for Small Orchestra" (1932-33) sounds like a French version of Schönberg – delicate, warmly emotional, and definitely personal Copeland’s 1930 "Piano Variations" which Bowles heard being composed seems behind it, too). But "The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" (1946-47), though expertly played by Alan Feinberg and Leslie Stifelman, comes off as commercial in the worst way. Composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ essay in Eos’ book on Bowles hits the nail on the head: "The result [here] ... is a surrealism where fragments are stirred into a new relationship, but where each fragment is still glaringly what it was, recalling former juxtapositions."
It’s too bad that Eos hasn’t recorded any of the incidental music that Bowles was famous for in his time – scores for plays or productions by Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams, including The Glass Menagerie (1944) and Summer and Smoke (1948) – because he clearly had dramatic gifts. You could even say that the forms he worked in – songs, plays, jazz, blues – were a kind of closet he lived in or a mask he wore in much the same way that Stravinsky did. Still, a gay sensibility seems to have permeated his work. The Bowles who reveals himself in an interview with fellow composer Phillip Ramey sometimes sounds like a cross between Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp. Asked how audiences might respond to his music today, he remarks, "I suppose the best that they could think about it is that it has charm. That’s already saying a lot."
Indeed it is.
Tellus 23: The Voice of Paul Bowles (1989)
Tellus release curated by Claudia Gould and Stephen Frailey
Till the age of 40, Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was a composer and music critic, composing for Broadway musicals, Hollywood movie scores, incidental music for ballet. He once aknowledged to be a composer of ‘hotel music’, though his serious music calls to mind that of Copland, Virgil Thomson, Francis Poulenc or Satie. It is actually when he get tired of writing easy music that he turned to writing literature.
Curated by Claudia Gould and Stephen Frailey, ‘The Voices of Paul Bowles’ is an audio portrait combining some of the composer’s music with readings from his own texts, morrocan traditional music and location recordings from Tangier and Morroco where he lived from 1947. The most striking device is the handsome and warm voice of Bowles reading through his writings. Also notable are the lively field recordings of folk local music Bowles made himself in 1959 (tracks #01, 03, 06 & 09). The simoon (my conjecture) heard at the end of ‘The Garden’, track #08, is a short but evocative recording of a North Africa typical wind. Bowles own compositions are exquisite vignettes full of humour and wit.
A microcosm in itself, a day in the life of Paul Bowles, the tape starts with the muezzin’s morning call to prayer and ends with dogs barking at sunset, an amazing barking chorale recorded amid the rising desert wind. A poignant conclusion to an utterly beautiful tape.
The Voices of Paul Bowles is a unique project for TELLUS. It is the first issue we have ever dedicated to one artist, and it is the first time we have worked with an artist who is an accomplished composer, writer and historian.
There are many people who have helped to make this project possible. I would like to step back several years and thank an acquaintance of mine who on a very cold and grey day in New York City suggested that I read The Sheltering Sky, Bowles first novel. This book took me on an immovable journey, through an itinerary where I often return, and will never forget. For myself, the Bowles project began here.
I would like to thank Robert Stearns, Director of the Wexner Center and Carol Parkinson, Director of Harvestworks for making it feasible. Brenda Hutchinson, Richard Horowitz, Antonin Kratochvil and Tom Lopez have brought the production together and have given it a distinct identity.
This project would have been much more difficult if it was not for guest editor Stephen Frailey. His thorough knowledge of Bowles work as well as his patience with us was essential.
Last and certainly not least, Paul Bowles whose eloquence and wit has made this an extraordinary and intimate experience for us all. Many Thanks !
-- Claudia Gould
TELLUS #23 is an audio portrait of Paul Bowles, who has distinguished himself as a composer and musicologist, as a conservator of oral narrative and Moroccan music, and as an author of stunning lucidity and originality.
With the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles traveled throughout Morocco in the last months of 1959 to record indigenous folk music that, he feared, would soon be extinct despite its importance to a culture of almost complete illiteracy. Excerpts from these recordings, preserved by the Library of Congress, are included here and selected not for their ethnographic specificity, but as they embellish and amplify certain tendencies in the narrative.
Side one begins with the voice of the muezzen, whose haunting call to prayer echoes daily from the mosques and permeates the aural fabric of Islam.
From a collection of over sixty short stories, I have chosen three that, while exemplifying Bowles' precise rendering of psychological labyrinths, also
illuminate the nuances of a culture that is often characterized by its incomprehensibility to those of a Western frame of mind.
Bowles suggested the inclusion of the lush and elegiac "Secret Words" and explained his realization that many of the themes which were to be later elaborated upon in his first novel "The Sheltering Sky" were contained there. Together with the energetic "Music for a Farce", it should provide some understanding of his work from the Thirties and Forties, prior to his involvement with non-Christian communities.
My experience in Morocco has evolved simultaneously over the past decade with my understanding of Bowles' work and with this acquaintance, and this friendship has deepened my assimilation of an enigmatic culture that subverts the security of comprehension. Bowles has interpreted and illuminated this landscape.
Throughout the years, Bowles has displayed to us his generosity, benevolence and genteel good humor, in contradiction, perhaps, to the mythology of his detachment and dispassion. This portrait, then, shall serve as gift in return, a modest tribute.
-- Stephen Frailey December, 1989
Paul Bowles in UbuWeb Film