Paul Bowles was truly a figure unlike any other, one who blazed a trail to Morocco that Beats like William Burroughs and Gregory Corso followed. Today it is still a trail that people are still following, in search of whatever magic the couple found there. He’s a fascinating figure, no doubt. We’ve chosen him — along with his late wife Jane — for our monthly Author Club on the strength of his writing, but while Bowles the writer and Bowles the expat have been widely discussed for years, his other work as Bowles the musician and Bowles the musicologist have been largely overlooked.
Bowles who studied with Aaron Copeland in the early 1930s before going to Paris, where he befriended and played some of his music for Gertrude Stein. Her only response was that it was “interesting” — which isn’t bad when you consider she said this after telling him she didn’t like his poetry at all. After that, Bowles made his first trip to Tangier, where he composed “Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, before going back to New York towards the end of the decade. It was during his last period living in the States that he collaborated with Orson Welles, composing Music for a Farce, the score for the recently rediscovered early film by the Citizen Kane director, Too Much Johnson.
By 1948, the Bowleses were living full-time in Tangier, and Paul’s literary career taking over his musical one. Traveling throughout the Sahara, Bowles wrote what many consider his literary masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky. Throughout much of the ’50s, he continued writing and living in Tangier, with music being more of an interest than something he composed — until 1959, when he spent August and September traveling through 23 Moroccan villages, towns, and cities along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. On his trip he recorded vocal and instrumental music that ranged from music for Ramadan and Islamic rites, to some of the rarest examples of Sephardic Jewish liturgy known to exist on record. While these recordings are available if you visit the Library of Congress, there is talk that they are being transferred to digital media, hopefully to be made available to the public in the near future.
Of the recorded legacy Bowles left behind, the one recording that might stand out the most, and catch the ears of today’s discerning music fans, is 1995’s Baptism of Solitude, featuring Bowles reading snippets of his various works over Bill Laswell’s ominous soundscapes. To draw a comparison to something contemporary, if you played the album today to somebody who has no idea what it is, they could easily mistake it for something by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s the one available recording that I think could get more fans of Bowles’ writing interested in his musical side (even though he didn’t compose the music), which could be the beginning of understanding the full genius of Paul Bowles beyond his books.