Deaths which are “not unexpected” because they come to the very old, are sometimes for that very reason the least expected. Thus, for we among his friends who knew he’d been ailing for years, the 88-year-old Paul Bowles’ demise in Tangier, on November 18, 1999, seemed nevertheless impossible; for if he could die, so could we all. And thus, on hearing the news I felt madly wistful—a feeling one might not expect for this man who was seemingly so removed from demonstrable reaction.
Still more contradictory was Phillip Ramey’s report on the phone. The body will be shipped to New York for cremation. The ashes will then be taken, by Phillip and the photographer Cherie Nutting, to upstate New York and be buried near the Bowles parents and grandparents. These were Paul’s wishes. For one who hated the United States, who loved the Sahara, and whose wife, the underrated novelist Jane Bowles, was lying in a Spanish cemetery, one might have expected a site less sentimentally homey.
If all artists are the sum of their contradictions, then Paul Bowles was an extreme example of that definition. Throughout his nearly nine decades he practiced two parallel careers, which seemingly never overlapped. In 1949, with the publication of his very successful novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul became the author-who-also-writes-music, after having long been the composer-who-also-writes-words. He was the only significant fiction-writing composer since Richard Wagner, but if history remembers him it will be for his musical gifts.
His music is nostalgic and witty, evoking the times and places of its conception— Paris, New York and Morocco during the 1920s, 30s and 40s—through languorous triple metres, hot jazz and Arabic sonorities. Like most nostalgic and witty music that works, Bowles's is all in short forms, vocal settings or instrumental suites. Even his two operas on Lorca texts are really garlands of songs tied together by spoken words. In 1936, Orson Welles's production of Horse Eats Hat became the first of some two dozen plays for which Bowles provided the most distinguished incidental scores of the period. The theatre accounts for a huge percentage of his musical output, and for the milieu he frequented for a quarter-century. Latterly, it was the milieu of Tennessee Williams whose works would never have had quite the same tonality—the same fragrance—without Bowles's melodies emerging from them so pleasingly. Indeed, the intent of his music in all forms is to please, and to please through light and gentle textures and amusing rhythms, novel for the time, and quite lean, like their author.
Paul was the first professional composer I had ever encountered. He introduced me to the music of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, and especially himself. Since we first met a half-century ago in Taxco, Mexico, not a day has passed without my thinking of him. The thinking involves mainly his music. I was a vacationing music student, age seventeen, and Paul was, at thirty, a professional composer. Indeed, he was the first professional I’d ever known, and I loved his music. He played me a great deal of it during that July of 1941; I was bewitched and never recovered. Would Paul enjoy comparing my situation to that of Lord Henry Wotton (in Wilde’s famous novel), who lends Dorian Gray a copy of Huysman’s A Rebours, precipitating poor Dorian’s descent into “aesthetic corruption”? Alas, Paul’s music is the picture of healthiness. A more proper analogy might be the petite phrase of Proust’s musician, Vinteuil, which so colored the hero’s life.
The petite phrase in this case was that most melancholy of intervals, a descending minor-third, the “dying fall” that threads Paul’s music from the early 1940s. Listen again to the songs on Lorca texts, or to the crowning aria in The Wind Remains, his little zarzuela based on a Lorca play. The phrase is a mannerism of which Paul was doubtless unaware: we live with our signatures, after all, so never think much about them. For me, though, it was a conscious expressive device which I appropriated and have retained to this day. It so bewitched me that it became the single most telling influence in my several hundred hours of music.
During the intervening decades I have probably composed ten times more music than did Paul, yet not one piece is without the rhythmic or melodic lilt, albeit disguised, of the invisible mentor. (Thus in my guilt, not a day has passed, etc.) Influence, of course, is what all art stems from: thievery is embellished, then stamped—often for the worse—with the new owner’s tic.
Paul and I weren’t separated enough in years for me to wish for his approval. He would certainly have professed astonishment at this juvenile admission, especially since he probably wouldn’t have seen—or heard—himself in me. But I am thrilled to give him credit here.
If I stress Paul’s musicality, it’s because that musicality seems to have fallen away in our world. The bulk of his fans are unaware that he ever composed, much less have they ever hummed his tunes: Americans are meant to be specialists. So for the record let it be said that Paul Bowles was, like great Europeans of yore (Leonardo, Cocteau, Noël Coward), a general practitioner of a high order. Unlike them, his two professions didn’t overlap—either aesthetically or technically. Composers when they prosify (Schumann, Debussy, Thomson) inevitably deal with music or with autobiography. Bowles was the sole fiction writer among them, and his fiction is as remote from their prose as from his own music. His books are icy, cruel, objective, moralistic in their inexorable amorality, and occurring mostly in exotic climes; they are also cast in large forms. His music is warm, wistful, witty and redolent of nostalgia for his Yankee youth; it wears its heart on its sleeve, and is all cast in small forms.
No American in our century has composed songs lovelier than Paul Bowles’. As far as I am aware, none of these songs is currently available in print. That fact, in its way, echoes the indifferent world that he elsewhere so successfully portrayed.
Copyright © 2002, Ned Rorem
NED ROREM, American composer and author, was president of The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters from 1999 to 2002. Among his numerous awards is the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Visit the official Ned Rorem Web Site for further information: www.NedRorem.com.
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