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PAUL BOWLES: A MEMOIR (1995)

by Phillip Ramey

 

Early in 1969, at a modern-music concert in New York, Aaron Copland introduced me to a handsome, elegantly attired gentleman with gray hair.  “This,” he announced, looking as satisfied as an owl that has caught an especially succulent mouse, “is Paul Bowles.”

          A few months before, Aaron had recommended Bowles’ short stories and novels and lent me a couple of volumes.  I read with growing fascination, for they seemed unlike anything else.  It was not long before I was familiar with almost everything he had written. 

      Bowles at one time had studied music composition with Copland.  The two were old friends.  I knew that Bowles lived in far-off Tangier.  Aaron used to say, in wonderment: “Paul and I went to Morocco in 1931, and he’s still there.”  Thus I was startled suddenly to find myself face to face with my new favorite author.  With the enthusiasm of youth, I declared: “I’m happy to meet you, Mr. Bowles, because I’ve read your books and think they’re original and wonderful.”  The Great Man smiled coolly, took a puff from his cigarette holder, and replied: “Ah,  yes?”   Not having seen each other in some time, he and Aaron began a lengthy conversation.  Twice, I dared to interject a comment; twice, Bowles looked my way but said nothing.  Later, miffed at being excluded, I grumbled to Aaron:  “Well, Paul Bowles certainly did not find me to be of any interest.”  Aaron, amused, said soothingly: “Don’t be upset.  Paul’s always been something of a cold fish.” 

 

Paul Bowles and Phillip Ramey, Tangier 1982

 

          When, thirteen years later in 1982, I decided to vacation in Morocco, Copland suggested visiting Bowles in Tangier, and a colleague who was to accompany me expressed enthusiasm for the idea.  I was reluctant, remembering my less-than-gratifying encounter with the expatriate writer and composer.  I reasoned that if Bowles, who had the reputation of being a recluse, was fond of visitors—in our case, unexpected visitors—he would hardly have isolated himself for decades in Morocco without a telephone.  So when, after enjoying the sights of Marrakech, Fez and Meknes, we arrived in Tangier, I was inclined to forego seeing him.  Our room, high in the Rembrandt Hotel, had an impressive view of the harbor and the Strait of Gibraltar; there was another medina to explore, another kasbah to investigate, more Arab coffeehouses in which to drink mint tea.  It was safi, enough.  Why ruin our stay by invading a stranger’s privacy and being made to feel unwelcome?  “Look, I don’t think this is a good idea—it’s too pushy,” I said.  “Let’s leave Mr. Paul Bowles to his splendid isolation.”  My colleague, a diminutive, rather humorless fellow who tended to be pleased with himself and found it difficult to imagine he might not be welcome everywhere, wasn’t having that.  “We’re going,” he snapped.  “I have the address, and we’re going.” 

          Fortunately (or, I thought at the time, unfortunately), the taxi driver knew the location of Immeuble Itesa, as Bowles’ Fuhrerbunkeresque apartment building is called.  The door to his flat was opened by a compact Moroccan with a villainously friendly smile, who introduced himself as Mohammed Mrabet and retreated into the kitchen to brew tea.  I recognized his name—Mrabet is one of several native storytellers whose works Bowles has translated into English—and I said to myself, ye gods, what a place: even the famous author’s houseboy publishes books! 

 

 

Paul Bowles gives Phillip Ramey a light, Tangier 1987

          In his dark, cave-like sala, redolent of kif, the man whom the Boston Globe designated “a literary god” sat on a floor cushion, contentedly smoking from his holder.  My colleague and I introduced ourselves and Bowles politely directed us to other cushions.  Mrabet appeared with cups of tea and then began to puff at his sebsi.  After some desultory conversation, silence fell.  It occurred to me that I had traveled several thousand miles and tracked Bowles to his lair only to receive a further dose of indifference.  As I began to plan revenge on my colleague, I heard him proclaim to Bowles that we were musicians, and that we brought greetings not only from Copland but from another friend, the composer-critic Virgil Thomson.  At once, Bowles’ interest was engaged, and the ice began to melt.  He had assumed, I think, that we were the usual book fans, come to offer platitudes about his best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky; we would have our tea and depart, and he would breathe a sigh of relief.  Music, however, was another matter. 

          During the next few days we visited Bowles regularly and discovered that he was always ready to discuss music and musicians.  With his permission, we rummaged through his manuscripts, and he gave to my colleague, who was at that time a pianist, an unpublished piece entitled Orosí; and to me a record of him reading some of his stories, along with a note for Copland. 

          I didn’t expect to see Morocco or Bowles again.  But he and I exchanged a few letters, and when planning a trip to Lisbon two years later I couldn’t resist a cheap airfare from there to Tangier.  So, I found myself once more at his door, this time not at all apprehensive, and free of that tiresome if useful colleague.  Bowles didn’t seem displeased to see me.  I had brought tapes of musical works with which he was unacquainted, having been cut off to great degree from Western concert music since removing himself to Morocco in 1947.  I was amazed that he did not know, for instance, Copland’s classic Appalachian Spring—which he termed “one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard, but twice too long” (Copland’s laughing retort when I told him: “Too late now!”).  Nor was he really familiar with the Short Symphony—“Aaron was working on that here, in Tangier, on our out-of-tune piano up on The Mountain, but I never heard an orchestra play it.”  Or several late pieces by Stravinsky, who is perhaps his favorite composer. 

          During the last decade, drawn by an agreeable climate, the possibility of peace and quiet for composing, and an evolving friendship with Bowles, I have spent long periods in Tangier, in the apartment directly beneath him, where his late wife, the writer Jane Bowles, used to live.  It is, naturally, a pleasure to see him every day for months at a time; we have even concocted a system of rhythmic taps on the walls to signal when either of us wants to visit.

 

Paul Bowles visits Phillip Ramey, Tangier 1993

 

          Paul and I occasionally exchange books and discuss authors (we share, for example, a taste for the psychological suspense novels of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell and the literate thrillers of Graham Greene and Norman Lewis), and he enjoys gossip, especially if louche or grotesque.  But the main topic is usually music; his, mine, that of our various contemporaries.  This is what sets me apart from his other friends in Tangier.  We frequently listen to music together.  He has long had a machine that plays cassette tapes and now there is one for compact discs. 

          If, as the American composer and diarist Ned Rorem has proposed, all concert music is either of French or German orientation, then Paul’s personal taste runs—as does his music—decidedly to the former.  Ravel, Poulenc and Copland please him; Beethoven, Mahler and Schoenberg do not.  He likes music that charms, and has aimed for that effect in his own scores, which are often inflected by jazz and blues (for instance, the Six Latin-American Pieces for piano, the Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion, many of the songs).  In considerable contrast are his novels and stories, where the atmosphere sometimes verges on the horrific.  Once, I asked him about this strange dichotomy, and he explained: “The music and the books come from different compartments of the brain.  They are quite separate.”  In creating fiction, he said, one inevitably writes about people, and “hostility can emerge.”  Conversely, “Music is about music—a closed cosmos existing only in musical terms.” 

          When not listening to music, Paul is obsessively given to tapping out polyrhythms with his fingers, even drumming on the roof of his car during outings in the countryside.  Although he has composed little during the last four decades, he retains a musician’s most basic instincts.  Still, he was annoyed by Rorem’s odd prediction, in an article, that his light, entertaining music would outlast his serious, nihilistic fiction.  “Is that supposed to mean that my books are of no importance?” he asked. 

"Paul Bowles at Eighty", the opening piece of Phillip Ramey's Tangier Portraits for piano.

          In New York, I meet many musicians, both composers and performers, and with pianists it seems natural to promote Paul’s attractive keyboard pieces.  Early in the 1980s, I had a hand in arranging for some of them to be recorded (by Bennett Lerner) on a Dutch label—two records of modern Americana that garnered critical accolades in Europe, England and the United States, and, as it turned out, began the current revival of interest in Paul as a composer.  More recently, Ramon Salvatore, an American pianist, released an album featuring Paul’s Six Latin-American Pieces and the first recording of Carretera de Estepona.  Salvatore came to Tangier in the summer of 1991 and presented Bowles’ music on an all-American recital, along with works by Copland, Virgil Thomson, John Corigliano and myself.  Paul and I attended together.  The Salle Beckett, concert hall of the French Cultural Center, was packed with Moroccan, French and American residents (the English found other things to do) and a few dozen tourists, and the evening was a success despite an ailing piano.  Paul was much applauded after his compositions were played, and again at the end of the concert.  (For a poster announcing the singular, perhaps even historic, event, he had provided the following typically laconic statement, which was reproduced in his own handwriting: “The composers represented on this unusual program, apart from being natives of the United States of America, have in common the fact that all of them, at one time or another, sojourned here in Tangier.”) 

 
Pianist Ramon Salvatore performed several musical works by Paul Bowles in 1991 at Tangier's Salle Samuel Beckett.  

          During the last several years, other American performers have expanded their repertories with long-neglected Bowles works, including the pianists Mirian Conti (who gave a recital in Tangier in 1993 that included pieces by Paul and myself), Gustavo Romero, Irene Herrmann and Alison Voth; the duo-pianists known as Double Edge (Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles); the singers William Sharp, Paul Sperry, Samuel Ramey and Kurt Ollmann; and the conductors Lukas Foss, Marin Alsop and Jonathan Sheffer.  In New York, the chamber version of the two-piano concerto was performed at Town Hall (Double Edge with the Concordia Ensemble), the Picnic Cantata at Weill Hall (New York Festival of Song), chamber and piano music and songs at Merkin Hall (presented by Alison Voth), and Music for a Farce, also at Merkin Hall (New York Philharmonic Ensembles).  

In June 1993, I accompanied Paul to Madrid for a widely publicized all-Bowles concert (Music for a Farce and the chamber version of the double-piano concerto) at which he was lionized by public and press alike.  There have been other recent concerts abroad devoted entirely to Paul’s music: in Paris (which he attended) and Nice (which he did not). 

 

 

Paul Bowles at a press conference, Madrid 1993

          Copland, as noted, thought Paul to be “something of a cold fish”; and, certainly, an impression of dourness was widely disseminated a few years ago by the publication of an inaccurate and malicious biography.  It is undeniable that many pictures show him looking grim, for he dislikes photo sessions.  But there is another, very different side rarely seen by those who don’t know him well—a cordial, even affectionate Paul Bowles, his manner spiked by a remarkable sense of humor.  To illustrate: ever since Bernardo Bertolucci filmed The Sheltering Sky in 1990, Paul has been pestered not only by the usual visiting lunatics of every stripe, but by journalists, academics and documentary film makers.  Few of these strike him as passably intelligent.  (“Journalists refuse to verify or check.  They’re certain they’re right.”), but he is nonetheless always polite.  He does not relish being bored, however, and during late-night get-togethers at his flat with close friends, his acid-laced remarks about the day’s intruders can be quite funny (as can his mimicking of the distinctive piping voices of such deceased celebrities as Truman Capote and Virgil Thomson). 

 

 

Paul Bowles with Argentinean-born pianist Mirian Conti after her recital of American piano music at Tangier's Salle Beckett, June 25, 1993. Right background, Phillip Ramey and Alain Cercio, director of le Centre Culturel Français de Tanger et Tétouan.

          In a special category are Paul’s imitations of various unsavory birds; his reproduction of the raucous “speech” of African Gray parrots that he has owned approaches high comedic art.  There is also a story of which I never tire, in which Paul describes, with feline hisses and growls, how Henrietta, a Siamese cat belonging to the composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, stalked him through room after room of her home, until in desperation he barricaded himself in a clothes-closet.  Another tale concerns a Moroccan maid who was convinced that djenoun (evil spirits) lived in the cold-water pipes of Paul’s apartment.  One day he noticed her cleaning the toilet, cautiously removing water from the bowl with towels.  When he pulled the chain to demonstrate a more sensible method, the rush of water so terrified the woman that she emitted a sonorous shriek (rendered spectacularly by Paul) and ran from the sinful Nazarene’s flat, hysterically waving her arms in the air. 

          For Paul, in his favorite role of passive spectator, Morocco has been a congenial milieu—a continuous peepshow of the chaotic, where the delicious possibility of violence always lurks in the wings.  The illogicalities of Moslem society, maddening to many Westerners, intrigue and amuse him. Writing in his autobiography, Without Stopping, of his initial visit so long ago to that extraordinary land, he approvingly noted its intrinsic theatricality, “the impression of confusion and insanity.”  “I knew,” he concluded, “I would never tire of watching Moroccans play their parts.” 

          The essence of more than a few of his books has, after all, derived from nearly half a century’s residence in Morocco. Even today, Paul will sometimes sit outside at the Café Tingis in Tangier’s Zoco Chico, sipping a mint tea and noting the bizarre behavior of denizens of the medina.  As he walks through the narrow kasbah alleys, his novelist’s eye misses nothing: no drama goes unremarked, no peculiarity unseen, no lunacy unappreciated. 

          He complains that his adopted country—and especially Tangier, where ugly new high-rise buildings sprout everywhere and fast-food restaurants invade the once-classy Boulevard Pasteur—has become too modern and Americanized; that one must now travel far south, to the pre-Sahara, for remnants of the old, the primitive, the real.  But despite this outrage (which may even gratify his innate pessimism—he calls it realism), I doubt he would be happier elsewhere.  Never mind that he complains his roof leaks, his maids steal, prices rise, doctors are homicidal and hordes of filmmakers and journalists beard him in his den; Paul Bowles lives on in Morocco. 

Copyright © 1995, Phillip Ramey

 

(Originally published as an inserted pamphlet in the book Paul Bowles: Music (Eos Music, Inc., 1995, New York). View the musical score of Phillip Ramey's "Paul Bowles at Eighty" from his Tangier Portraits in Adobe Reader PDF file format (download the Adobe Reader program here).

 

PHILLIP RAMEY is an American composer and writer and long-time friend and Tangier neighbor of Paul Bowles, whom he had first met in New York in 1969 through their mutual friend the American composer Aaron Copland.  From 1977 to 1993, he was annotator and program editor of the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned and premiered his Horn Concerto to celebrate its 150th anniversary.  Ramey has written hundreds of essays for recordings and his biography of American composer Irving Fine (Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time), was published in December 2005 by Pendragon Press in association with the U. S. Library of Congress, and subsequently received the prestigious Deems Taylor / Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography. Phillip Ramey recently finished his autobiography. His catalogue includes three piano concertos, Color Etudes for piano and orchestra, numerous chamber scores and a large body of solo-piano music. In March 2003, the British pianist Stephen Gosling recorded an all-Ramey CD containing Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 5 (Left Hand), Piano Fantasy, Toccata No. 2, Tangier Portraits (including "Paul Bowles at Eighty"), Memorial, Chromatic Waltz and the solo version of the Color Etudes. This CD was released in England by Martin Anderson's Toccata Classics in March 2006. Ramey’s most recent large-scale works are J.F.K.: Oration for Speaker and Orchestra (with texts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy) and Piano Sonata No. 6.

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