He shall have music wherever he goes

The novelist / composer is a rare beast. Rarer still is the novelist / composer with a talent for both art forms. Consider, then, the music of Paul Bowles, author of `The Sheltering Sky'. By Phil Johnson
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George Bernard Shaw was a music critic, James Joyce sang, and Ezra Pound characteristically tried his hand at just about everything from composing to making musical instruments, as well as somehow finding time, together with his mistress, the violinist Olga Rudge, to help re- discover Vivaldi. But, perhaps surprisingly, there are relatively few significant writers who have shown much aptitude for writing music (as opposed to writing for music), and those modern composers who have produced books, like the collected gnomic utterances of John Cage, for example, have not always made much sense. Anthony Burgess, of course, was a kind of heroic exception to the rule, the structure of the symphony or the figure of the piano player adding richness to his novels, but from the evidence of an interesting new CD of his compositions for guitar, one wishes mainly that he had lived long enough to have re-written the woeful sleeve notes rather than writing anything else. He composed, the author of the mistranslated notes tells us, primarily as an escape from the "sex and violence of literature", making music seem, like a "PG"-rated film, a rather anodyne art in comparison to the shoot-to-kill policy of the novel.

Perhaps the one 20th-century writer to have also made a really distinctive contribution as a composer is the American emigre novelist Paul Bowles, whose The Sheltering Sky was memorably filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990. While Bowles's music has been almost impossible to obtain for years, three albums have suddenly, like the proverbial buses, turned up all at the same time, offering thrilling proof of just how good his compositions can be. Indeed, it is possible to see Bowles - who was born in New York in 1910 but settled in Tangier, where he now lives, in 1947 - as at least as important a writer of music as he is a writer of novels and stories. What is most interesting about his music for admirers of the books, however, is how strikingly different it is. "The music and the books come from different compartments of the brain," he has said. "They are quite separate."

While the novels abjure stylistic excess in favour of a slow accretion of narrative, and tend to delineate a dark, Hobbesian world where characters use each other up until a death provides the denouement, the music, and especially the early music, is wonderfully light and dazzling, as flippant and witty as the great novels like Let It Come Down are doomy and foreboding. He was even castigated by his fellow composer Henry ("clusters") Cowell, because his music was "too French". Bowles also more or less invented the concept of "world music" as we know it, drawing his influences from jazz and blues, Latin American and North African music (from long before he moved to Tangier), and he acted as one of the most important of ethnomusicologists, collecting the music of North African tribes for the Library of Congress on many onerous field trips in the Fifties. Bowles and his friend Brion Gysin, who acted as a go-between, were partly responsible for Rolling Stone Brian Jones's celebrated recording of "The Pipes of Pan in Joujouka", a highpoint of the late-Sixties Moroccan-chic and the beginning of the pop/ world-music crossover. In 1966, once again with Gysin, Bowles tried to finance the recording of The Hypnotic Music Record, a trance-inducing product that was to be designed, like today's ambient house music, as a pathway into altered states of consciousness.

For Bowles, the music came first. He didn't produce his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, until 1949, by which time he had already written most of the 150 compositions, including two operas, that comprise his complete musical works. Though, as his early letters to his boyhood friend Bruce Morrissette (collected in In Touch: the Letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller, Flamingo, 1995) show, Bowles as a young man was as precocious an aspiring artist as it is possible to be, having poems published in the little magazine transition while still at school, and experimenting with painting, sculpture and collage. But it was with music that he really began his career. And although his long exile in Morocco has tended to suggest a life of self-imposed solitude far from the cultural centres of New York and Paris, where he first made his name as a composer, he in fact continued to return home each year to write incidental music for numerous Broadway shows. His collaborators in various theatre and dance productions included Tennessee Williams (a partnership beginning with The Glass Menagerie and continuing for many years), Leonard Bernstein, George Balanchine, Joseph Losey, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, William Saroyan and Orson Welles.

Throughout his career, Bowles was to show a remarkable prescience. The first record he bought, when he was seven, was the first ever jazz disc, made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In 1926, when he was still at high school, he heard Stravinsky's Firebird at a Carnegie Hall Saturday morning concert, and as a student at the University of Virginia, and already published by transition, his record collection contained discs by Duke Ellington and Prokofiev, as well as Gregorian chant. Arriving in Paris in 1929, he began to collect Arab music, familiarised himself with Falla, Poulenc, Milhaud and the Japanese composer Fushiwara, and made the acquaintance of Gertrude Stein, who was to refer to him as "the manufactured savage". Stein also introduced Bowles to both Cocteau and Virgil Thomson. In Berlin in 1931, where he became a pupil of Aaron Copland, he met Spender and Isherwood (to whose Sally Bowles he was to bequeath his surname), and also the collage artist Kurt Schwitters, whose abstract poem, Ursonate, underlies Bowles's own sonata for oboe and clarinet of that year. On New Year's Eve the sonata was heard at the Aeolian Hall in London together with works by Copland and Thomson.

Later, after many trips abroad and his marriage to the writer Jane Auer in 1938, he lived in the same Brooklyn house as Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and WH Auden. This, emphatically, is not the curriculum vitae of a hermit. His relationship with Copland was also very close, and Bowles's reticence about his male friendships was later to lead William Burroughs to say that the autobiography Without Stopping should really have been titled Without Telling.

Bowles had also learnt to compose for the cinema, scoring his friend Harry Dunham's film Bride of Samoa in 1932, and providing music for silent- film sequences in Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson of 1938, using a movieola as an aid to composition. When the play was cancelled, Bowles reworked the score as Music for a Farce, a marvellous piece that can be heard on Migrations (Largo 5131), one of the three new Bowles CDs now out, and the influence of the cinema in his music is constant, with the musical rapid cut operating as a fundamental structural device. A number of his best pieces, like the beautiful Night Waltz for two pianos (on the same CD), were commissioned by the pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale, and he continued to write for two pianos until the mid-Seventies.

Though in later years, living in Tangier, "a place where it is still hard to find a piano in tune", Bowles was to concentrate on his novels and stories, producing fewer and fewer pieces of music, he was frequently called upon to devise scores for theatrical productions at the city's American School. The music for stagings of Hippolytos by Euripides and Salome by Wilde, written between 1966 and 1993, and originally performed on a synthesiser, has been re-arranged for chamber orchestra and can also be heard on the Migrations disc. Of all the music, it is the most in step with his novels and stories, the dazzling virtuosity of the early works replaced by slow, brooding themes and a darker tonal palette.

One of the other new CDs, An American in Paris (Koch Schwann 3-1574-2- H1), is a live recording made in 1994 at a concert in the Theatre du Rond Point in Paris which the elderly Bowles attended, and at which he at last received the ovation that had eluded him for most of his musical career. It's a marvellous recording, covering art-songs, piano preludes, Night Waltz (again) and the remarkable Concerto for Two Pianos of 1946, which sounds post-modern well before its time. Paul Bowles: Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet; Flute Sonata and Scenes from Anabase (Koch International Classics 3-7343-2-H1) includes the premiere recordings of Cuatro Canciones de Garcia Lorca from 1944 and Four Miniatures for Piano, as well as the title pieces, recorded at the University of California in Santa Cruz under the direction of Irene Herrmann. Migrations, curated by David Drew for HCD Productions in Frankfurt, and featuring a number of players from Ensemble Modern, is probably the best recording, though all three discs are close to essential for the curious. After all, you won't find three CDs by Ernest Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald in the modern classical section, however hard you look.