Late night metropolis stroll of the Tangierian mystic: The case of Paul Bowles

December 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

Paul Frederic Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999) was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making various trips to Paris in the 1930s. He studied music with Aaron Copland, and in New York wrote music for various theatrical productions, as well as other compositions. He achieved critical and popular success with the publication in 1949 of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, set in what was known as French North Africa, which he had visited in 1931.

In 1947 Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, and his wife, Jane Bowles followed in 1948. Except for winters spent in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) during the early 1950s, Tangier was his home for the next fifty-two years, the remainder of his life.

Paul Bowles died in 1999 at the age of 88. His ashes are buried in Lakemont Cemetery in upstate New York.


Paul Bowles, as it is apparent from the previous mini biographical note, was a much talented man of diverse virtues. What strikes as really interesting is the chasm separating his musical composition and his writing, night and day. His music, Broadway musicals, Holiday movie scores, ballet music and so on, are a celebration of life, instilled with humour and bearing a playful attitude, while his stories are dark and disturbing, filled with grim secrets, desert nights and North African mysticism.

A fine example of his musical work is Music for a Farce written in 1938 for small chamber ensemble. It was originally intended for a theatre play called Too Much Johnson which was never staged, thus the piece was reworked in its current form. Jazzy and joyful brings to mind newsreel footage of 20s/30s New York, of fast shinny cars coming and going under tons of skyscraper steel, Art Deco hotel lounges and crystal filled balls. A feeling of great things being at hand, of living in a modern present, full of speed and unheard comfort and with a bright future close by. Although being no expert I believe I can trace Bowles tutor, Aaron Copland, influences on this one.

and a taste of ’38s NYC, the Music for a Farce being an appropriate and matching soundtrack to this silent

This was America for Bowles. Great but seemingly not enough. Then he moved permanently to Tangier, Morroco, giving up almost completely his composer’s career to focus on literature and poetry. Ominous exotic places, the Stranger and desert winds whispering things better left unheard. Dark alleys, enchanted nights, lights flickering in the distance, disorientation, blood sports and the other side of the city.

…Take me to the other end of the city,

where they slice up the sharks on the sand…

…Take me to the other end of the city,

where nobody wants to go…

…what’s his name? God forbid

where does he live? nobody knows

how do we get there? ask the conductor

that’s his face? nobody knows

now should I ask him? God forbid…

…Take me to the other end of the city,

where none knows the difference between you and me…

'Tangiers'(sic) (1877), Frederic Leighton

Baptism of Solitude





Both these recordings come from the excellent and most haunting release, Baptism of Solitude out in 1995, another obscure masterpiece in the long discography of the prolific Bill Laswell. Paul Bowles reading is sheer magic while Laswell provides the perfect sonic tapestry resulting in a unique release.


All in all Paul Bowles, of all periods, was a much underestimated case. A true artist per se. Discover him, it is worth the try.


P.S. There is also a Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine issue, #23, called “The voices of Paul Bowles” […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…] available for download through Continuo’s weblog, old, internet, acquaintance of dmtls and purveyor of wonderful aural oddities.



P.S. I would like to thank one of our readers for pointing out to me the correct spelling of Tangiere.


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§ 2 Responses to Late night metropolis stroll of the Tangierian mystic: The case of Paul Bowles

  • continuo says:

    So this is where you are nested now. 103 posts in November!? You will be exhausted before the end of the year. Good luck with your new blog, anyway.

  • Excuse the commercial but I thought those interested in Paul Bowles might want to know that my company, Sort Of Books, published an anthology of his travel writing this summer. It’s entitled “Travels” and includes the full text of his book “Their Heads Are Green” along with thirty other pieces, previously unpublished in book form. They are accompanied by fifty photos from the Bowles archive.

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