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Bowles, Paul (1910 - 1999)


Perhaps best remembered as an American expatriate author, Paul Frederic Bowles’ contributions to music are far from insignificant. Although raised in a cultured middle-class household, his childhood was greatly influenced by his stern, disapproving father. According to family legend, his father left the infant son on an open window-ledge during a blizzard with the intention of killing him. Whether this story is true or not, this oppressive upbringing greatly influenced Bowles’ future literary explorations. Many of his stories have twisted storylines dealing with dark emotions, such as repressed sexual desires, violence and despair. Gore Vidal, in fact, praised his ability to evoke “the horrors that lie beneath,” ranking his short stories as “among the best ever written by an American.”

Nonetheless, Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, writing a biography of Bowles’ life, describes his music “as full of light as the fiction is of dark … almost as if the composer were a totally different person from the writer.” After studying composition intermittently during the 1930s with Aaron Copeland, he began a successful career composing incidental music for the New York stage. Finding this choice immensely rewarding, Bowles was happy to compose (in his own words) “climaxless music, hypnotic music in one of the exact senses of the word, in that it makes its effect without the spectator being made aware of it.” While he found much joy in these theatrical compositions, he continued to compose other large scale works – ballets and other concert music – in addition to smaller piano miniatures and the like.

Paul Bowles died of heart failure in Tangier on November 18, 1999. In spite of having lived in Morocco for 52 of his 88 years, his grave can be found in Lakemount, New York, next to those of his family.

-Nathan Coleman (more on the author)



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