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Night Waltz: The Music Of Paul Bowles

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published September 1, 2005


Had he accomplished nothing besides authoring The Sheltering Sky, the late ’40s novel based on his journeys throughout North Africa with his wife Jane, Paul Bowles would still be considered one of the most valuable literary talents of the previous century. That he accomplished much more goes without saying: A prolific writer and mythic figure, Bowles—like his pals Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gertrude Stein—has come to embody a restless bohemianism and sense of exploratory zeal that was all but extinct by the time millions of young would-be free spirits attempted to embrace it in the ’60s.

            What relatively few of his admirers know, however, is that long before he settled in Morocco and a life of words, Bowles, while still finding his way in New York in the ’30s, was a prolific composer. Having studied with the great Aaron Copland, Bowles followed the master to Europe, where both Copland and Virgil Thomson, another legendary composer, fed him advice and professional encouragement. Returning to New York, Bowles made music.

            Most of his compositions were never performed or recorded—many were assumed lost for good. But a fascinating DVD documentary thankfully proves otherwise. Night Waltz: The Music Of Paul Bowles (Zeitgeist), a film by Owsley Brown with Bowles’ music performed by the Eos Orchestra, fills in this considerable gap in the biography. With Bowles himself offering commentary and recollection—he died in Tangier in 1999 shortly after the interviews were conducted—Night Waltz presents several of Bowles’ compositions in their entirety, a potpourri ranging from post-jazz age ditties to reflective piano solos to songs with text by Tennessee Williams.

The accompanying visuals, from dreamy/surreal to charming/nostalgic, breathe heretofore unconsidered life into seven of the works, and the finale is sweet and touching, a young Moroccan singer serenading a great artist to sleep, planting a kiss on his cheek before he goes.