Rhodes Professor to Perform Songs of Novelist Paul Bowles in New York

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Publication Date: 3/18/2009

It would be safe to say that the literary exploits by novelist and New York native Paul Bowles have overshadowed his musical ones.

However this week, Rhodes music professor and soprano Dr. Carole Blankenship will be in New York at the Cell Theatre bringing several of Bowles’ songs out of the shadows. Bowles was an important literary figure on the periphery of the Beat movement and spent much of his adulthood in Tangiers, along with his wife, Jane, who was also a writer.

Blankenship has been working with the executor of the Bowles estate to make his music as well known as The Sheltering Sky, his best known novel. The Sheltering Sky depicts the traumatic experiences of American travelers visiting Northern Africa, a typical literary subject for Bowles.

Bowles’ music, on the other hand, is nostalgic and charming, according to Blankenship. On Friday, March 20, at 8 p.m., Blankenship and Irene Herrmann, pianist, will perform several groups of songs that span fifty years of Bowles’ life.

“Paul Bowles loved poetry and the song form. He was an expert at setting text to music and saying what he wanted to say with a simple melody and beautifully expressive piano accompaniment,” Blankenship says.  “I came to know his songs because of his settings of four poems by Tennessee Williams, The Blue Mountain Ballads, Bowles’ only well-known songs. My desire to find more songs by Bowles led me to Irene Herrmann who owns all of his music including more than eighty songs, mostly still in manuscript. Irene and I will perform these delightful songs from his hand-written work.”

The topic of Blankenship’s doctoral dissertation was several Bowles compositions on which she conducted original research. In the process she discovered that Bowles wrote songs in many different musical styles, from postmodern (reflecting his composition studies with Aaron Copland in the 1920s and 1930s), to folk, and even including the style of the French mélodie.

Blankenship believes that the neglect of these works is simply because Bowles did not promote his songs or make use of his New York connections to have them published. Upon moving to Morocco in 1947, Bowles turned to writing fiction and, to a great degree, away from writing music.