Paul Bowles and His Synthesizer

"I did a score on synthesizer, but I don’t consider that composing. There’s no compositional technique involved. I suppose it is composing, though, in a different way."

Paul Bowles interview in New Music Box with Frank Oteri and Ken Smith, January 1998.

TALIM Bowles Synthesizer

By the time Bowles self-deprecatingly admitted that he had indeed used a synthesizer, he had already composed incidental music for three plays put on by the Dramatic Society of the American School of Tangier ("music by Paul Bowles, costumes by Yves St. Laurent" – that's the kind of place Tangier was in those days, where even high school plays turned into international talent shows of Tangier's literary and artistic crowd).

TALIM Bowles Synthesizer room

Now, thanks to the efforts of Thomas Gunther, Karim Benzakour, and Oliver Orion, the synthesizer which used to sit in Paul Bowles' apartment in Tangier is safely on display in the Legation's Paul Bowles Wing, where it joins a wealth of other material – books, musical scores, paintings, photos – on this Renaissance man of the 20th century.  Thanks to AST – the American School of Tangier – for sharing this piece of history with the museum-going public.

TALIM Bowles Synthesizer music
Bowles originally visited Tangier with Aaron Copland, reflecting Bowles' initial vocation, that of composer of modern American music.  His last instrument, acquired in 1992, was a synthesizer.

Joseph McPhillips, then Headmaster of the American School of Tangier (AST), had persuaded his friend Patricia Robinson to finance the purchase of the synthesizer.  Patricia's son Adam Adams brought it to Tangier and taught Bowles the first steps.  Bowles' initial project was to compose the music for the school's production of the Euripides tragedy Hippolytus.

TALIM PB arte 3After Adam’s departure, Karim Benzakour of AST (photo at right with Bowles, from the ARTE TV documentary "Der Titan von Tanger") took over as Paul Bowles' synthesizer mentor (click on this link for a YouTube excerpt).  This arrangement continued for several years, until Bowles died in November 1999.  The keyboard came back to the American School of Tangier, until it was given to the American Legation museum in February 2014 for this exhibit.

According to Bowles' musical heir Irene Herrmann, Bowles' last three scores for AST school plays "were created directly on synthesizer."  Our display includes the "floppy discs" for individual "instruments" that got slotted into the synsthesizer, plus other floppies anotated by Bowles "Hippolytes" and "Salomé."

TALIM Bowles Synthesizer MuseumThanks to Oliver Orion, former music teacher at AST, who first suggested saving the venerable relic from oblivion – see his note painted on the base of the synthesizer at left:

"This machine was used by Mr. P. Bowles to compose music for such AST productions as Salome and Hippolytus.  Since all of its technological wonders can now fit on a mobile phone, perhaps it belongs in a museum, if not in an elec. music class."

Oliver, your advice has been followed!

To Thomas Gunther, an American in Paris and friend of the Legation, whose idea it was to display Bowles' synthesizer as part of our exhibit.

And to Karim Benzakour of AST, who not only taught Mr. Bowles a bit about using the machine, but who has lovingly safeguarded this part of Tangier's past.

Gerald Loftus, text and photos

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