NIGHT WALTZ: The Music of Paul Bowles

A Film Produced by Owsley Brown Presents (1999)

Reviewed by Peter Boffey

Paul Bowles (Frederick) (b NY, 1910-). American composer. Studied with Copland and Thomson. Collector of folk music in Spain, North Africa, Central and South America, results influencing his exotic and colourful music. Has com­posed much chamber music, 3 operas (2 to texts by Lorca), 3 ballets, including Yankee Clipper (1936), film music and much theatre music (for plays by Tennes­see Williams, Saroyan, Koestler, and Hellman). Was for 4 years music critic of N.Y. Herald Tribune. Also successful as novelist (e.g. The Sheltering Sky, 1949). The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Revised Edition, 1997.


Besides the attention paid to his novels and short stories, Paul Bowles’ life has already been somewhat overexposed in autobiogra­phy, biographies, documentaries, interviews, appear­ance in films and the like. Choosing to explore the music of Paul Bowles, the underexposed por­tion of his oeuvre, San Franciscan film­maker Owsley Brown has expanded our perspective. Pairing up with San Franciscan cinematographer Nathaniel Dorsky, he has created an enduring homage of the highest order, one that amply rewards repeated viewing while inspiring an in­crease of interest in the music itself.

The decision to focus upon Bowles’ music might, in less agile hands, have resulted in one more iconic tribute to a legendary figure of international cult status after a long life in by now overly familiar exotic locales. Indeed, the November 1999 date of Bowles’ death suggests that NIGHT WALTZ would simply lend itself to the further beatification, or execration, of this now deceased doyen of American literary ex­patriates. Given the visual and verbal clichés already associated with the author, given the predictable trappings of the subject’s preferred Moroccan milieus, how is it that these artistic and biographical pitfalls have been avoided—and with such stunning success? Part of the reason is that before he would be interviewed, Bowles contractually arranged for censorial rights over the final edited version of the film. At 88 years of age, the subject refused to contribute towards hackneyed portraiture or hokey travelogue, and the exercise of his authorial rights enhanced the distinctive features of this extraordinary 77-minute film.


Equally important, collaborators Brown and Dorsky have practiced an atypical form of portraiture with consummate craftsmanship. Following upon the opening titles, a synopsis of Bowles’ biog­raphy is presented in several paragraphs printed on the screen; that business taken care of, the stage has been set for launching into a different kind and quality of documentary. The use of soundtrack selections from Bowles’ own 1959 Library of Congress collection of non-Arabic Moroccan music, Qsida Midh, immediately deepens the intros­pective character of this portraiture. We hear a muezzin’s call to prayer and watch a jar’s spout drip concentric circles in the pellucid water of a court­yard basin. Manhattan skyscrapers, shown moments earlier in black-and-white stills, are replaced by contemporary color film of minaret towers set against a translucent seaport sky, presumably Tangiers. As some of Bowles’ modernistic Western music is first heard in full force, the camera pans to Immeuble Itesa, the nouvelle cité apartment building where he lived for the last half of the 20th century. After this entrancing opening sequence, the film rolls along in a well-paced groove, alternating between a series of musical sequences and spoken sequences, the latter made up largely of interviews with Bowles at home; it is this movement back and forth between these two kinds of documentary material which creates a flexible framework for the fascinating account.


Throughout the interview sequences, the overstated private enigma of Paul Bowles is at least partially unveiled to reveal the clarity of a musician who has left a body of compositions marked by wit, whimsicality, and—upon occasion—great warmth. The interviews should pro­vide “true believers” with further instances of Bowles’ characteristic underbearing style. For instance, seated upright at his worktable, he responds (tersely) to hearing selections from a German re­cording of his own Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932). Or, ingesting his daily regimen of kif and reclining at ease, he recounts incidents from his discomforting childhood and early mis-education, even managing to settle a few scores with critics and would-be teachers from the dis­tant past.

Bowles appears at all times to be comfortably settled in at the center of attention and clearly must have trusted the off-camera interlocutor (Brown). Though Bowles often seems simply to be “being himself,” he also sometimes seems to be impersonating being himself. Still, this cat-and-mouse masquerade ultimately comes across as an issue of little consequence. Whether aloof or aloft, the subject proves articulate and even engaging, at least to the extent that Bowles’ characteristic guardedness ever permits approach. Bowles’ expat neighbor, Philip Ramey (American composer and music consultant to the film), often functions as a felicitous interme­diary between the laconic Bowles and the crew behind the camera and microphone. Ramey’s inqui­sitive tactfulness also proves to be a productive strategy for this aperçu of the music: in several solo passages and voice-overs, he offers a measure of historical perspective to help us place Bowles’ unique position in 20th century music.

The interviews offer us the unadorned, considered opinions of an apparently sensible human being displaying the quirks that longevity seems to have entitled him. Editorial decisions as to content and duration of these interviews, their starting points and their closing cutaways, suggest a sensitive apprehension of the power of natural pauses after which─from a speaker such as Bowles─only well-chosen words break silence. In one especially touching sequence the frail elder is shown in his slow, step-by-step advance from automobile to lobby elevator. Devoid of commentary or music, this passage entails only real-time footage of an ordinary arrival home and reflects the director’s obvious affection for artist. We are witnessing the last days of a man whose imaginative literature has profoundly questioned what ordinary “arrivals home” might mean.


The use of a relatively static camera and straight­forward angles in the interview sequences provides a structural and textural counterpoint to the music sequences and their visually demanding accompaniment. While the soundtrack of composed music serves as an intriguing sampler of Bowles’ output, the variegated selection of accompanying moving images generates a parallel ex­citement all its own. Bowles’ music plays on while a wide-ranging yet astonishingly well-integrated cinematographic vocabulary plays out: time-lapse photography, hand painted celluloid, negative and slow motion projection, chromatic aberrations, multiple ex­posures, borrowed black-and-white archival footage, pleasantly ir-realistic coloration — no question about technical prowess or intrinsic cinematographic interest here! The images can move through montages with a dervish-like speed, dazzling the eye and leaving one gaping at the sheer splendor of visuals racing across the screen. At other times, the barely moving pictures allow contemplative pauses akin to the kind of meditative state more often provoked by a photo­graphic still.

The visual engagement of these music sequences is no more evident than in the New York set which adapts footage borrowed from the films of New York photographer and film­maker Rudy Burckhardt (1914-99). Segments from Burckhardt’s “The Climate of New York” (1947), “Under the Brooklyn Bridge” (1953), and “Up and Down the Waterfront” (1946) are inno­vatively juxtaposed to selections from Bowles’ Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet (1931). Burckhardt’s “street” photography depicts the pitch and tone of metropolitan New York when Bowles’ career as a composer-in-demand began, a career that continued until his post-WWII defection to the Mahgreb. Intricately edited to the music, black-and-white footage of boys skinny-dipping in the East River resonates with Copland-influenced strains and seems to echo canvases by Eakins and Homer. The Brooklyn Bridge shots alone evoke more than one hundred years of artistic Americana.

The French set effectively matches some of Bowles’ Satie-saturated piano preludes and miniatures (1932-45) to Dorsky’s Parisian footage. The associational yet tangential relation­ship of soundtrack to image here serves to seduce with a brand of nostalgia which may well be peculiar to our 20th Century sensibility; the sounds and sights of these Parisian park passages seem to encompass the pastoral film language of Jean Renoir’s “Une Journeé dans la Campagne” and the lyrical beneficence of some innocent, primitive cinéma vérité.

Other music sequences jar us into states of readiness for re-perception. Black moving lines record nothing but telephone wires running overhead yet the effect is spellbinding. A train ride provides us a rapid gaze into a deciduous forest backlit by a deep orange sun low on the winter horizon. Rainwater falls from an awning and roof line and the drops produce balletic pointillism. Flowering fruit trees blossom in a composition cropped au japonais. Windblown treescapes, clouds, the myriad surfaces of water moving, the sky itself—all these may sound like the rawest of materials, facile kid’s stuff of every would-be Cocteau with Camcorder, every wanna-be Rimbaud with Super-8. But the crafted visual accompaniment of such musical sequences lets us celebrate an accom­plished poetics as the whole screen becomes a frame ar­resting our at­tention and dislodging us from habitual perception.


I never quoted any themes [of Mexican mariachi music] literally. I invented themes that sounded like the origi­nals, which ought to silence Elliott Carter who claimed in an article that I took folk music and deprived it of its meaning, which was a nasty thing to say and absolutely untrue. But he didn’t know the difference between the actual folk tunes and my invented ones, because they were fairly similar, of course.” 

Forsaking historiography, downplaying analysis, minimizing commentary from supposed authorities, and eliminating confessions from intimates, the film proceeds along its own course, music and spoken sequences following one upon another in seemingly effort­less forward move­ment. While Paul Bowles’ lifestyle and oeuvre have already elicited the full range of praise and contempt in contemporaneous pronouncements over the last fifty years, the film itself commands fresh attention. The limits of this biographical documentary may, for some view­ers, seem circumscribed by the limits of the subject it treats, yet the creative process at play transcends such limits while entertaining other expectations. Take these three different passages sharing the dynamics of this correlation between image and music:

  • We watch two hooded women, market baskets in hand, approaching us through a deeply shadowed archway somewhere in the Moroccan medina; their slow motion movements don’t quite correspond to the real time we know it takes to make such steps. This silhouetted image of two figures traveling towards us through a darkened, foreshortened passageway might, in some other photo­graphic treatment, seem like an overused snapshot if not the cover of an over­sized coffee table book placed just so. Here the slow motion of their gait plays against our innate kinesthetic sense, and the segment becomes an oppor­tunity simultane­ously to reveal—and to veil—their reality from our outsiders’ eyes.
  • We watch home movie-like footage of a Mexican dance troupe in the heat of a plaza per­for­mance, yet the emphatic rhythm of their visible steps is not quite in sync with the meters of the soundtracks’ composed piano music (Bowles’ “Orosì”, 1937-48). In another con­text, this segment of Oaxacan folk dancing might be a token of anthropological field research or a happy souvenir scored by a lucky turista; in this passage the discrepancy between the perceivable rhythm of the dance and the audible rhythm of Bowles’ Latin piano piece creates a gap that asserts the integrity of the popular dance music and the parallel authenticity of Bowles’ composition.
  • We watch a sustained, strobic flickering across the screen, an hypnotic rhythm of light-and-dark which turns out to be but the reflected glass broadside of an electric train pass­ing a stationary camera. Without reason we find ourselves absorbed in watching the chain of car lengths recede along an elevated stretch of the Paris métro. The gradual revelation—without a single camera pan or cutaway—of that rapid transit of light-and-dark as nothing other than a reflection rippling over train car windows is more than just a visual gag; this brief clip creates an occasion for our seeing the train’s snakelike course through the metropolis as something else, something prone to even further metamorphoses played out—to a few more bars of a piano miniature, perhaps—in the active audience member’s eye and ear.

Visual and auditory correlatives such as these encourage a subtle dérègle­ment of senses putting us in tune with Paul Bowles’ inner world rendered accessible—within limits —by Owsley and Brown.


“I grew used to being by myself in early childhood, and that made me appreciate solitude. In other words, I wanted to be by myself. I didn’t want to have contact with others.”

A Moroccan male in djellabah and fez uses a cane to guide himself through a sunlit intersection of alleyways and disappears around a corner in one fleeting clip hinting at any man’s unknowable solitude. During the hour of siesta, a self-absorbed Oaxacan boy prances in dream-like cadence past a closed storefront, a closed gate, a closed door on an empty street; dancing alongside stucco walls, the boy appears to be carrying on some half-spoken, half-gestured conversation with himself while we hear a portion of Bowles’ “Pieze Tranquila” from his Pastorella: First Suite (1947). A small Parisian family, complete with strol­ler, moves through the public space of a large city park; doing so seems natural to them: it’s theirs, they’ve owned it for several centuries, after all. But even as we watch this normal petite famille on screen, are we not listening to the music of Paul Bowles? And can we imagine an individual less likely to be caught en petite famille than Paul Bowles, whose musical presence haunts the passage in such a way as to surrealize such an everyday, matter-of-fact display?

For anyone familiar with Bowles’ writing and its themes, coming to the music for the first time in may evoke various intimations of that self-same solitude, the estrange­ment of irreligious man residing in yet never quite inhabiting another man’s land. “I never thought I could know the Arabic mind,” Bowles states, unperturbed. The filmmakers lightly touch upon the all-pervasive intag­lios of solitude at the heart of Bowles’ novels, novellas, short stories, and poems. Rarely does the music or imagery of NIGHT WALTZ elicit any explicit example of the deep and enduring social and individual aliena­tion which marks the author’s literary expression.

In one strikingly nonsensical sequence following upon Bowles’ remark about Gertrude Stein, sped-up time lapse photography provides a mechanical ballet of colorfully endowed shadows and lights. While his “Scherzo” from Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and percussion (1946) plays, the stationary camera peers down the stair­well of Inmeuble Itesa then gazes up from the foot of the landing to Bowles’ own top floor door. Surely this interlude is intended as a spoof on Cubism, a good-humored take­off on Stein’s “absolute nonsense” and an ironically arty poke at arty pretentiousness itself. But again, isn’t Paul Bowles’ music being played? My own reading of Bowles’ fictions of unremitting solitude certainly had an uncannily enduring impact upon my experience of this film, but was I the only member of the audience to wince the first time I picked out the evanescent human figures in that particular episode — jittery bleeps, automatons, non-entities coming and going across the screen.


“The important thing is, to lift yourself up, to turn yourself inside out and to see the whole world with fresh eyes.” –Peter Weiss, MARAT/SADE

It might seem that the optical effects of the two final sequences are calculated to guarantee ersatz hypnosis for the susceptible—or set off seizures in those subject to fits! But the overall effect is far from stupefying. As throughout, the film’s visual charms mask a set of complex requests and are never quite trance-inducing enough to lull us into an intellectual sleep. There’s not nearly enough thoughtless, sensational spectacle to qualify these closing sequences as purely “psychedelic”.

In the penultimate passage, a battery of highly charged kinetic images plays against an allegro Music for a Farce, “No. 6” (1938). Labeled “Times Square Neon,” the set consists of nervous montage from the nighttime camerawork of Rudy Burckhardt and Jerome Hiler. Its deliberate comedic effects are rendered bittersweet by its preservation of a now defunct stylism belonging to a distinct era in American art and architecture. The very last sequence, set to Night Waltz for Two Pianos (1949), evolves out of a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of bright colors from nocturnal Tangiers, colors drawn into patterns of lights which proceed to spin off into sensuous action hand-painting. In very little time we find ourselves swept up in an ab­stract expressionistic cinema with an engaging dynamism of its own.

NIGHT WALTZ has an especially poignant gift to deliver before the end. An intimate camera places us bedside, witnesses to the quiet visit of Karim Jihad Achouatte, a young Moroc­can singer who privately performs for Bowles, sotto voce, a personalized rendition of a popu­lar Arabic tune. The lullaby works like a kindly soporific upon the bed-ridden elder who appears, by the song’s close, effectively subdued. Given Bowles’ November 1999 death, we may feel we are inadver­tently attending artistic last rites as the final credits follow upon this delicate finale.

Brown and Dorsky have overcome all sorts of prejudicial baggage that typically travels with any assessment of the life and art of Paul Bowles, and the range and qualities of his music have been generously clarified. Bowles himself can be credited with forcing the filmmakers to approach the documentation of his music and music making with fresh ears and eyes. They have relied upon a deft interplay between verbal and music sequences in which the creation of brilliant visual equivalencies to the music, rather than descriptions or illustrations of the music, is the operative mode. The film can lift jaded deadlights, teaching us to see and hear anew. Neither hypnosis nor narcosis is the mood this documentary promotes. Instead, NIGHT WALTZ: THE MUSIC OF PAUL BOWLES conveys the interiority of Paul Bowles’ world in convincing, refreshing, ingenuous ways.

November 2001 & April 2010