Paul Bowles - The Pool K III

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And she recalled the distant, hollow sound of water falling from a great height, a constant, soft backdrop of sound that slipped into every moment of the day—between the conversations at mealtimes, in the intervals of play in the garden, and at night between dreams. - Paul Bowles, "The Echo"

Paul Bowles
The Pool K III
Cadmus Editions/Dom America (

In 1998, an album of musique concrète released on an Italian label was misattributed to painter Brion Gysin, who had in fact received the tape from its creator: Paul Bowles. Bowles would die at age 88 one year later in his beloved Tangier, unaware of the release and leaving behind a legacy of fiction and essays. Yet the famed author of "The Sheltering Sky" was also a composer for stage and screen, studying with his dear friend Aaron Copland and writing copious amounts of music criticism from the 1930s through the end of World War II. He realized what came to be known as The Pool K III in 1958 toward a new direction in his own sound production. Although musique concrète was by that time a well-established practice, Bowles's experiments in radiophony retain about them something distinctly his own. He brought musicality to everything he touched. Whether resounding through his wordcraft or in a piano score, each letter had a note value.

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This CD edition documents a meticulous joint effort to restore the work to its rightful attribution. For that we may thank Jon Carlson, who put out the disc through Cadmus Editions/Dom America and saw that the work be properly catalogued in the Library of Congress, and Irene Herrmann, inheritor of Bowles's music estate and featured pianist on a 1995 Koch International Classics conspectus of his chamber music. Incidentally, that same year also saw the release of Baptism of Solitude on Meta Records, which fed recordings (courtesy of guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, who traveled to Tangier in 1994) of Bowles reading his own works through a lattice of ambient sound constructions by bassist and producer Bill Laswell. Like the latter's imagined expanses, The Pool K III looks deeply inward to describe the infinitely outward.

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In addition to outlining the music's near-tragic history, the accompanying booklet shares brief but fascinating exchanges between Bowles, Gysin, and William S. Burroughs. In a letter to Bowles dated 28 June 1960, Burroughs himself characterizes The Pool K III as “night music,” two words that might just as well have described Bowles's evocations of the desert as they do these soundscapes stepping out of time, fully clothed in their own mystery. Over the course of eight unnamed tracks, their flow broken only by a field recording of pregnant wind, we are immersed in a space of immeasurable architecture. The sounds of water dripping into a basin are the album's leitmotif, becoming more cavernous over time. Their echo chamber shelters an historical memory, one that percolates into an ancient aqueduct littered with rotting tourist guides and live ammunition.


A constant, underlying hum (perhaps nothing more than tape hiss) feels squeezed through the bellows of a harmonium until it sings in that same language of darkness that backgrounds every camera flash and glint of coin. What few melodies there are seem as vague as they are distant, nevertheless organic in their apportioning of drone and machinery. Drumming spirits, slow tremolos, bowed meditations: all of these and more await the adventurous listener with wings unfolded.

The Pool K III is a document of indelible importance from a writer who treated images like cakes of watercolor pigment. It engages the same overarching themes of his literary paintings: humanity in and of nature, the terrifying magic of dislocation, and the overwhelming voice of things, to say little of the lone traveler trying to make sense of them all. Like those writings, this is a work of art that puts you outside of your comfort zone so that you might see who you really are. And, after all, isn't that why we journey in the first place? - Tyran Grillo


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