About this Recording
8.559786 - BOWLES, P.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Invencia Piano Duo)

Paul Bowles (1910–1999)
Complete Piano Works • 1


To Irene Herrmann and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

We are elated to continue on a path of discovering hidden treasures of piano literature, on this occasion by Paul Bowles. Known to many as an influential and innovative writer, Bowles was also a brilliant composer, belonging to those select few able to make lasting contributions to both fields. Bowles’s wit, lyricism, humour and charm are on full display in these gems, along with more dramatic and turbulent pages evoking some passages from his literary writings.

Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn

The name Paul Bowles does not need an introduction in the literary world. Celebrated by many for his classics such as The Sheltering Sky (1949) and The Delicate Prey (1949), he secured a place for himself in the pantheon of great American writers. Bowles, however, is known to far fewer for his musical accomplishments, even though he was a distinctive and original composer as well.

While a substantial body of research has been dedicated to Bowles the author, little has been written about his music despite the fact that Bowles, a unique polymath, considered himself to be primarily a composer. Born and raised in New York City, Bowles demonstrated his musical proclivities early in his life and subsequently had a busy composing career throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He created works in almost every musical genre up until the late 1940s when he settled in Morocco’s artistic city of Tangier, where he spent the rest of his long life. During the latter period, his productivity as a composer slowed considerably as he concentrated more on his literary career.

The surviving output of piano works is represented by both solo and duo works, displaying an impressive stylistic mosaic that reflects Bowles’s wide interests in travel, languages, folklore, and literature as well as his social surroundings. These gems are primarily miniatures or collections, each individual selection ranging in duration from about half a minute to approximately four minutes. Two exceptions here are Sonata for Two Pianos with its atypically expansive second movement and Tamanar, an austere solo work featured on volume 2 [Naxos 8.559787].

The pieces on both volumes are grouped either cyclically, stylistically or thematically, sometimes by the composer himself and at times by the recording artists to help the listener remain in a certain listening “zone” for a longer length of time. Volume 1, for instance, opens with a collection of four pieces inspired by Latin American themes, reflecting the composer’s interest in the region and the Spanish language, in which Bowles was fluent.

The aforementioned selections open and close with two traditional Mexican dances entitled Huapango No. 1 (1937) and Huapango No. 2 (1937), the latter subtitled El Sol (The Sun). The first dance contains authentic folk material, and both dances are based on sharply accented rhythms and meter changes. Positioned between the two vibrant and technically demanding Huapangos are the good humoured Iquitos (Tierra Mojada) (Damp Earth) (1947) and the sensuous Guayanilla (1933). Iquitos is a city in the Peruvian Amazon, but, according to pianist Bennett Lerner, Bowles commented in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek manner that it could be just about anywhere so long as the soil was wet. Situated on the Southern coast of Puerto Rico, the municipality of Guayanilla is also nicknamed “paradise by the sea”, with the Caribbean shoreline lying at the feet of tree-covered mountains. Bowles’s Guayanilla is amongst his most atmospheric and splendidly sonorous works.

The next group of seven pieces could be subtitled “portraits and tributes”. This collection consists of works by Bowles dedicated to his friends and colleagues and, likewise, works by his friends and colleagues dedicated to him. This subset opens with Two Portraits, recorded as a cycle for the first time on this volume. Portrait of K.M.C. (1935) was inspired by Kay Cowen, a young American woman Bowles met during his numerous sojourns in Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s, and Portrait of B.A.M. (1934) depicts Bruce Morrissette, a recognized literary critic and a life-long friend of the composer.

A manifestation of Bowles’s own boyish charm is found in Souvenir: Portrait of Paul Bowles (1935) by Virgil Thomson (1896–1989), a composer, music critic, and a very influential personality for Bowles and many others in his generation and beyond. Thomson’s piece was likely a friendly response to Bowles’s feature of Thomson in Portrait of 5 (1935) written about a month earlier. There could simply be no better program note for this piece than the composer’s own indications—quite humorous and at times even teasing, but unswervingly affectionate—that he provides in the score of the work for each personality participating in this group portrait. According to the score, these individuals are initially introduced in the following order: “Virgil Thomson (smiling)”, “Aaron Copland (remembering the world)”, “Roger Sessions (looking careful and honest)”, “George Antheil (in a hurry to go)” and “Israel Citkowitz (practicing being pleasant)”.

Tributes continue with For Paul Bowles by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) from his Seven Anniversaries (1943). Bernstein—who around this time conducted the première of Bowles’s zarzuela (a Spanish variety of operetta) The Wind Remains—wrote this work for Bowles’s thirty-third birthday. Bowles’s unfailing elegance as well as allusions to the whimsical rhythmic arabesques of both his composing and writing style are clearly palpable in Bernstein’s crafty work. Previously in the same year, Bowles gave Bernstein a birthday gift of his own: La Cuelga (The Present). The angular Latin-American rhythms and melodic motives of this work along with the wide leaps in the accompaniment anticipate similar stylistic features in Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957).

The beautifully lyrical Constance Askew in the Garden (1935) completes the tributes. Together with her husband, Kirk, Constance owned an art gallery and a legendary salon in New York City that was frequented by the best known intellectuals and celebrities of the day. This Schumannesque portrait conveys the affable and passionate nature of the hostess, though not without an element of slight capriciousness, which may be felt in the middle section where some wide intervals in the melody are combined with short articulations.

Another important stylistic dimension—Bowles’s innate connection to American folklore—is introduced by Folk Preludes (1939) which are based on seven well-known folk tunes. While the work may seem forthright and innocuous upon first encounter, it eventually reveals to those familiar with the lyrics a deeper meaning embedded into the overall symmetrical structure of the cycle. Whereas the preludes based on dark and tragic songs are No. 1 (harsh and rigid parents ruining their daughter’s and her beloved’s lives), No. 4 (desperate famine) and No. 7 (a hopeless alcoholic who can only dream of a good life, but never have one), each pair of preludes in between exudes a genuine good cheer.

A much different stylistic and structural approach to a cycle of piano pieces is taken in Six Preludes (1934–1944), one of Bowles’s better known works. The composer acknowledged French inspirations in this cycle, but Russian hints therein are also eminently palpable. The chiaroscuro of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives and the shadows of Scriabin’s fleeting touch are felt throughout. Intermingling subtly with Bowles’s own blues- and jazz-infused idiom, these intimations create an inimitable amalgam, whether in the opulently polytonal No. 1, the melodically volatile No. 2, the cinematically suspenseful No. 3 or the illuminatingly soaring No. 5. No. 4, having already been heard on this recording as part of Two Portraits depicting Bruce Morrissette, stands out with its ragtime styled opening that is soon interrupted by the jazzily harmonized fate motif (l’homme fatal perhaps?). The composition concludes with the ethereal No. 6, Bowles’s sumptuous melodic gift on full display.

Ensconced between the two cycles of preludes are piano arrangements by Bowles. In addition to being attractive and original compositions in their own right, his arrangements also serve a very important function of documenting a number of his orchestral scores that were lost due to the composer’s inexplicably haphazard attitude toward his musical manuscripts. Apotheosis (A Dance for Welland Lathrop) (1946), case in point, was originally composed as a ballet score for full orchestra and is now lost. Fortunately, both the zarzuela The Wind Remains (1941–1942), after a poem by Federico García Lorca, and the ballet Pastorela (1941), based on Mexican pre-Christmas musical processions, have survived as orchestral scores. The fairytale-like Dance from the former and the brisk El Indio (The Indian) from the latter are presented here as arrangements.

Realized in 2014 and also included on this recording are Andrey Kasparov’s piano duet arrangements of Bowles’s three songs for voice and piano. Bowles composed over a hundred songs in English, Spanish and French, some as part of his extensive output of incidental music. Composed in 1944, Mes de Mayo (The Month of May) is set to an anonymous Mexican poem telling the story of a prisoner in a dark cell who can only find out what month it is from a birdsong. By contrast, April Fool Baby (1944?) is a nonsensically comical poem by Gertrude Stein, a writer who was a major influence on Bowles. Finally, Baby, Baby (1946)—also known as Sleeping Song—is a lullaby from music Bowles wrote for Maxine Wood’s play On Whitman Avenue about the racial prejudice a black family faces when moving into a white neighbourhood.

This recording concludes with one of Bowles’s finest concert works and one of the best kept secrets in American piano literature—Sonata for Two Pianos (1947). Written for and dedicated to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, a preeminent American piano duo, this work marked the composer’s departure from creating mainly incidental music. Along with Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (1946–1947), this sonata paved the way for Bowles’s final large-scale compositions: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1947–1949), A Picnic Cantata (1953) and the opera Yerma (1948–1955).

Even a brief look at the durations of the three movements that comprise Sonata for Two Pianos immediately divulges the unusual structure of the work, with the slow second movement (Molto tranquillo) lasting longer than the two flanking fast movements (Strict tempo and Absolutely strict tempo) combined. Molto tranquillo starts with widely spaced harmonies and melodic intervals that evoke the style of Copland. But soon Bowles takes the listener down a different path by introducing new thematic ideas that, at times, allude to various styles of American popular music. He also utilizes colourful, contrasting and even conflicting harmonic and contrapuntal juxtapositions and superimpositions that bring the movement to a dramatic climax. The reharmonised opening idea then returns, the movement eventually arriving at a solemn coda.

The character of the two outer movements is rhythmically driving and energetic: dance-like in the first movement, with a polytonal hoedown at the climax, and relentless in the third. The finale’s second theme presages some elements of funk rock, its harmonic clusters gradually developing into a vehemently hammering, polymetric conclusion. This movement’s technical, rhythmic and ensemble demands firmly place Sonata for Two Pianos amongst the most challenging works ever composed for this medium.

This recording is dedicated to Irene Herrmann and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno. Irene Hermann is the inheritor, executor and curator of the Paul Bowles music estate. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno is the author of An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles, which is the first biography of the writer. Irene’s and Christopher’s expertise, kindness, grace and unconditional support have greatly contributed to this project.

Andrey Kasparov

Special thanks to Judith D. Bryant, Kenneth W. Bryant, John A. Campbell, Adelaide Coles and Dr. Kevin D. Kelleher

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