About this Recording
8.559787 - BOWLES, P.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Invencia Piano Duo)
English 

Paul Bowles (1910–1999)
Complete Piano Works • 2

 

To Mark A. Schulz

An amazing journey of discovering Paul Bowles the composer continues in the second and final volume of this set. Along with his better known works, such as Night Waltz, this volume contains a number of première recordings of his unpublished compositions, with the unabashedly humorous Turkey Trot among them. Also recorded for the first time here is Tamanar, a work that challenges a common notion that in his music Bowles expressed just a lighter side of himself.

Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn

This set represents the second and final instalment of the complete piano works by Paul Bowles, an American expatriate writer and composer, who spent most of his life in Morocco. It was in Morocco’s city of Tangier, where Bowles settled in 1947, that he completed his best known novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), which brought him literary fame and eventually steered him away from composing music. By then, however, Bowles had already created a substantial oeuvre of musical compositions in virtually every genre, proving that he was an original and distinctive composer in his own right.

A rare phenomenon, Bowels was able to create works of substance in both literature and music. Unfortunately, he paid little attention to the proper cataloguing and preservation of his musical manuscripts. Over several decades, many compositions were lost and his music became largely forgotten. But with the efforts of enthusiasts—chiefly Irene Herrmann, who is the inheritor, executor and curator of the Paul Bowles music estate—many of the works were recovered and became available for performance and distribution. This circumstance played a decisive role in the renaissance of Bowles’s music that started in the 1990s.

The surviving output of piano works is represented by both solo and duo compositions that encompass an impressive stylistic array that reflects Bowles’s wide interests in travel, languages, folklore and literature, as well as his social circles. These gems are primarily miniatures or collections, each individual selection ranging in duration from about half a minute to around four minutes. The pieces on both volumes are grouped cyclically, stylistically, and thematically, sometimes by the composer himself and at times by the recording artists to help the listener remain immersed in a particular sound world. Volume 2, for instance, opens with a collection of three pieces for two pianos, including Bowles’s classic work Night Waltz (1949).

Night Waltz—one of the composer’s most recorded works—is distinguishable for its polymetric counterpoint and cornucopia of musical ideas. These thoughts flow freely, without being punctuated by cadences, which parallels stream of consciousness in literature. Coincidentally, 1949 is the year in which William Faulkner—an American writer known for his use of stream of consciousness—was awarded the Nobel Prize. Attentive listeners may also be able to perceive that the piece was composed after Bowles had settled in Morocco, as exotic Middle Eastern scales at times seep through the dense texture of the work. In contrast to the sanguine and driving Night Waltz, the affect in Nocturne (1935) is introverted and brooding, with several waves of development leading to the explosive climaxes toward the two-thirds mark and the end of the piece. The work’s density varies remarkably from a singular melodic line to complex multilayered sonorities. Completing this group of compositions is Cross Country (1976), a brief but nonetheless harmonically and texturally sophisticated piece that elicits a mystifying connection between Bowles and Russian music, most remarkably to some of the country’s composers who might not be as well-known outside Russia. For instance, the combination of syncopated and limericky tunes with chromatic and linear harmony in music by Rodion Shchedrin is strikingly similar to the thematic and harmonic principles of the piece. It is doubtful, though, that Bowles and Shchedrin, a Soviet composer who had risen to prominence by the time Cross Country was written, had heard of each other at that time. Bowles’s music was not performed very frequently, and Shchedrin was firmly behind the iron curtain.

The four piano pieces in the next grouping were written between 1933 and 1939, reflecting Bowles’s wide travel and literary interests. Impasse de Tombouctou (1934) is titled after the eponymous dead-end street in the quaint medieval town of Thiviers in southwestern France. Translated into English as “Deadlock of Timbuktu”, this name must have resonated with Bowles the tireless traveller, as Timbuktu is an historic city, an architectural marvel and the capital of the West African nation of Mali. The composition’s opening neoclassical melody is elegantly ornamented and harmonized, as are all subsequent thematic ideas, conveying the alluring atmosphere of the picturesque surroundings.

Also inspired by his travels are Café Sin Nombre (1933), translated from Spanish as “Café Without a Name”, and Carretera de Estepona (1939), translated from Spanish as “Highway to Estepona”. According to Irene Herrmann, Bowles’s archives contain a photo with an image of an isolated structure in a deserted area in northern Morocco with a signboard “Café Sin Nombre” along with a donkey tethered nearby. The composer achieves the feel of remoteness in this enigmatic piece by obscuring the tonic triad harmonically and contrapuntally until the very last chord.

Right across the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Morocco is the coast of southern Spain, where Estepona—a town and municipality—is situated. Surrounded by the mountains, this area is renowned for its beaches and unique microclimate with sunshine nearly year-round. Carretera de Estepona is a passionate and dramatic piece that provides clear evidence of Bowles’s most impressive mastery of the Spanish idiom. The work opens with majestic chords, immediately followed by rhythmic intricacies, strumming chords, sharp sonorities, and intervals of parallel fourths that bring to mind the flamenco guitar. The composition gradually grows in intensity, culminating with a powerful chordal progression that brings Carretera to a shattering conclusion.

Finally, the mysterious title Theseus and Maldoror (1933) combines two antagonistic literary characters from completely different epochs. Theseus is a Greek mythical hero, founder of Athens and reformer of the old social and religious order. He is perhaps best known for killing the monstrous Minotaur, for which Theseus must first find his way through a bewildering underground labyrinth. By contrast, Maldoror—created by the Uruguayan-born French poet Comte de Lautréamont—is an antihero and epitome of absolute evil, opposing both humanity and God. Both characters are part of the endless labyrinth of life with its perpetual interaction of good and evil, reflected by a consistent tonal ambiguity, unexpected modulatory turns and a harmonic flow with very few resolutions in Bowles’s work.

Four Miniatures (1932–1943) brings to mind a famous saying by the great Anton Chekhov: “Conciseness is the sister of talent.” Bowles must have taken this message to heart, as he was able to say much in a very short period of time. Prélude pour Bernard Suarèz (1932) exemplifies this, as Bowles needs just half a minute to create a convincing and playful depiction of the young son of his friend, the Egyptian-born French writer Carlos Suarèz. Prélude is followed by Portrait of K.M.C. (1935), an acronym for the name Kay Cowen, an American woman whom Bowles met during his first visit to Paris in 1929 and who introduced him to the exotic photos of Marrakech. Narrational in nature, Portrait of K.M.C. is comprised of a set of sophisticated micro-variations—richly polytonal and, at times, pointillistic—on the ornamented descending theme of the opening. The ensuing Reverie (1932) opens in an elegant two-voice style, with the left hand outlining widely spaced harmonies that provide a fitting background for the charming melody in the right hand. The middle section unexpectedly introduces something akin to lounge music, with the initial material returning soon thereafter. The cycle concludes with a movement entitled Sarabande (1943) which is composed in duple meter, not triple as is typical for this dance. Akin to Ravel who fuses Blues with French sonorities, Bowles accomplishes the same objective, except from the other side of the Atlantic.

Tucked among the works with imaginative titles are two compositions named with a standard musical term. Sonatina Fragmentaria (1933) and Sonatina (1932–1933), although strikingly different in scope and character, are nonetheless based on the two sets of general formal principles that are similar to one another, though contrary to expectations. Neither of the two compositions, for instance, utilizes a traditional Germanic sonatina’s core principle, i.e. the sonata form. Rather, the resemblance is artificial, merely mirroring regular sonatina cycles with the chosen titles and number of movements. Both works unfold in a manifestly fragmentary (as supported by the Spanish word “Fragmentaria”), episodic and, at times, even kaleidoscopic fashion, which is also atypical for a sonatina. In addition, there are no expected thematic connections between any movements in both works that the ear often detects in sonata cycles. All these factors are consistent with Bowles’s conspicuous disdain for Germanic music with its predetermined structures, goal-oriented development and indubitably placed climaxes.

The first movement of Sonatina Fragmentaria opens with crystalline sonorities contrasted with faster Spanish-flavoured fragments. The luminous second movement (Allegro, a year later used as part of Six Preludes, included on volume 1) ensues, the cycle concluding with an Adagio composed around a prolonged, pensive melody. By comparison, the first and third movements of Sonatina are boisterous and virtuosic, while the second movement is ruminative and melancholic. Once again Bowles demonstrates his intriguing connection to the periphery of Russian music, in the case of the second movement evoking the lyrical and fairytale-like sound world of Nikolay Medtner, whose music he might not even have heard at the time.

Tamanar (1931–1933) is a cryptic and severe work with a fascinating story behind it. This piece was inspired by the spectacular views of the Atlas mountain range on the way to the village of Tamanar on the southwestern coast of Morocco, which Bowles visited with his friend and musical mentor, Aaron Copland, on their first trip to the country. Within several years, the work was lost, not to be rediscovered until about sixty years later, in 1996. Tamanar is thought to be an anomaly in that its overtly dissonant nature contradicts a common assumption that in his music, unlike his literary works, Bowles expressed only his lighter side. Those, however, who are intimately familiar with Bowles’s piano works would recognize that Tamanar is not unique in this respect, and that there are some other works, for instance the finale of Sonata for Two Pianos (1947) featured on volume 1, that are no less disturbing and violently dissonant. Tamanar is also a visionary work, the complex harmony of which anticipates some sonorities of American jazz rock, particularly those by Steely Dan, a prominent group that was to emerge in the 1970s.

Bowles’s travel diaries continue with Three Latin American Pieces (1943–1948) that evidence the composer’s interest in Mexico, Central America and the Spanish language. The lively El Bejuco (1943) is suggestive of chilena, a type of a popular song and dance in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The piece is subtitled “Que siga, que siga el gusto…”, a Mexican colloquialism which—according to Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, the author of Bowles’s first biography—could be loosely translated into English as “Carry on so that pleasure can carry on.” By comparison, Orosí (1948) opens with a tranquil and contemplative melody, which is succeeded by a dance-like episode soon thereafter. The composer wrote that the percussive feel and triple meter of the latter section was inspired by his observation of local cowboys making a marimba from bamboo and gourds in the village of Orosí in a valley of Costa Rica. The Latin-American set concludes with the playful and polymetric Sayula (1946), named after a municipality in the state of Veracruz which is located on the Gulf of Mexico.

This recording closes with two groups of arrangements: Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) set for piano duet by Andrey Kasparov in 2014 and three miscellaneous pieces set for two pianos by the prominent American piano duo of Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Blue Mountain Ballads—consisting of four songs set to poetry by Tennessee Williams, the famous American playwright and the composer’s close friend—is arguably Bowles’s most famous work. All four songs are quite popular with vocalists, oftentimes not even aware who wrote these poignant, humorous, earthy and folksy pieces.

The three arrangements by Gold and Fizdale, on the other hand, are each taken from different works. Evoking the sound and spirit of jazz ballads, Colloque Sentimental (1944) is the only surviving material that is based on Bowles’s ballet of the same name, the manuscript of which was lost by the composer. Caminata (ca. 1940s), which is Spanish for “Strolling”, is part of the ballet Pastorela (1941) about Mexican posadas or pre-Christmas processions. This episode consists of a slow introduction that is soon followed by a bouncy dance in a moderately fast tempo, with the introductory slow theme returning in the coda. Finally, Turkey Trot (ca. 1940s) is a polytonal and zany ragtime, its original medium and genre remaining unknown. The manuscripts of these arrangements were found by Andrey Kasparov in the Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale Collection that is part of the Peter Jay Sharp Special Collections, Lila Acheson Wallace Library, The Juilliard School. Kasparov subsequently deciphered and reconstructed the aforementioned manuscripts, allowing for these duets to be recorded for the first time on this volume.

Both members of the Invencia Piano Duo express their deep gratitude to Irene Herrmann and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno. 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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