Paul Bowles, Writer and Composer
Chandler Recital Hall
October 3, 2011
When one thinks of diversely gifted individuals in the history of civilization, the names of Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton immediately come to mind amongst many others. Paradoxically, though, it is much more difficult to identify someone independently successful as both a writer and composer. Surely, composers like Robert Schumann, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and numerous others possessed huge literary gifts. They, however, never created any significant works of literature independent of music. To find this rare breed of polymaths, it would be necessary to search in 14th-century’s France, where Guillaume de Machaut was contributing independently to both poetry and music, or 12th-century’s Armenia, with Nerses Shnorhali enriching both poetry and music with works that are known to this day.
Our generation was particularly fortunate to be the contemporaries of such a phenomenon: the American writer and composer Paul Frederic Bowles (1910-1999). Born and raised in New York City and fluent in French, Spanish and, later, in Arabic as well, Bowles spent most of his life in Tangier, Morocco, and also resided for two years in Paris as well as other locations around the world. He was successful as both the author of famous novels, The Sheltering Sky among them, and well-known musical compositions.
On October 3, the consortium of the Diehn Concert Series, the Norfolk Chamber Consort and Old Dominion University's 34 Annual Literary Festival will present a program entitled "Paul Bowles, Writer and Composer." This is the first time the three organizations join forces for a performance which will take place in the Chandler Recital Hall at 7:30 PM.
Christopher Sawer-Lauçanno—the author of An Invisible Spectator, the first biography of Paul Bowles and other important books on American literature—will open the event with a pre-concert lecture “The Words and Music of Paul Bowles.” Guest artists will include a renowned marimbist Kevin Bobo from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and soprano Polly Butler Cornelius from Elon University in North Carolina, who will mark her debut with both the Norfolk Chamber Consort and Diehn Concert Series. Other performers will include oboist George Corbett, clarinetist Nik Hecker, trumpeter Lawrence Clemens, the Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn), baritone Christopher Mooney, percussionist David Walker, conductor Dennis Zeisler, as well as ODU’s New Music and Percussion Ensembles.
Music for a Farce for clarinet, trumpet, piano and percussion will open the program. This work was originally meant as incidental music for Orson Welles’s unscreened film Too Much Johnson. This motion picture was supposed to accompany the staging of William Gillette’s comedy of the same title about a New York playboy who escaped the wrath of his mistress’s husband, ending up in Cuba under an assumed identity. Speaking about this project in Night Waltz, a documentary film about his life and career, Bowles told that he was informed about this commission while he was in France with his wife, Jane, also a noted writer. They both rushed back to the United States on a German boat only to find out that the production was cancelled. Without much explaining, the Bowles couple was reimbursed a $100 out $2,000 they spent on the trip. The whole situation was absurd and extremely farcical, and hence is the title of the resulting chamber work.
In addition to his instrumental and incidental music, Bowles was very productive as a composer of art songs, having produced in excess of a hundred of them, mostly in the 1940s. Selected songs on this program reveal his broad and varied literary tastes. April Fool Baby, for instance, is composed on the text by Gertrude Stein, an eminent American literary figure and a major influence on the formation of Bowles the writer; Garcia Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Bowles himself as well as an anonymous text are also represented.
The program’s vocal selections also clearly reveal Bowles’s fascination with folk music, most especially North American (Blue Mountain Ballads), Latin American (Mes de Mayo), and Spanish (Cuatro Canciones de Garcia Lorca). Blue Mountain Ballads belongs to his best-known works, in a sense becoming folk music itself as singers performing the songs from this cycle, most especially Cabin, are quite often not even aware of who the composer actually is.
Bowles’s selections on the first half of the program are intermixed with the works by the composers who were especially inspirational to him: Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. The Firebird by the influential Russian composer was the first modern work Bowles ever encountered, igniting his interest in contemporary music and composition. There are unmistakable stylistic connections between the two composers: the instrumentation and, in particular, the trumpet part in Music for a Farce, for instance, bear unambiguous resemblances to those in Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, and the instrumentation of Bowles’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion brings to mind Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Unlike Stravinsky, whom Bowles never met or studied with, Copland was Bowles’s friend, mentor, and thus a decisive musical influence on him. The chronology, however, indicates that the influence may have been mutual. Copland’s Old American Songs, for example, were composed in the 1950s, already after Bowles’s extensive work in this genre in the 1940s.
Opening the second half of the program, Flurries by Kevin Bobo provides compelling evidence that Bowles’s charming musical language and spirit are felt today. Employing inventive rhythms and a wide array of percussion colors, Bobo explores the many visual and sonic characteristics of snow throughout all of the composition’s eight sections. The work was intended as a gift to his wife, Emily, for their tenth anniversary and was premiered in Valencia, Spain, on July 4th, 2009, by a happy coincidence their actual tenth anniversary.
The second half will continue with Night Waltz for piano duo, which is Bowles’s first work composed after his arrival in Tangier, Morocco, in 1947. The geographical change is subtly palpable in the piece, with some elements of Arabic scales, stylistically new to the composer, “oozing” through the otherwise typical Bowlesian idiom, known for its polymeter, folksiness, jazziness and frenchiness.
The concert will conclude with the Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion, the composer’s crowning achievement. It was composed right before his sudden departure to Morocco—in fact, he continued to orchestrate the piece while on the cargo ship to Tangier—and the beginning of his work on The Sheltering Sky. The Concerto, which was later transformed into a version for two pianos and symphony orchestra, is a stylistic microcosm, where a Gamelan-like opening theme in the pianos is stated in counterpoint with a Blues-inflected melody in the winds and French-evoked harmonies and melodic charm co-exist with the vigorous Cuban rhythms of the finale. All of the Concerto’s stylistic elements are woven into a complex polymetric fabric that unifies this cyclical work.
After the conclusion of the concert, all audience members are cordially invited to a reception, where they will get a chance to greet the speaker and musicians.
– Andrey Kasparov
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