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CD Review

Paul Bowles

Catalyst 90926-68409
  • Pastorela: First Suite
  • Suite for Small Orchestra
  • Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
  • The Wind Remains
  • Secret Words (arr. And orch. by Jonathan Sheffer)
Alan Feinberg & Leslie Stifelman, pianos
Kurt Ollmann, baritone
Carl Halvorson, tenor
Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano
Eos Ensemble/Jonathan Sheffer
Catalyst 90926-68409-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The pleasures of poetry.

I suppose most know Paul Bowles now, if at all, as a novelist. The Sheltering Sky became a cult movie of a cult book. However, Bowles turned to fiction pretty late. Even as a kid, he had written music for "orchestras" of pans, bottles, kazoos, and what was handy. Aaron Copland cited him as a young composer to watch in one of his now-classic surveys of American music. Bowles had a personal idiom from the get-go - tonal, with much in common with French neo-classicists like Milhaud and Poulenc - yet speaking in a personal voice. It's elegant music (not a lot of notes), rhythmically lively, and seems to scintillate. The music doesn't "develop" beyond the variations of songs or dances but mainly presents one crisp idea after another. Bowles makes no attempt for the Big Transcendent Statement. This music has the sharpness and clarity of a tart white wine.

The composer Bowles stood to a large extent in the shadow of the novelist. I've never been a big fan of Bowles's fiction, since I find it simultaneously overripe and uninvolving, but the music is as winning as a big wide grin.

Pastorela comes out of a trip Bowles made to Mexico. You can detect a bit of Copland here and there, particularly in the Latin-Americanisms, not surprising since Bowles studied briefly with Copland, but without the long architectural reach of the older composer. This hasn't the arch of El Salón Mexico. Furthermore, the "Copland" element never really becomes more than a hint. Bowles really remains his own man. It may even be the case that Bowles influences Copland in this respect.

The Suite for Small Orchestra comes from Bowles's period of study with Copland. Bowles conceived of a "Palm Court" symphony - that is, a symphony based on the kind of music hotel bands used to play at teas. Bowles resisted most formal study and, despite Copland's prodding to produce a "real" symphony or at least something on a larger scale, came up instead with three short dance-like movements - a blink of Brucknerian time, at any rate. What interests me about it is the odd, almost surreal, emotional landscape it inhabits. It sounds like the score to a de Chirico - rhythms regular as a timepiece, and a dash of bitters in the harmony.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is the most ambitious Bowles piece I've heard. The duo-piano team of Gold and Fizdale commissioned it, as well as several other of Bowles's major works, including Scénes d'Anabase and the Picnic Cantata. In the first two movements, the orchestra is largely percussion, and the idiom stems from Balinese gamelan, bright and glittering, although given certain jazzy twists. The meat of the concerto comes in the Andante third movement - certainly among the longest sustained pieces in Bowles's catalogue. It's a beautiful, yearning melody, with affinities to Forties' big-band ballads. The soloists have more to do than the orchestra, but I can't say that they dominate. It's not the traditional "competition" music. It celebrates the group, not the hero. The finale romps, living up to its title, "Galop." To me, Bowles could have called it "Children's Games," since much of the material reminds me strongly of the kids' teasing chant, "nyah nah-nah nyah nyah."

Bowles conceived of The Wind Remains as a zarzuela, a Spanish form of operetta. William Saroyan provided the original libretto, but Bowles chucked it out in favor of a mystifying poem by Lorca, which Bowles arranged into scenes. The lack of narrative apparently didn't bother Bowles, who conceived of a surreal chain of events, à la Dali and Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Bowles remarked, apparently well satisfied, "It meant nothing and went nowhere." But of course the mind resists meaninglessness. I think a strong case can be made for a "plot" of trying and failing to recapture lost love, myself. At any rate, the music, strange and delicate, moves a listener, just as the mere sound of Lorca's words do. The music seems to stem from voice over guitar - single winds sing most often to the accompaniment of the harp. Tiny bells make sweet accent. I have no idea what it all means, but I love the exquisitely tender sadness of its sounds.

In Secret Words, Jonathan Sheffer has taken independent songs for voice and piano and not only orchestrated them, but arranged them pretty heavily. I happen to like the daring and imagination in the arrangements, but if you've heard any of these songs before, Sheffer may surprise or perhaps shock you. I think it all works.

The performers are certainly professional, but they're more than that. They commit to this somewhat reticent - or at least modest - music while they resist the urge to inflate it. Consequently, you get Bowles's aesthetic with no apologies. The thing of it is, you may very well find yourself enchanted. Feinberg and Stifelman play with verve, although the music doesn't exist to spotlight them. Halvorson hasn't a large voice, but he sings well and with brains. Lucy Schaufer I consider a bright new find - a sweet lyrical soprano. She'd make a fine Liu. Kurt Ollmann brings up comparisons with the late, great Donald Gramm, a champion of this repertory, and, what's more, can stand the comparison. As for Sheffer, I can't praise him enough. He really does manage to get inside this music, which I think tends to resist the normal effort to "make meaning." Bowles's music to some extent reminds me of a hurdy-gurdy: "expression" really doesn't enter into it. And yet, Sheffer shows that the music, though quiet, is indeed expressive. My only complaint comes from the tempo of "Once a Lady Was Here" (from the Six Songs): too quick. The piano part moves as stately as a Bach aria, and a slower tempo gives you time to savor the words.

Recorded sound is excellent without coming from Fantasyland.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz

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