I first saw the name “Paul Bowles” in an old Schirmer anthology of songs for voice and piano by American composers. I picked up his song “The cabin“, which packed in a scarce two pages and lasting perhaps 2 minutes, a secret tale of seduction and doom, a short and powerful text by American playwright Tennessee Williams, which begins like this:
The cabin was cozy
And hollyhocks grew
Bright by the door
Till his whisper crept through.
He packed a punch in those two pages…I used it for my entrance exams for conservatory, and then again as an introduction song when I was a fellow at the Sapporo Music Festival in Japan many years ago . When I finished singing it, the pianist Michael Barrett who was on faculty that year at the Festival (he is one of the founders of Festival of Song) gave me a big kiss and whispered, “I love Paul Bowles”. Still knew nothing about the man…probably a couple of years later I read his novel Sheltering Sky, as well as watching the movie of the same title. It wasn’t after many years later that I started reading up on this composer, probably one of America’s most original composers, and finally learned and performed the cycle from which his miniature “Cabin” came from, Blue Mountain Ballads. When I was helping to program a concert called “Americans in Paris” with the chamber music group New Music New York, my research found Mr. Bowles squarely in the Left Bank crowd in the 20’s, a favorite of Gertrude Stein and a student of Nadia Boulanger. We programmed his quaint setting to a Gertrude Stein postcard he received, “My dear Freddy“. Around this time I acquired the William Sharp’s CD of songs by American composers. Both scores and recordings of Bowles songs were somewhat hard to come by in the early 2000’s. I fell in love with Sharp’s delivery of the Bowles tunes, which where a mixture of pop, jazz and a whole lot of irreverence…but always with fabulous text setting with the words…which reveals a man of interesting and very particular taste of literature, almost exclusively contemporaries and friends.
I fashioned a small group of songs by American composers of the 40’s and 50’s, in which I included Otto Luening’s “Love’s Secret”, Theodore Chanler’s “The Rose”, John Edmund’s “Pastorale” and Bowles’ “Sugar in the Cane”. This group and era, in which Bowles is included, is scarcely acknowledged by many recitalists today. On the Thomas Hampson Foundation site however, Bowles and his songs are firmly in place, acknowledged and part of their database.
It was then with great pleasure that I attended today a recital devoted to songs by Paul Bowles, presented by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn in the Ft. Greene section of Brooklyn. Soprano Carole Blankenship and tenor Chad Kranak and pianist/musicologist Irene Herrmann presented us with a recital for voice and piano entitled Paul Bowles: A Musical Portrait. The afternoon began with Two Piano Miniatures (“Prelude” and “Sarabande”). Ms. Herrmann related to the public her first encounter with Bowles in 1992. The program was cleverly arranged by style and era, beginning with a group called Songs in the Popular Idiom (“A little closer please”,”Of the Things I Love” and “Lowlands”). The following group was called Folksongs, which were songs arranged by Bowles when he was sent out by the WPA (who knew!!!) to collect American folks tunes, which he wonderfully arranged, giving them an artful piano accompaniment. These could easily grace any classical recital (“Boatmen’s Dance”, “The Mary Golden Tree”, “I went to See my Love”, “Creole Song”). Soprano Carole Blankenship shared presenting duties with Irene, telling us about Bowles WPA years, and that the New York Public Library had copies of these charming songs.
A wonderful set followed called “Songs with texts by Gertrude Stein” (“The Ford”, “Red Faces”, “Letter to Freddy”, “April Fool Baby”). ” April Fool Baby”, one of my favorites was sung by Chad Kranak. Carole explained the disjointed setting and rhythms of the word, and their hoped for humorous effect by Bowles. We then got a second listen of the song.
Carol and Irene have brought to fruition a new edition of the settings of Federico Garcia Lorca’s text by Bowles, Cuatro Canciones de Garcia Lorca, now available thru Classical Vocal Reprints. Carole sang these delicate Lorca song settings, which veered between Bowles jazz, almost 1930’s honky tonk piano style with overtones of impressionism; his “Balada Amarilla” would schizophrenically go back in forth between honk- tonk piano and Andalusian rhythms! Its an intriguing set that will prove to be interesting for the enterprising and adventurous recitalist. I enjoyed hearing the history of the songs: how when Bowles was living in Mexico and hanging out with the composer Silvestre Revueltas, he was introduced to Lorca’s works. Shortly thereafter, he had Lorca’s sister as a neighbor, and he asked her for some of his poems to set. Carole Blankenship’s well modulated light soprano was an excellent match with the delicate song settings, which due to their aesthetic, are firmly in the “art song” pile of Bowles songs…so many of his songs (as evidenced in this program) are an ambivalent (but very cool!) combination of popular, folk and musical theatre, yet firmly in the area of an avant-garde musical style of “classical song” of the 30’s and 40’s. Original, fresh and often humorous, Bowles is an American original…
The recital was interspersed with anecdote and quotes, which really brought us into a closer and more visceral contact with Paul Bowles, his life, thought, aesthetic and company that he kept.
Chad Kranak’s tenor voice was generous and ample, as he coloured and interpreted “Lonesome Man”, eliciting chuckles from the audience; I thought his “Letter to Freddy” was especially memorable as well as his heartfelt interpretation of “Farther from Heart”.
The afternoon was brought to a close with Bowles’ last composition, “My love was light”, which is dated 1984 and is dedicated to Aaron Copland.
Among the friends, family and fans in attendance was tenor Paul Sperry, one of the Dean’s of the American Art Song genre; he was on hand to congratulate and give his pointers and opinions as well as heartfelt congratulations to the artists.