Most people familiar with Paul Bowles, born on Long Island in 1910, know him through his short stories and novels — The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider’s House — or through the Bernardo Bertolucci movie version of The Sheltering Sky. Relatively few are acquainted with his music or even know that he composes. A marvelous recording by the Eos Ensemble a few years ago and a three-day festival of Bowles’ music in New York in 1995, which he attended, brought attention to Bowles the composer.
Migrations is a disc that should further promote interest in his uncategorizable music. There are elements of French influence, namely Satie and Poulenc, as well as jazz and Mexican and North African folk music contributing to Bowles’ extremely varied style.
The HCD Ensemble, which met with Bowles while preparing this program, performs his music with élan and a freedom of spirit that typifies Bowles’ music. The structureless but cohesive Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion, which the composer likens to "a monkey swinging from one tree to another," is performed with swaggering panache. The changing meters and jerky, syncopated rhythms present no distractions to either the pianists or the ensemble. The lively Scherzo is particularly well executed.
The Sonata for Flute and Piano, reminiscent of Poulenc and Milhaud, has a Gallic flavor, as well as a mischievous bent that isn’t lost on the performers. "Music for a Farce" was written originally as incidental music for one of Orson Welles’ scrapped Broadway productions. The 1938 score is Chaplinesque in its wacky frivolity, in sharp contrast to the austere, ambiguous Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet.
Music from two 1993 theatrical productions — Euripides’ Hippolytos and Oscar Wilde’s Salome — shows that Bowles’ muse is still intact. Composed for synthesizer, these pieces were arranged by the HCD Ensemble to include other instruments, with the composer’s blessing.
Less interesting and more abstract are the "Scenes d’Anabase," sung dramatically if a little reedily by tenor Martyn Hill. "Night Waltz" is a colorful evocation of the nocturnal sounds of Tangier, which Bowles has called home since the late 1940s.
This is an invigorating program, performed with conviction and an ingratiating sense of mirth.