Paul Bowles’ A Picnic Cantata premiered 70 years ago, but this 30-minute work for four voices was never published. And New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) has been presenting it since the early 1990s, but didn’t get around to recording it until 2017.
Apparently it took still another five years for that recording to be released. And now, in 2023, I’ve got it in my hands. Well, in my computer’s external CD drive – because yes, I still listen to CDs, and yes, music in certain genres, like classical, jazz, and whatever you call A Picnic Cantata – modern classical, art songs – is still voluminously released on those not-very-charming but pleasingly sturdy plastic discs.
That’s a long way of getting around to my point: I feel justified in not having had a chance to listen to it until now. I’m glad I did.
Ketchup and a Car
Two sopranos, two mezzo-soprano/altos, two pianos and a bit of percussion comprise the palette Bowles took up to set the words of poet James Schuyler back in 1953. Hyper-real to the edge of absurdity, the story is served up in the title – a picnic. A gathering of friends. A Car. A magic picnic basket that contains “a roll of lemon rind / steak and chips / a T-bone fish / Milady’s Blintzes with white wine sauce / and a pound of Child’s creamoginized chocolates.” Not to mention “five kinds of pie.” And “We can’t go on a picnic / without ketchup and a car.” So true.
But there’s peril afoot: “In our search for order / the way is dangerous.”
Irony, slice-of-life, camp, realism, a dollop of the surreal – all contribute to the libretto’s wry style. The music suggests Poulenc, perhaps at a turn-of-the-20th-century salon at the Princess de Polignac’s, but spun through a loom decorated by Jackson Pollock. And the talent assembled on this recording splashes joyfully into the spirit of this weird but artistically cogent and appealing curiosity.
“How quick we came / from where we were,” the picnickers trill in the final movement as they prepare to return from their outing. “Look at the outline / of the city. / No wonder our lives / have their ups and downs.”
A Repast for the Ear
Duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale commissioned A Picnic Cantata in the first place. So no one could be better suited to revive and perpetuate it than NYFOS, with co-founders Steven Blier and Michael Barrett on the keyboards and their usual excellent cast of singers.
Bowles’ reputation as a writer was eclipsing his composing mojo by the time he wrote this music; he and Schuyler never collaborated again. A Picnic Cantata stands alone – so much of its time, yet in some ways sui generis and thus timeless too. I got a big kick out of it.