Composer Anthony Gatto releases his radio opera setting of Gertrude Stein's "The Making of Americans," a reworking of his original opera premiered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2008. Fusing aspects of minimalism, experimentalism, and a keen instinct for setting Stein's quixotic prose, Gatto has created a unique presentation for a work whose fundamental and poignantly relevant question is uttered early in the opening scene, "What is a normal American?"
Part I. Progress of American Families (Medley)
|01||What is a normal American?|
What is a normal American?
|02||Family living can be existing|
Family living can be existing
|03||Every one who ever was or is or will be living|
Every one who ever was or is or will be living
Part II. The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning & Alfred Hersland & Episodes of Martha Hersland
|04||David Hersland’s Song for Julia; Each kind of them|
David Hersland’s Song for Julia; Each kind of them
|05||Once an angry man; Repeating is what I am loving|
Once an angry man; Repeating is what I am loving
|06||I like loving, sometimes.|
I like loving, sometimes.
Part III. The Funeral of David Hersland
|07||If any one is sad enough|
If any one is sad enough
|08||Sharp knives and sharp scissors; Not many are knowing|
Sharp knives and sharp scissors; Not many are knowing
|09||Some were very pleased; When he was a young one|
Some were very pleased; When he was a young one
|10||Changing is existing.|
Changing is existing.
|11||He was not one who had been one fighting.|
He was not one who had been one fighting.
Part IV. History of a Family’s Progress
|12||Family living can go on existing.|
Family living can go on existing.
|13||Any one has come to be a dead one.|
Any one has come to be a dead one.
|14||Some are not believing; Very many are remembering|
Some are not believing; Very many are remembering
‘Soon now there will be a history of every one who ever was or is or will be living.’ (Stein)
Stein’s 1930s recorded readings from the novel perform the role of the Narrator in the opera. She embarks on the romance of recognizing "Every one who ever was or is or will be living"—Track 3. What if there were such a story of utter inclusivity in America? "A history of every kind of men and every kind of women and every way any one can think about them.” If her aspirations were ever fully realized somehow— the universal recognition of every one—there would be a great reckoning to behold.” - Anthony Gatto
Gatto’s musical setting for Stein’s The Making of Americans is appropriately eclectic, embracing diverse sound sources and stylistic approaches as threads in the multi-colored quilt that is America. Propulsive minimalism, ethereal vocals evoking church motets and liturgical singing, stately choral passages in the strings, Ivesian layered harmonic progressions, electronic jump cuts, and glitchy effects combine to create a visceral paean to a troubled history. In this “radio opera” context Gatto’s use of repetitive fragments of text read by Stein points in several directions. It is consistent with traditional operatic librettos, in which arias are often long on repeated text and short on plot development (saved for the recitative). One also hears the influence of text based electro-acoustic works in the vein of Different Trains by Steve Reich, wherein the spoken fragments serve the function both of providing semantic context as well as becoming an additional sonic element in the musical fabric. Lastly, it establishes a multi-dimensional narrative structure where Stein provides framing while the listener is brought in and out of the main story, a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of two American families.
The dynamic first movement serves as a template for Gatto’s eclectic approach. Accented verticalities in the strings function as a call to attention introducing Stein’s quasi-rhetorical questions —“What is a normal American?” Exuberant moto perpetuo material segues into disembodied vocals saturated in delays; a new narrative voice is introduced and is interwoven with choral passages and processed vocals over ethereal sustained chords. A pulsing heartbeat can be heard behind jagged proclamations of the text, “I like loving, sometimes,” and “everyone is a brute to someone,” before Stein reappears briefly and Gatto closes the movement with an expansive, triumphant chorus with a tonal chord progression that is nevertheless misaligned, ecstatically layering different functional harmonies over each other at once. Gatto’s penchant for repetition organized within a collage texture fits Stein’s circular rhetoric while also establishing a heterogeneous chaos that captures something of the promise, and the unruliness, of America.
– D. Lippel
Mixed by Christopher Botta and Anthony Gatto
Mastered by Christopher Botta
Minneapolis recording by Reid Kruger
Excerpted recordings of Gertrude Stein readings from The Making of Americans, and an Interview (1934)
Special thanks to Chris Larson for the album art from his work Crush Collision.
Thanks for generous support from Philip Bither and the Walker Art Center, Yaddo, Fundacion Valparaiso, the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for Arts, City University of New York Professional Staff Congress
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Anthony Gatto has developed a diverse body of music, often informed by literary and visual arts, exploring alternative narrative modes and structures. His cross-media works include the music and libretto for Wise Blood, after the novel Flannery O'Connor. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Wise Blood (2015) presents the shattered war veteran Hazel Motes preaching the Church Without Christ from the hood of his car. Also commissioned by the Walker Art Center, his opera The Making of Americans (2008), based on the novel by Gertrude Stein, presents Stein's spectacular, universalist language celebrating generations of American families.
Anthony studied music privately with Ornette Coleman in the 80s, later founding The Festival Dancing in Your Head, dedicated to his music and influences. He completed a doctorate in composition at the Yale School of Music in 2001, and has received fellowships and awards from the Fulbright Scholar Program (Berlin), New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Meet the Composer, Inc, an ASCAP Grant to Young Composers; residency fellowships at Yaddo, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Aaron Copland House, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Willapa Bay Artist-in-Residence program. He is an Associate Professor of Music at City University of New York.
The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is Gertrude Stein’s modernist 1925 novel, actually finished many years earlier. It traces the genealogy, history and psychological development of the fictional Redfern and Hersland families. In a March 1934 review in The Capital Times, the unidentified critic made these comments:
The style is confusing until you get used to it. The words and sentence structures are simple enough yet the odd phrasing and unique combinations of words, the driving repetitions are upsetting to a reader who is accustomed to having things move along in the orthodox fashion.
Yet if you have patience to stick with it, you’ll begin to realize that by this method Gertrude Stein is able to give the reader a sense of human relationships and emotions which are ordinarily intangible and almost impossible to characterize in straightforward prose.
Here, American composer Anthony Gatto (b. 1962) attempts to reconcile Stein’s odd prose forms with music, as Virgil Thomson had done in the 1940s with Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All. I happen to like the latter more than the former, but even in that case the listening experience is unnerving, not just because of Stein’s odd prose style but because several characters are singing all at the same time and their lines have different words.
By creating his own libretto from Stein’s novel, Gatto has tried to rectify this by picking and choosing what he wanted from the novel, alternating spoken words with singing. His style, in this work at least, combines mid-20th-century American, not to dissimilar from Thomson’s, with modern-sounding “soft rock” beats. These are not as annoying as one might think, largely because Gatto sustains a lyric line above it as other singers indulge in group rhythmic singing.
Stein’s minimalist sort of word repetition falls easily into this musical pattern, but although the singers portraying the various characters are all identified, there seems to be no identification in the booklet for the female narrator of “Every one who ever was or is or will be living.” Not that it makes a huge difference, but still, an identification would have been nice. I swear that I hear a countertenor (ugh!) in the ensemble, but what the hey, it’s Gatto’s opera. At least he’s not desecrating Handel or Bach.
The novel is broken down into scenes as follows:
Part I: Progress of American Families
Part II: The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland
Part III: The Funeral of David Hersland
Part IV: History of a Family’s Progress
The music continues to morph and change as we move from scene to scene. Happily, most (but not all) of the singers have good diction, so that following the libretto isn’t terribly difficult. Gatto’s musical building blocks are often edgy but not always, and except for the passages in which several characters are speaking or singing against one another, not terribly difficult for the ear to follow. If you like The Mother of us All, you should like this as much if not more. If you don’t like The Mother of us All or Gertrude Stein in general, you’ll either like it but have difficulty or not like it at all. Except for the hooty countertenor who sings the role of David Hersland, I liked all of the singers.
Since the accompaniment consists of a string quartet and Zeitgeist, a quartet consisting of a bass clarinet, pianist and two percussionists, the instrumental textures are clear and unmuddied. This also aids in hearing the various strands of the music. One of the most atonal and rapidly-moving sections is section 10, “Changing is existing.”
This is an extremely interesting work and certainly worth hearing. I came down against keeping it because there was just too much countertenor for me.
— Lynn Bayley, 7.27.2020