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.
But classical music of the contemporary kind is where I want to start, with two related CDs from composer Anthony Gatto on the New Focus Recordings label, The Making of Americans and Wise Blood, the former from Gertrude Stein’s writing and the latter from Flannery O’Connor’s. These are excellent new operas with a multimedia quality—all sound, but instead of trying to replace a staged or concert opera performance, these pieces were made for the recording medium. They use spatial design, multiple production techniques, samples of spoken word (including Stein) and other non-musical audio. The voices are positioned at different heights and depths in the stereo field and that delivers a greater feeling of dialogue than usually heard in opera recordings. Gatto is also skillful with all sorts of musical styles, like a great soundtrack composer, and the music not only moves easily through minimalism, rock, gospel, and brass pieces, but represents and underscores character in exactly the way that makes opera different from musical theater. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the characters and how the music itself can sustain and develop the drama.
— George Grella, 12.15.2020
Narrative music needn’t be conventionally staged to be effective. The earliest radio dramas, including such musically extended ones as Hindemith’s Sabinchen, predate musique concrète by a good two decades, initiating a lineage taken up spectacularly by Anthony Gatto in these two works, which were conceived as a kind of installation (in the case of Wise Blood, premiered as such in 2015 at the Walker Art Center) and as a stage work later converted into a radio opera (in the case of The Making of Americans).
Wise Blood is adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, whose action begins on a train with a number of flash-forwards, then settles into a small, post-WW2 Tennessee town whose demons are many and easily roused. Gotto uses a mix of spoken and sung texts to represent the web of dysfunctional relationships—kind of a hyper-personalized, non-linear concept of music theater that owes more to Einstein on the Beach than to conventional opera. The Making of Americans, presented here in its later form as a fixed-media piece, is based on Gertrude Stein’s modernist novel, and features contributions from Zeitgeist, the JACK String Quartet, several vocal soloists, and the recorded voice of Stein herself.
— Michael Schell, 1.02.2021
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
When was the last time you were able to attend an opera where the libretto was by Gertrude Stein? Well, here you can ALMOST achieve that. Composer Anthony Gatto has taken Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans and dissected it, interspersing her written words with recordings of her speaking them. Indeed, this entire radio opera version of the full work (an effective condensation of Gatto’s original opera premiered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2008) begins with a recording of Gertrude Stein responding to a question about whether her work could be adequately digested by the minds of “normal Americans.” We hear Stein’s voice setting the stage for this whole musical and philosophical journey, saying “What is a normal American?” The opera is a patchwork of scenarios, with sections that bluntly address moments that so many go through, like Part II, ‘The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland,’ which contains pieces like ‘Time to have a husband’ and ‘I like loving, sometimes.’ Gatto’s work is sometimes bright and catchy, music that deserves to be written about in uppercase, bold letters in a huge font. Other moments are soft and atmospheric — more to be absorbed than an aural space to interact with. It is music that is thick enough, pithy enough, and moves around enough, that it deserves and perhaps demands to be heard several times. In this piece, Gatto throws his weight behind Gertrude’s words, giving an even stronger case for both the everyday value AND the artistic profundity of her convictions and ideas. A big round of applause to JACK, Zeitgeist, David Pinkard, and Anthony Gatto for this exciting rendition of such an important and entertaining work.
— Stephanie Boyd, 11.15.2020
“What us a normal American?”: we hear the narrator, the recorded voice of Gertrude Stein herself, ask. This is a magnificent “radio opera version” of Anthony Gatto’s piece. All the text comes from the novel by Stein, fashioned into a libretto by Gatto himself. The grainy recording of Stein’s voice contrasts with the crystal clarity of the sounds we hear from the two groups (the JACK string quartet and the group Zeitgeist, comprising two percussionists, bass clarinet, and piano).
Dividing the piece into four parts (“Progress of American Families”; “The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning & Alfred Hersland & Episodes of Martha Hersland”; “The Funeral of David Hersland”; “History of a Family’s Progress”), Gatto creates a collage that seems to reflect the Modernist, and often repetitive, nature of Stein’s writing. With Pamela Stein in fabulous voice as Julia Dehning (the end of the second part is magnificent), and the unearthly, somewhat discomfiting sound of David Echelard’s countertenor as David Hersland, Gatto’s score gets its best possible presentation.
Stein’s writing is fabulously modern to this day, and Gatto’s response seeks to do Stein’s literary discourse justice via a number of techniques, from Minimalism (“If anyone is sad enough”) to collage. Most of all, and this is the crucial point, it is as vibrant as Stein’s texts. Just as Stein still feels modern, so one might suggest that Gatto’s score has the potential to remain fresh. Gatto manages to portray the central emotions with brilliant accuracy, nowhere more so than in the trudge of “The Funeral of David Hersland.” The repetitions of the first part of the final part, “Family living can be existing” takes on a positively ritualistic feel. The late morphing of voices into something closer to electronica, or even some sort of imagined pipe organ, is remarkable.
The JACK Quartet is in top form: listen to the visceral intensity to their contributions to the “I like living, sometimes” section (the final section of Part II) while the Zeitgeist ensemble members (Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd, percussionists; Patrick O’Keefe, bass clarinet; and Shannon Wettstein, piano) offer razor-sharp contributions. Just as Stein’s prose is novel, disorienting and spellbinding, so is this score and, indeed, the performance. The recording is brilliantly present, which only underlines the immediacy of the invention; indeed, the entire enterprise seems to overflow with invention. Very definitely shortlisted for my next Want List (it is way too early to offer any guarantees for inclusion), this is a moving experience that will live on for a long time in my memory. Don’t miss it. There is something of a mystery as to why there is not more music by Gatto in the catalog.
Fanfare has reviewed but one piece (Lucky Dreams, on a multi-composer disc In Bone-Colored Light on the Innova label in 24:4), and his Sabbath Lily Furst Song from the opera Wise Blood based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor appears on The Nyfa Collection, Volume Two (again Innova). His doctorate from Yale dates from 2001; he was also a private student of Ornette Coleman from 1986 to 1988, and has also been taught by Lukas Foss. The opera The Making of Americans was commissioned by Walker Arts Center and premiered in December 2008; this “radio opera” recording is based on 2019 revisions by the composer.
— Colin Clarke, 11.15.2020
The New York-based composer Anthony Gatto has simultaneously released two chamber operas, this one being a modernized version of the radio operas known to an older generation before the advent of television. (Elsewhere I review Gatto’s other opera, Wise Blood, from the Flannery O’Connor novel.) The genre is intimate and typically story-driven. However, in the case of Gertrude Stein’s 1925 novel The Making of Americans, story is a loosely applied term. Gatto, who wrote both the music and libretto, has found a contemporary way to convey Stein’s baffling experimental prose. The opera’s musical style has elements of a Philip Glass Minimalist opera, a Laurie Anderson song album, and a downtown happening that Andy Warhol might have presided over with Sphinx-like blankness.
For Stein fans, however, this work is a musical milestone and very accomplished in the hybrid idioms Gatto mashes up. At the center of the performance is a recording that Stein made, reading excerpts from The Making of Americans in a flat drone that has its own peculiar appeal. The aim of the book is only hinted at in its subtitle, “Being a History of a Family’s Progress.” There are actually two families, the Herslands and the Dehnings, which appear to be based on Stein’s own family and neighbors in Oakland, California. She began her novel in 1903, the year she moved to Paris, and finished it in 1908. (The late publication date coincides with a small edition released by an adventurous publisher in Paris.)
The two families are united by the marriage of Julia Dehning to Alfred Hersland, and the events that follow, such as their divorce and a funeral, hold no particular interest. They provide the scaffolding for Stein’s quixotic purpose, to record from every angle, with subtle variations, the entire lives of every person—or as she prophetically puts it, “Soon now there will be a history of every one who ever was or is or will be living.” As an expansion of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame that is supposed to come to everyone, Stein’s genealogical ambition is staggering. She thought of herself as the greatest American writer, and in some ways she seized upon Walt Whitman’s panoramic persona and gave it a Modernist twist. But as seriously as Gatto treats her words, I wonder if the “progress” made by these families isn’t thinly disguised mockery. The same applies to the supposed theme of the book, “What is a normal American?” I imagine she felt as much contempt for normal Americans as H. L. Mencken did when he named them the booboisie. Stein’s version of Jabberwocky can be mesmerizing, for a while. “Family living can go on existing. Very many are remembering this thing, are remembering that family living can go on existing.”
That her repetitive, opaque prose can be entertaining on the opera stage was proved by Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts from 1928, where the air of singing at home around a harmonium in the parlor fit astonishingly well to a libretto that was serenely Dada. There was no repeat success in 1947 with Thomson’s more ambitious suffragette opera, also based on Stein, The Mother of Us All. I don’t know the work, but Gatto has obviously undertaken a daunting task, all the more because, unlike Thomson, he employs avant-garde gestures, electronic doctoring, and multi-layered voices.
Overall, if you immerse yourself in the music as a mixed media happening, The Making of Americans is often diverting, even when only a fraction of the text is intelligible. The Minimalist influence is felt in simple diatonic harmonies; there’s more than a hint of Thomson’s use of hymn-like chorales. When the overlays are simplified to one singer or Stein’s recording, the performance is quite accessible. The 14 tracks are specifically cued to the text, and there is a libretto with synopsis that clarifies the action taking place. The skillful instrumentalists consist of two ensembles, the JACK string quartet and another foursome, Zeitgeist, on percussion, bass clarinet, and piano. About the vocalists I am less certain, because Gatto might be calling upon specific techniques, but I hear some out of tune singing and a good bit of shrieking. In this sonic mélange those things matter much less than in a conventional piece, I suppose. Conductor David Pinkard deserves respect for keeping everything together and in synch with a taped Stein.
The booklet tells us that this recording is a reworking of the original opera premiered in 2008 at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. I recommend online sampling of tracks at the New Focus website, because Gatto’s creation, it must be said, requires sophisticated and patient listeners. The collage of singing and narration that he has devised is striking and often compelling, but Stein’s writing remains after all these decades an acquired taste.
— Huntley Dent, 11.15.2020
This is a very singular work. And it needs to be. Gatto plainly relishes adapting unadaptably individual and complex literature into performance pieces - see also "Wise Blood" elsewhere in this catalogue. The Making of Americans is a radio opera based on Gertrude Stein's enormous, widely deemed impenetrable to the point of unreadability, act of self-psychoanalysis masquerading as a modernist novel. The opera, like the novel, ostensibly following the fortunes of two families, and there is indeed aria-like material - soliloquies and impassioned dialogues, some extended and somberly beautiful - for these characters, but the dominant voice, as it is in the book, is that of Stein in recorded readings and interview material. The instrumental material consists of largely consonant, slow post-minimalistic chord progressions, and the recorded voice is presented in edited cut-ups and fold-ins, while the sung material and its accompaniment suggests the emotionally overwrought conventions of opera, except that consisting of brief unconnected fragments of dialogue, they entirely avoid presenting any kind of narrative. Stein's habit of repetition (Rose is a rose is a rose) turns up so often that it almost becomes a character in the drama. The whole, with its recording studio techniques, edits, loops and overdubs, is very listenable and approachable, but presents a completely different kind of listening experience to any conventional opera.
— David Pinkard, 8.15.2020
This student of Ornette Coleman who got a doctorate from Yale and is well known in arts council circles has crafted a radio opera based on a Gertrude Stein literary classic rounded out with narration by Stein herself from ancient tapes she made. A timely revisit to a desperate time in America, this work will stand high in these times as well. Amazing creativity throughout, this is not a set to be taken lightly. Listeners who appreciate the gravitas here will be amply rewarded.
— Chris Spector, 8.25.2020