Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 - present), Spring 2003, Volume 2, Issue 1
In the hallowed halls of CUNYs graduate center, I have heard esteemed professor and well-known Gertrude Steiniac, Wayne Koestenbaum, refer to Gertrude Stein as his church. I suggest that she is not only his church, but a church, and I would like to second that emotion but extend the metaphor and determine Steins particular religious denomination. For if Stein is indeed a church, then she is a revivalist tent. Furthermore, her connections to the oral traditions of black folk culture, and by extension to the aesthetic of hip hop, rap, and spoken word today, become apparent in both her search for a truly American sound and in the rhythms and cadences, or in what I characterize as the spittin and backspinnin, of her celebrated libretto Four Saints in Three Acts. I am not suggesting that Steins opera consciously anticipates rap music today, but I am suggesting that draping the hip hop/rap/spoken word aesthetic upon the framework of the piece is a logical next step in re-visioning Four Saints in Three Acts and in understanding the unique convergence of poetry, music, and performance in relation to the black voice that Steins opera represents.
In a cinematic moment in her article Thinking Back Through Our Mothers, Professor Jane Marcus remarks upon Virginia Woolfs unusual way of walking. She writes that Woolfs husband Leonard Woolf described his wifes peculiar walk, how people stared at her; it is the same as Hannah Arendts description of Walter Benjaminsa mixture of advancing and tarrying, one foot in the past and one in the future. Marcus adds that the incandescent death which Bertrand Russell found alight in [Woolfs] novels derives from what Lukacs called transcendental homelessness in the modern novelist (756). As is often the case with writers such as Woolf, who reinvent the text with each piece they write, we must go back to the future in order to understand the work. Such is the case with Gertrude Steins Four Saints in Three Acts—we must go back to the future, to the dominance of spoken word today, in order to understand and deepen our appreciation of the piece. For it is only in Steins future, our present, that Stein readers can discover her vision.
The wide open word landscape of Four Saints in Three Acts allows us to question not only the authority of definition, but also to challenge the very nature of definition. For in Stein, as Wayne Koestenbaum points out in his engaging and informative Stein is Nice, readers experience a slipping away from past definitional fixity (318). After reading the libretto for the first time, which I unintentionally read as a rap from start to finish, I was left with a question of definition: what makes an opera an opera? or for that matter, what makes hip hop, hip hop?
Further blurring the boundaries if not of definition then of convention, Four Saints in Three Acts, which opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut on February 7, 1934, but premiered two weeks later in New York City and in Chicago on November 7th, was performed with an all African-American cast, which led to yet more questions of definition, ones that both Gertrude Stein and her composer Virgil Thomson were determined to answer: what makes an opera, an American opera? Why, for example, would a Jewish lesbian poet and a midwestern American protestant homosexual composer, whose clearly defined mission was to set spoken American language to music (Watson 49), decide to write an opera about Spanish Catholic saints with an all-Black sound? While a definitive answer is unlikely (Steins work precludes definition), we can temporarily take hold of the thread of black folk tradition in Steins other work and her awareness of and attunement to the black voice in general.
Steins search for an American spoken language leads her to what Toni Morrison has referred to as American Africanisma fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that was uniquely American (38). Though she was often characterized, usually justly, but also often over simplistically, as a white elitist, Steins ear, at least, in Four Saints, a Steinian landscape of many Catholic saints in several acts, is black. Furthermore, I believe that her instrument in the libretto, that is, spoken language, creates a more authentic black sound, even more authentic than in Melanctha, Three Lives, in which she consciously tried to achieve a black dialect but with mixed results. Ultimately, what the sounds of the words in Four Saints reveal is that when Stein thinks of American spoken word, she thinks in terms of, as I noted just before, Morrisons American Africanism.
After agreeing to collaborate with Virgil Thomson on an opera, wherein she would write the text and he the music, Stein begins Four Saints in a notebook called Avia in March 1927. Together, they agree on the theme of the working artists life (Watson 42) which Stein interprets in terms of religion and spirituality. According to Steven Watson, in his indispensable Prepare for Saints, Stein believed that the purity of the artists devotion to art reflected the immaculate conditions of the religious life, that genius was analogous to sainthood, and that artists and writers expressed contemporary spirituality before it appeared in the society at large (42). The collaborators earlier abandon the idea of George Washington and American history when Stein decides on Spanish Catholic saints, which she associates with a happy time spent in Spain with Alice B. Toklas in the summer of 1912. The first line of the opera introduces the central figure of Saint Therese, To know to know to love her so, but is an invocation of both Stein and Toklas as well. (N. B. Stein used the French pronunciation Saint Therese and one of her nicknames for Alice in the text, but Thomson needed the third syllable of Teresa for the score). Stein also establishes the figure of Saint Ignatius Loyola to play opposite Saint Therese even though there was no historical relationship between the two saints whatsoever.
Stein refers to her saints and to the opera as a whole always in terms of landscape. In 1934 in Plays, Lectures in America, Stein writes that in Four Saints I made the Saints the landscape. All the saints that I made and I made a number of them because after all a great many pieces of things are in a landscape all these saints together made up my landscape (112). In her letters and notebooks, Stein refers to her work on the opera that later becomes Four Saints as Beginning of Studies for an opera to be sung and in an early draft as a Narrative of Prepare for Saints even though there is no narrative, no plot, and no recognizable meaning to the words, beyond their significance to Gertrude Stein and her inner circle. In Four Saints, Stein asks us Remain to narrate to prepare two saints for saints (FSITA 581), or in other words, stay for the story even though there is none. Yet she declares What happened to-day, a narrative (581), but this melts into another promise, We had intended if it were a pleasant day to go to the country it was a very beautiful day and we carried out our intention (581-582). The reader must decide if she has indeed carried out [her] intention as we move through her landscape of words without moving, at least not in any sequential order until we land upon the last words of the opera Last Act./Which is a fact (612).
The avant-garde musician, John Cage, whose microtonalist pieces have been directly influenced by Stein, once said that he was trying to do with the piano keys what Stein had done with words, that is take all the keys off of the piano, shake them up in a sack and strew them across a landscape that we do not so much move through, as jump about on or step on in order to create sound (Four American Composers). With no sequential plot or narrative thread, what we are left with are two elements that happen to be crucial to hip hop and spoken word todaysound that jumps about and signifiers.
Hip hop culture was originally comprised of three essential componentsgraffiti artists, break dancers, and rap musicians. According to Tricia Rose in her chapter All Aboard the Night Train: Flow, Layering, and Rupture in Postindustrial New York, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect. Hip hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African American and Caribbean history, identity, and community (21). For the purposes of this paper, what I mean when I refer to a hip hop/rap/spoken word aesthetic is the use of words and sounds within the cultural intersection described by Rose.
According to Kelefa Sanneh in Gettin Paid, her article on corporate raps influence on the quality and eloquence of rap lyrics, rap was invented not by rappers but by disk jockeys. In 1973, a Jamaican immigrant in the Bronx who called himself DJ Kool Herc popularized the art of manipulating two turntables at once, so he could repeat his favorite drum patterns over and over. The jumpy music that resulted was given the name hip hop (63). Collaging and sampling, scratching, and backspinning are all components of the rap aesthetic that have surprising parallels in Stein. Collaging is the practice of extending obscure instrumental breaks that create [. . .] an endless collage of peak dance beats named b-beats or break-beats; sampling is a strategy of intertextuality that uses samples from other music genres or other rap songs and reimbeds or layers them into the rap; scratching is a turntable technique that involves playing the record back and forth with your hand by scratching the needle against and then with the groove; backspinning is rapidly spinning [the album] backwards which creates the effect of a record skipping irregularly or a controlled stutter effect (Rose 51 53). Obviously, Gertrude Stein did not enjoy the technology rap artists and DJs do today, yet she achieves a similar effect throughout Four Saints using words and the placement and timing of words to collage, scratch, sample, and backspin just like the rappers of today.
Even when discussing the opera, Stein uses these techniques. In one example, in a radio interview she gave on November 12, 1934, Stein responds to a reporters question about one of the operas most famous lines pigeons on the grass alas. Her answer resonates with the same cadences, rhythms, and repetitions hip hop artists use today to explain the signifiers in their own music depicting the urban landscape of the ghetto. Stein replied to the reporter:
Like many of the rap artists today who cant help but speak in rhyme, Stein often cant help talkin, testifyin, and signifyin verbally in the same way she writes on the page. When another reporter asked her, unfairly, I think, because she often spoke in public the way she wrote, Why dont you speak the way you write? Stein replied, Why dont you read the way I write? Sanneh, reporting for The New Yorker, takes note of this phenomenon of American spoken word and rhyme finding its way into ordinary exchanges when she encounters one of the most famous rappers of the moment, Jay-Zs protégé Beanie Sigel. She writes that Beanie Sigel is a slick talker whose style emphasizes wordplay over plain speech. (He even answered some of my questions in rhyme) (76).
Compare, too, Sigels verse passage below from his first album The Reason with Steins pigeons on the grass alas:
The syllabic repetition and intertwining of sound build from word to word until Sigel, like Stein, is rapping to empty [himself] of emotion. In Sigels case, however, his specific signifiers are not from Paris or Spain or even from Baltimore, Maryland (as we shall see later on, much of Steins original contact with a Black sound takes place there) but from the crack houses of South Philly because, as Sigel explains, Thats where most of my life was written (75). Jay-Zs signifiers derive from the Marcy housing projects in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn and the white rapper Eminems from a trailer park at the end of 8 Mile Road.
Coded language is critical to understanding both a Stein text and most rap songs. As Rose writes referring to rap, Alternative local identities were forged in fashions and language, street names, and [. . .] in neighborhood crews or posses [. . .] the crew, a local source of identity, group affiliation, and support system appears repeatedly [. . .] identity in hip hop is deeply rooted in the specific, the local experience, and ones attachment to and status in a local group or alternative family (34). In addition to Stein, herself, and the central figure of Alice B. Toklas, Steins posse consisted of the many now famous artists, writers, and musicians of Steins inner circle in Paris, and her references and signifiers deal with often ordinary events that only Stein or members of her crew would be privy to.
While Gertrude Stein most likely would not be characterized as a microphone controller, an early epithet for skilled rap artists, she would certainly qualify as a rhyme animal (76), yet another term for a rapper with chops. As I have stated, rap and hip hop employ much of the same rhyming, repetition, spittin, backspinnin, scratchin, collaging, and layering as the modernist text. In Four Saints, Stein both rhymes and creates a rising and falling action throughout her libretto as in the building and climax of the following passage, which comes in between two more prose-like sections about the importance of winter in remembering other seasons:
The climactic building up of sound depends on repetition, rhyme, momentum, and spittin especially the s sounds in the repeated saints. These as well as the seemingly nonsensical words further combine to give the effect of speaking in tongues in the revivalist tradition—were not sure what the words mean, but were feeling the spirit. As Michelle Wallace, author of the feminist classic Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman, wrote to me in an email dated 21 November 2002, rap is the present incarnation of the oral tradition and rap, hip hop and spoken word are consistent features of Afro-American culture and perhaps diasporic culture in general. She continues, one of the great things about folk culture is that it isnt as obsessed with newness as dominant culture so the same wonderful features can continue endlessly from decade to decade and generation to generation. In other words, despite recent trends in gospel, there are still old churches in the South who are singing it as it was sung 100 years ago, more or less. Wallaces points suggest to me, that gospel, then, and the black oral tradition, in general, provide foundational, fertile ground for those who are obsessed with the new, such as Gertrude Stein and rap musicians today.
One of the characteristics of gospel that has carried over from generation to generation into rap today is the congregational call and response technique when one person, usually a preacher, calls out a question and the audience or another single individual responds in kind. Gertrude Stein also employs a call and response technique in Four Saints in Three Acts. Confirming Wallace, Geneva Smitherman points out in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, Both in slavery times and now, the black community places high value on the spoken word (76). She gives an example of the language of call and response in the following preacher-and-congregation exchange:
Here is an example of the call and response technique in a rap track entitled Youthful Expression by A Tribe Called Quest:
And here is Stein writing in Four Saints in Three Acts:
Not only does Stein use call and response here in the black oral tradition, for example, with the call who settles a private life and the response Saint Therese, she also comes very close to replicating black dialect in Nobody visits more than they do visits and in Nobody visits more than they do visits them. Had Stein opted for a conscious try at dialect, writing something like, Nobody visits more than dey do visits dem, I think she would have missed her mark, which is always for Stein, authenticity, creating an authentic American voice. By trimming the direct hit of dialect and opting for the grammatical error, she suggests rather than overstates and is ultimately more successful in retaining the integrity of sound and its authenticity. I also think she does so on purpose because there is not one word on a page of Stein that she doesnt play with. One can almost hear Stein trying the line both ways with dey and dem and they and them and deciding to let the reader read her the way she writes, that is in American spoken language, letting the words and their grouping on the page speak for themselves. A rapper would call the above call and response exchange dropping science, that is achieving something meaningful and profound via wordplay. As the poet Sonia Sanchez writes in her foreward to Bum Rush the Page, rappers and spoken word artists look at the word, splice it, look up at the word and jazz it up, look backwards at the word and decide to disconnect and reconnect it at the end, stretch it, moan it, groan it, peel it, and then finally, redress the world and say, See, this is a poem (xv).
Stein, like rap artists today, also frequently employs the use of homonyms and quasi homonyms. For example, in the excerpt above in As loud as that as allowed as that, she interchanges the use of the words for and four with saints repeatedly throughout the piece, keeping us off balance and in backspin. She achieves a stutter, sputter effect in this is where to be at at water at snow snow show show one one sun and sun snow show and no water no water. And she equivocates, where the word habit shifts in meaning or at least the image of habit shifts, from habit something you do regularly and habit a part of a nuns attire, when she writes, Habits not hourly habits habits not hourly at the time that they made their habits not hourly they made their habits (584). Stein also collages and uses samples from other texts that she reimbeds or layers like rappers into the lyric. In Four Saints, for example, she includes a line from the patriotic anthem America, America out of the blue as if the Spirit of St. Louis, the Enola Gay, flew by and dropped it from above onto her Spanish Catholic landscape. Stein writes:
In scanning, or attempting to scan, a Stein text, we alternate between a cakewalk and a long walk off a short pier. Four Saints opens with To know to know to love her so/Four Saints prepare for saints, an easy iambic tetrameter that is akin to the line length of the strict metric conventions of rap in the early 1980s. As Sanneh writes of rap each line had four beats, with the stress on the second and fourth and each verse was a series of couplets [. . .but] by 1988 the rhyme virtuoso Rakim had stretched the rules with tricky alliteration and run-on lines. Jay-Zs lyrics, on the other hand, sound like everyday speech. He throws in conversational ticsa little laugh in the middle of a line, or a pause, as if he were thinking something throughto heighten the effect (73). Stein, like Jay-Z, does not stay wedded to iambs for long, and pauses, stutter steps, uses conversational tics, and flat out spondees of every day speech perhaps to heighten the effect but also to capture American spoken word.
Naming is also significant in Four Saints and further ties the opera into a hip hop/rap/spoken word aesthetic. In Black Noise, Rose writes that as in many African and Afrodiasporic cultural forms, hip hops prolific self-naming is a form of reinvention and self definition. Koestenbaum likewise argues, In Stein, the central amusement or beauty is often the name, the proper noun that arrives unexplained, uncontextualized [. . .] we are free [. . .] to meditate without the narrator moderating the debate. In Stein the proper name offers respite from dry diction and nonreferentiality [. . .] the context never appears and the name sits solitary on our plate [. . .] in Stein, names canonize, just to be named is to become part of a Parnassian dramatis personae (313). Koestenbaums use of the religious context in terms of naming in Stein is appropriate and uncanny, when applied to Four Saints in Three Acts, a text that was not specifically his topic of discussion. Names in Four Saints function just as Koestenbaum suggests in order to deify and canonize. The proper names in Steins libretto are all canonical or meant to convey ecclesiastical authority by being accompanied by the honorific Saint as in the following list of both historical and invented saints:
Steins work has been associated with black oral tradition and folk culture before, but usually in terms of criticism for exploitation and racism. Aldon L. Nielsen wonders in Steins portrait Melanctha in Three Lives if Steins reinscription of white imaginings of black speech, her orthographic display of racial difference, simply fall back upon itself, othering itself while at the same time further immuring black speaking subjectivities in the tar baby of white discourse (7). The African-American poet Melvin B. Tolson noted that Gertrude Steins judgment that the Negro suffers from Nothingness revealed her profound ignorance of African cultures (qtd. in Nielsen). Nielsen also argues that African American authors have attended carefully to the revolutions marked in American poetics by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, but [have] also learned from black American music in ways that they [Stein and Williams] never could, for they never really listened (212).
Carla L. Peterson, head of Black Studies at the University of Maryland, however, suggests otherwise and warns against reductionist tendencies in evaluating Stein whether in terms of her literary contributions or in terms of race. She writes that we need to avoid the caricaturing of Stein as a white supremacist guilty of offensive racial stereotyping (145). Peterson explains that race can no longer be viewed as a biological construct, since human genetic variability between races is no greater than that within a given race, and [that. . .] the term race is often used to describe what are in fact ethnic experienceshistorically acquiredof blacks in the United States. Rather, she continues race must be seen as an ideological construct conditioned by social, cultural, and historical factors (144).
According to Raymond Williams in The Politics of Modernism, Stein created a deliberate running-together, cross-fertilization, even integration of what had been hitherto seen as different arts, aspir[ing] to develop language towards the condition of music, or towards the immediacy and presence of visual imagery or performance (9). In other words, though Stein is appropriating a black sound, especially in Three Lives, she is not doing so in a vacuum or for the purposes of exploitation, even though she no doubt harbored and expressed the racist views of the times. I would further suggest that in Four Saints, Stein has come even closer to her goal as described by Williams above of achieving a deliberate running-together and a cross-fertilization of sound, visual imagery and performance. As Peterson explains, the symbolic value that Americans place on blackness points to a complex racial borderland where blood lines are often blurred and cultural traditions merged, and she suggests that African American critics need [. . .] to analyze the ways in which this borderland gestures toward a shared culture but also reaffirms existing hierarchies and power relations (144). Though Stein as a white elitist and political conservative undoubtedly occupies a dominant position in the existing hierarchy, she also exists along the edges of a complex racial borderland as she single mindedly, one might say even relentlessly, focuses on words and how they sound on the page.
Peterson specifically locates Steins knowledge and appreciation of the black oral tradition in her early years in Baltimore, Maryland. Peterson points out the diverse immigrant populations in the neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland, where Gertrude Stein lived from 1892 to 1893 with her aunt and uncle and later with her brother Leo and friend Emma Lootz, from 1897 to early 1902 while she attended Johns Hopkins Medical School. As Peterson notes, These residences were not far from the black middle-class neighborhood of West Biddle Street beyond which lay the Biddle alley district; and the Hopkins medical school was located in the middle of another poor black area through which Stein was obliged to pass in order to reach the hospital (142). She further points out that [m]usical history indicates that Baltimore was a central site for the development of African-American musical culture at the turn of the century. Although Stein nowhere makes specific reference to this music, both the external evidence provided by her proximity to black neighborhoods and the internal evidence of her prose suggest her acute awareness of it (145). She is, of course, writing in reference to Melanctha, but it is an insight that I extend to Four Saints.
I am arguing further that Thomsons revelation to use an all-Black cast in Four Saints is more than mere coincidence or simply a byproduct of the times in which a disaffected generation, a lost generation, turns to typical racial stereotypes or even updated racial stereotypes for solace. Thomsons journey begins with Steins text and the black sound and tradition built into her words. The goal in writing Four Saints was to set spoken American language to music, but by the time decisions are being made in the early 1930s for casting, Stein is in agreement regarding an all-black voice, but wary of exploiting the black body. She writes to Thomson:
But Thomson reassures her that the performers would be covered and properly attired by avant-garde artist Florine Stettheimers long, flowing cellophane robes, cowl necks, hats and gloves. In the course of the production, Stettheimer became concerned that the actors varying shades of brown skin might prove distracting. She initially suggested that the faces in the chorus be painted white or silver to create greater uniformity of color (Bloemink 193). Stettheimers idea, however, is vetoed although eventually the choristers consented to cover their faces with a tannish-brown stage makeup (193).
A racist discourse is certainly in evidence here, but it is also important to note that Thomson was one of the first composers to view the black voice as articulate and that Stein agreed. As Watson notes, Thomson and Stein offer fairly unsurprising variations on the tendency of the day to see black Americans as exotic others (202). However, Thomsons idea and their decision also exploded racial stereotypes, for he proposed that black performers sing opera to a white audience in a white venue, and he wanted them to play roles unrelated to black life (202).
The musical setting in which Thomson has his epiphany is in dispute. Thomson claimed he was at the Hot-Cha, a blues club in Harlem where Billie Holiday was discovered. Carl Van Vechten, Steins publicist and promoter in America, a well-known supporter of black music and black causes, and a key player in the operas production, however, remembers Thomson at a performance of the gospel musical Run Little Chillun at Broadways Lyric Theater. In both instances, his reaction is nearly identical. At the Hot-Cha, Thomson said that the singer was singing so clearly and I could understand everything he said. He wasnt just vocalizing and adding a few consonants here and there, he was singing the words (199). Van Vechten remembers that Thomson said, They alone possess the dignity and poise, the lack of self-consciousness that proper interpretation of the opera demands. They have the rich, resonant voices essential to the singing of my music and the clear enunciation required to deliver Gertrudes text (200). Like Stein, Thomson shares an appreciation of black folk and religious musical traditions, whether blues, gospel, the coon songs of Baltimore (Peterson 146), or tent revivalist songs. Seven years before his revelation, as Watson notes, after visiting a Kansas City Negro tent revival meeting, [Thomson] had written:
Words and language are priorities in Thomsons understanding of musical style, form, and direction. Furthermore, the Stein-Thomson collaboration and the creative process of the opera in general were unique. Unlike many collaborations in which the librettist and composer work together, back and forth, intermittently revising words to phrases of music and vice versa, in the Stein-Thomson collaboration, Stein finished the libretto and handed it off to Thomson to write the music. With the exception of a few minor alterations and the addition of the third syllable in Theresa, Thomson crafted the sound to Steins words. Stein did not return to her writing desk to revise according to Thomsons sound.
When Thomson received the libretto, he was alone with her words and his own musical traditions in his head. As Watson writes, With Steins words unmoored from syntactical meaning, Thomsons compositional architecture [. . .] animated the text and provided shape, climaxes, and stretches of run-along patterns (50). However, as we have seen, the climaxes and run-along patterns were already built into the text and even the word landscape, though devoid of narrative, has architectural shape in its proselike lines presenting themselves in between climaxes and in stage directions such as repeat first act. I think that Thomson would agree, for in those early days of composing with Steins text upon his music stand, he saw his job as wanting to eliminate friction. He wrote, I dont mean that her writing lacks music; I mean that it likes music (qtd. in Watson 51) because when Stein is writing she is hearing a black voice, attempting to capture this truly American sound. The very fact that Stein might see black words and rhythms as the most real, the most authentically American is interesting in itself. No doubt, her status as an expatriot and a lesbian contributed to her identification with the group Rose defines as alienated, marginalized, oppressed.
Had hip hop existed when Thomson read Steins libretto for the first time, I believe he would have been rapping the night away with perhaps a few bedrock segues into blues and revivalist tent songs, for he would want to show the entire spectrum of the black oral folk tradition and performance that Steins opera represents. Though Steins work is permanently grounded in the continuous present which she finds sufficiently occupying, she would have heartily embraced raps new sound and claimed in her deep, full, velvety voicethe one Toklas once said sounded like two voices, (Autobiography)—that raps motto to keep it real is exactly what she had been writing about all along.
Keep it real, Baby Woojums, keep it real.