Anthony Gatto’s “The Making of Americans”

cover FCR265

GATTO: The Making of Americans: A Radio Opera / Anna Dagmar, voc (Martha as a child); Pamela Stein, sop (Julia Dehning); Rachel Calloway, mezzo (Julia’s mother); Elizabeth Munn, mezzo (Martha Redfern); David Echeland, ctr-ten (David Hersland); Michael Mueller, ten (Alfred Hersland); Bradley Greenwald, ten (Old Man); JACK String Quartet; Zeitgeist; David Pinkard, cond . New Focus Recordings FCR265

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:[1]

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

  1. What is a normal American?
  2. Family living can be existing.
  3. Every one who ever was or is or will be living.

Part II: The Marriage and Divorce of Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland

  1. David Hersland’s song for Julia.
  2. Once an angry man dragged his father.
  3. I like loving, sometimes (The Divorce of Julia and Alfred)

Part III: The Funeral of David Hersland

  1. If any one is sad enough.
  2. Sharp knives and sharp scissors.
  3. Some were very pleased.
  4. Changing is existing.
  5. He was not one who had been one fighting.

Part IV: History of a Family’s Progress

  1. Family living can go on existing.
  2. Any one has come to be a dead one. Any one.
  3. Some are not believing that any other one can really be only doing the thing that other one is doing. No. Not every one is doing something that any family living is needing.

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.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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