Three Songs of Gertrude Stein
Duration: 15 min.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was a pioneering modernist in American literature, though she lived most of her life in France. There she endeavored to create in literature the same objectification and focus on the immediacy of thought that her friend Picasso had created in his Cubist paintings. At times she went even further, making language into a fascinating abstraction where the sounds of the words themselves finally trump meaning. As a composer, I have long been attracted to her musical perspective of language, her use of repetition, and the seeming simplicity of these supposed "difficult" works.
"Tillie," from 1914, is one of many literary portraits that she composed, where she used language not to explicitly describe the subject, but to indirectly suggest a picture in the reader's mind. Though the subject of this prose poem is unknown, we can easily hear the busy-ness of her activities through the rhythms Stein makes of the phrase "Tillie labor." Gradually the words like Tillie's activities transform through delightful puns and wordplay until Tillie finally slows and her "ascent" becomes "assent."
"Cow come out" is a paragraph from a longer nearly abstract poem, "Emp Lace," also from 1914. "A Sonatina" is from the very long poem, "A Sonatina Followed by Another" which she wrote in Vence, France in 1921. According to her friend and collaborator Virgil Thomson, the title refers to her habit of improvising "sonatinas" on the white keys of the piano, though she had no musical training whatever. Though the poem is filled with charming though fleeting images of her stay in southern France, I have extracted bits of the prose that show its lullaby-like mood and which often seem to refer to her life partner, Alice Toklas.