Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Gertrude Stein, the Great Great Grand MF of Rap?: Four Saints in Three Acts and the Hip Hop/Rap/Spoken Word Aesthetic

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Gertrude Stein, the Great Great Grand MF of Rap?: Four Saints in Three Acts and the Hip Hop/Rap/Spoken Word Aesthetic

Article excerpt

In the hallowed halls of CUNY's 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 Stein's 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 Stein's 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 Stein's opera represents.

In a cinematic moment in her article "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers," Professor Jane Marcus remarks upon Virginia Woolf's unusual way of walking. She writes that Woolf's husband "Leonard Woolf described his wife's peculiar walk, how people stared at her; it is the same as Hannah Arendt's description of Walter Benjamin's--a 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 [Woolf's] novels derives from what Lukacs called 'transcendental homelessness' in the modern novelist" (75-6). 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 Stein's 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 Stein's 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 (Stein's work precludes definition), we can temporarily take hold of the thread of black folk tradition in Stein's other work and her awareness of and attunement to the black voice in general.

Stein's search for an "American spoken language" leads her to what Toni Morrison has referred to as "American Africanism--a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that was uniquely American" (38). …

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