A review of Radio Free Stein, a critical sound project on Gertrude Stein's dramatic works, directed by Adam J. Frank
Radio Free Stein
Adam J. Frank, The University of British Columbia
John F. Barber, Washington State University Vancouver
Adam J. Frank
Radio Free Stein is a large-scale critical sound project that renders ten of Gertrude Stein's lesser-known plays in the medium of recorded sound. The project's goals are to advance the study and understanding of Stein’s dramatic works and to locate and examine her poetics in relation to 20th- and 21st-century North American musical composition. It poses a series of related questions: How can we understand the remarkable influence of Stein's "landscape" poetics on avant-garde, experimental, and other non-naturalist theater, especially music theater after John Cage? How do Stein's poetics address the relation between dramatic form and 20th-century institutions and technologies of broadcasting media, as these seek to regulate affective experience? And what can a literary critic say about these famously difficult, experimental texts after undergoing the process of staging them sonically?
A widely collaborative project, Radio Free Stein has involved multiple forms of expertise, those of scholars and poets, composers and musicians, actors and directors, and sound artists and technicians in Vancouver, Montréal, New York City, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris. The project website, designed by Parker McLean in 2013, using a customized WordPress template, hosts audio and video recordings, background and bibliography, critical writing, and information about the project participants. The website also documents the production process, which begins with a brainstorming workshop on a given Stein play to which I invite a composer and several good readers of Stein. This is followed by the creation of a libretto or script based on the play, the composition of a musical setting, performance workshops when necessary, and finally a studio recording or recorded theatrical performance.
We have held four staged performances associated with the project including Daniel Thomas Davis' SIX.TWENTY.OUTRAGEOUS: Three Gertrude Stein Plays in the Shape of an Opera, performed for three nights in February 2018 at Symphony Space in New York City. Based on the experiences of sonically staging Stein, I develop critical writing (presentations, articles, book chapters) and am currently preparing a book manuscript titled Radio Free Stein (Boxed Set). While the project moves between different venues (online, theater presentation, lecture, print), the digital audio recordings remain at its core.
The audiences for this project are multiple: it offers resources to poets, theater artists, and composers working in the avant-garde, experimental, or contemporary traditions; researchers and teachers including scholars and critics of Stein, of modernism, of 20th-century music, and of non-naturalist theater; students of any of these disciplines and research areas; and members of a general public for whom Stein continues to be a vital figure. The project has been used in university classrooms.
Major support for this project has come from a multi-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada's (2013-19). Additional funders, supporters, and collaborators include: the Hampton Foundation at the University of British Columbia, American Opera Projects, Symphony Space, the Paris Institute for Advanced Study, the Dedalus Ensemble, and the GMEA - National Center of Musical Creation of Albi-Tarn.
John F. Barber
Radio Free Stein is a critical project by Adam Frank that stages lesser known plays by Gertrude Stein in the medium of recorded sound for the purpose of "letting Stein’s writing make as much (and as many different kinds of) sense as it may, especially musical sense," as the project notes. Based at the University of British Columbia, the project and its website provide access to original audio recordings, liner notes on productions, interpretations of the plays, and other resources on Gertrude Stein and sound.
Simply stated, Radio Free Stein is a new and compelling resource for researchers, scholars, teachers, students, artists, and composers—and anyone to whom Stein’s writing is vital.
Ten plays by Stein are presented at this stage of the project, including: What Happened (1913), Stein’s first; He Said It (1915), one of Stein’s earliest conversation plays; White Wine, an early Stein play for five women; For the Country Entirely (1922), another early conversation play; An Exercise in Analysis (1917), an analysis of the competitive and collaborative relations among the four voices; Photograph (1920), written when Stein turned her attention to cinema and photography; Captain Walter Arnold (1916), a brief conversation between intimates; The Psychology of Nations, or What Are You Looking At (1922), descriptions of a post war celebration in Paris and a young boy who takes part in a presidential election; and Short Sentences (1932), more than 450 names followed by a short sentence each.
As noted earlier, the objective of this project is letting Stein’s plays make sense, especially musical sense. Each play is produced with precision. Introductions are brief and to the point, yet accessible for those either knowledgeable about Stein’s body of work or discovering it for the first time. Many are accompanied by musical or electronic instrumentation. The recordings vary in length from approximately 20 to 60 minutes. All provide delightful listening. In many instances, especially when the play involves multiple voices, this listening is akin to experiencing vocal music. All feature the opportunity to read the play in facsimile of its original publication and listen to one or more recordings of voice actors speaking the parts. A boon is the inclusion of facsimiles of Stein’s original writing for White Wine.
All this accessibility rests on a bedrock of scholarship and publication, which is appropriately and thoroughly documented. The information regarding production history and broadcast performances is also robust, well-written, and completely cited.
The project is disseminated through a WordPress website designed by Parker Iain Design, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The design is uncluttered, straightforward, and does not interfere with the content. Menu links are kept to a minimum, but each leads to significant information regarding the project. Typography, color palette, and contrast all work to refine and heighten the reading and listening experience. The website design, both conceptual and visual, demonstrates well how digital features and affordances can enhance the communication and consumption of humanities research and scholarship.
In his discussion of the lead up to this project, Adam Frank notes, the project draws on his teaching of Stein and her works and his collaborative work on musical melodrama, a genre that combines spoken word with music to maintain an equivalence between verbal and musical registers. The result is a study in group psychology as Frank and his collaborators seek to understand Stein’s lesser known plays. This result, says Frank, is both enjoyable and fundamentally frustrating, as most collaborations generally tend to be. Those who experience Radio Free Stein will benefit from their work and should have a rewarding experience, both in terms of learning about these lesser known works of a significant modern writer and in listening to these plays as artfully presented vocal musical performances.