From an idea to a performance to a tour

Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose – Homage to Gertrude Stein

Touring 4 – 9 July supported by Sound and Music


In late 2011 I received a message from Elisabeth Harnik suggesting that we create a performance together for 2012 International Women’s Day celebrations at Kulturpension Prenning in Styria and that perhaps the collaboration could be inspired by a female writer’s work. She proposed the ensemble and after we all enthusiastically responded we set about choosing a writer. Vienna-based actress/vocalist Gina Mattiello had already performed ‘Solo for Voice’, a suite written by Harnik using various Gertrude Stein texts and so, as time to devise the performance was going to be extremely limited, we all agreed on Stein.

“Now listen! Can’t you see that when the language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? He could say “O moon,” “O sea,” “O love” and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just worn-out literary words? The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them; they were just rather stale literary words. Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language. We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality to the noun. Now it’s not enough to be bizarre; the strangeness in the sentence structure has to come from the poetic gift, too. That’s why it’s doubly hard to be a poet in a late age.” Extract from a speech Stein gave in the 1930s at the University of Chicago.

Something within me thrills with ‘Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being’ and as a composer primarily of free and structured improvised music, perhaps the phrase and speech resonate particularly strongly. Much of Stein’s writing is extraordinarily rhythmic and playful using much repetition and it has a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ about it. We felt immediately at home with this style which was just as well, as beyond a few email discussions we had only 2 days in real life together to devise the performance (punctuated by much laughter, much food and much schnapps) and then the audience would arrive. The decision to use live cooking within the performance took place very early on in our discussions about the structure and material. Firstly because the 4 of us enjoy eating good food in good company and secondly, because we all particularly enjoy eating food cooked by and in the company of visual artist, painter, occasional bassist and excellent human being, Heidi Richter. If we needed a more artistic reason, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a must read for any Stein fan and we use several excerpts from this book in terms of literal text but also as the ‘scores’ (recipes) for the live cooking. Written by Stein’s partner Toklas and sharing a very similar style to ‘An Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’ (written by Stein in the guise of Toklas), this book is full of mouth-watering recipes along with stories of their realisations and artist consumers. Toklas was the main cook in the household and she clearly employed ingenuity and flair in the kitchen:

On the day when Picasso was to lunch with us I decorated a fish in a way that I thought would amuse him. I chose a fine striped bass and cooked it according to a theory of my grandmother who had no experience in cooking and who rarely saw her kitchen but who had endless theories about cooking as well as about many other things. [extract from The Alice B.Toklas Cookbook]

‘Rose…’ opens with an extract of a recording of Stein reading from her own work “The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress” and the recording fades out with:

  “Very many can go on living remembering that family living is existing. Very many are living and are remembering that family living can go on existing. Very many can go on living remembering that family living can go on existing.”

The performance duration is 60 minutes and the structure is clearly defined by the prepared order of the extracts of text and written music and their interrelation with Richter’s pre-defined cooking activities. ‘Rose…’ draws on Stein and Toklas text, both sung and in spoken word primarily declaimed by Mattiello and myself (frequently in counterpoint), live cooking sounds, composed elements from Harnik’s ‘Solo for Voice’ reworked to include cooking sounds, violin and piano. The vitality of the performance relies on the strength of the ensemble’s improvisation skills and the four of us relish in this.

Do we suppose that all she knows is that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. [Operas and Plays by Gertrude Stein]

The first performance was enthusiastically received by an audience largely new to contemporary art music – no doubt the delicious aromas contributed to the audience’s warm reception and the appreciation may have also been deepened by the knowledge that afterwards they would get to eat the food described in the performance. I should mention that Richter had been making behind-the-scenes cooking preparations for the 2 days prior to the performance, a huge amount of work.

Although we were all full of positive feelings about future performances, somehow the next performance didn’t happen for several years. This is something many will likely relate to – each artist involved in ‘Rose…’ has a full life nurturing many projects and interests and it’s a constant juggling act, attending to them all. At the time of the first performance, I felt that the likelihood of my ever being able to invite the group to perform in England was very slim, arts funding here being by comparison very scarce and much more competitively fought for. However, Sound and Music put out another call for touring support applications and I decided to apply on behalf of this project as it seemed the only manageable and possible way to bring ‘Rose…’ to England.

Very fortunately, ‘Rose…’ was one of the selected and it’s finally happening this summer. Putting the tour dates together has been no mean feat. We needed the ok from venues/presenters to use electric cooking surfaces in performance and we need a piano (a REAL piano). And we needed the dates all to fit neatly together so that my Austrian-based colleagues could do the tour in one trip. To cut many stories short, we have a really inspiring tour ahead with 5 dates, each in a really unique environment. We’ll start in Leytonstone as part of Leytonstone Festival with a lunchtime concert on the 4th July. That’ll mean going to buy the sea bass and other fresh ingredients early in the morning. The 4th happens to be a national strike day and one of the organisers remarked that he thought ‘Rose…’ was a suitably anarchic event to mark this (well done Leytonstone Festival). The following day we travel to Sophie’s Barn, a beautiful little venue with a grand piano near Banbury in Oxfordshire. We’ll be traveling in a hired car and our driver is a moonlighting dancer/movement artist who will be doubling and trebling as our sound and visual recording engineer for the tour. After the evening performance we’ll drive to our accommodation. Where this will be is still to be confirmed (any offers to accommodate 5 the evening of the 5th are most welcome). The following day we’ll travel to Aldeburgh in Suffolk where we have the pleasure of playing in the home/venue of an ardent Stein fan who will cook Toklas recipes for the audience to enjoy after the performance. Then we travel North on a non-performance day followed by our next tour date at Settle Victoria Hall in North Yorkshire. This venue is an old music hall with an adventurous programming attitude (the director is a Stein fan too), it’s not far from where I grew up and where my family still live. Performing with collaborations and projects close to where I grew up is a very special prospect for me as most of my main performing activities happen outside of the UK and it feels significant to have artistic opportunities close to some roots – this only started happening 2 years ago. From Settle we will travel to Ulverston Parish Rooms in Cumbria for our final performance on the 9th hosted by Cumbria’s sound arts and new music organisation, the wonderful Octopus Collective. It’ll be my 3rd consecutive year presenting work with OC in my home county and I’m really happy about bringing ‘Rose…’ to them and to a Cumbrian audience.

There’s still much to do in tour preparations. The poster and flyer promo are in design progress and the website is just about ready for public consumption – please check it out www.rose-homage-gertrude-stein.com. I hope that the next time I write here about the tour I will be able to share a short promo video with you and tell you that I found 2 bargain waist-height transportable tables and a brilliant electric fish cooker. Oh, and a spacious, comfortable and within-budget 5-seater vehicle.


She would carve on the tree rose is a rose is a rose is a rose until it went all the way around.

Alison Blunt


[All italic texts in the above article quote Gertrude Stein]