My KPFA - A Historical Footnote


Four saints


three acts


If it were possible to kill five thousand chinamen

by pressing a button would it be done?


Saint Teresa not interested.


During the afternoon of May 25, 1947, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, while twiddling the radio dial in my father’s study, I encountered some of the strangest music I had ever heard. Voices and instruments combined in chant-like melodic lines, accompanied by harmonies as simple as the hymns I had sung for most of my sixteen years. The words, however, were a dream-like flow of free association that seemed to vacillate between sense and ambiguous fantasy.


I listened spellbound, caught up in a world of surreal splendor—it was like going to church on another planet. At the end the announcer told us that we’d been listening to Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera with music by Virgil Thompson and words by Gertrude Stein. I didn’t recognize the composer but Gertrude Stein was a familiar name—both Time and Life had run features on America’s favorite crazy poet.


A dozen years later, in thearchives of the UC Berkeley Music Library, I discovered a set of home-cut 78s on which someone had recorded, off the air, the very broadcast I had heard over a decade before and a continent-width away. It had been accomplished on two disk-cutters so as not to lose any of the music during the change-over time. The machines were of uneven quality and ran at different speeds, but every note was there, together with the on-air continuity.


What a find! With my state-of-the-art Gerrard 301 turntable and Ampex 601 tape recorder I set about transferring them to magnetic tape and editing out the overlaps. There was typical leak-through from adjacent AM channels and the alternate sides were almost half a tone different in pitch, but every note was there! A couple of years later I presented the recording in my KPFA program, Treasury of the 78s, and the unique performance went out once again over the airwaves.




All that was well over half a century ago. The tape disappeared into one of my bulging boxes—until yesterday. I’ve searched the internet and find no record of another copy of that performance that’s publicly available. I've now put it up on this website and am listening off the internet as I write. Thanks to digital technology, here's another surviving fragment of aesthetic history!


Act 1

Act 2

Act 3


The text is HERE


A Blessed miracle! A sound restorer named Don Rice heard this on my website, plucked it out of the ether, corrected the pitch discrepancy, removed most of the scratches and has given the whole performance an immediacy that takes me back to my father's study all those decades ago. My thanks to a fellow sound nut who has helped to bring this priceless document back to life.


5 Aug 2013