Petr Kotik; Many Many Women

Cover photo: Zoe Leonard: Untitled (1990/95)

Petr Kotik (1942) – MANY MANY WOMEN (5-LP-box in 1981 on Labor Records) (3-CD box on Dog W/A Bone in 2000)
Text: Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)

Gertrude Stein

The S.E.M. Ensemble:
Sopranos: Dora Ohrenstein & Lois Winter
Countertenor & tenor: William Zukof & William Lyon Lee
Baritone & bass: Elliot Levine & Albert de Ruiter
Flutes: Petr Kotik & Susan Sperl
Clarinets: Salvatore Andolina & Deborah Ann Ungaro
Trombones: James Kasprowicz & Lon Gormley

Dog W/A Bone DWAB 03.
Durations: CD1: 73:01. CD2: 68:45. CD3: 72:37.

The Royal burial mounds at Old Uppsala, Sweden

I have a strong personal relationship with this work. I was completely absorbed by it the first time I heard it. It was in May 1993 at Old Uppsala in Sweden, at a friend’s cottage, situated just by the three great royal grave mounds from ancient times – about 1500 years ago - that affect the landscape in a mythic, magical way, as they rise out of the flatlands like three mighty chords out of history. The place has gathered significance and meaning during all those years, so that it is now charged with a current that will affect anybody who visits. I felt it when I stayed three days at my friend’s cottage.
I flipped through my friend’s collection of music, and happened upon an LP with excerpts from Petr Kotik’s
Many Many Women. The cover itself startled me, and halted my flipping. I took the LP out of the cover and lowered the needle… and wow! I was captured, seized… enlightened!
These almost sacral, sifting, layered progressions of hypnotic sound webs and spiraling sentences in those holy, charged surroundings, elevated me in a hovering, shimmering vision, in which the ancient and the contemporary merged like the two pictures of a double vision slowly coming together in one clear expression. It was a musical, emotional and philosophical revelation to exist inside the web of
Many Many Women.

The S.E.M. Ensemble in the Vanguard Studio
during the recording of Many Many Women
March 17th 1980
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

I copied the excerpt LP onto a cassette and kept playing it now and then over the next few years.
When I connected to the Internet in 1996, one of the first things I did was to ask about the complete set of
Many Many Women in a newsgroup. I was startled when I immediately got a reply from someone in the States who gave me Petr Kotik’s address in Brooklyn. I wrote him – or emailed him; I can’t remember – and he replied right away that he had a few copies left, and that I could by the set from him. He gave me a sensationally low price, and I sent him the money and got the LP-box.

The original LP box of Many Many Women on Labor Records
(Cover design: Charles Clough)

I borrowed a high-end record player from a friend and transferred the LPs to DAT.
A few years later I got my first CD-burner, an expensive stand-alone machine, and immediately transferred
Many Many Women from DAT to CD.

Dora Ohrenstein & Lois Winter
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

In the meantime I was in regular contact with Petr Kotik about a possible future commercial CD release of the piece, and as the years went by I got the message from Petr that a new label, founded by the Paula Cooper GalleryDog W/A Bone – would indeed release Many Many Women… and here I am, writing a review.
However, as soon as I got the set on CD from The Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 2000 I produced a radio program on the domestic Swedish music and culture channel P2. I had to keep it down to one hour, but it was aired, anyway, and Petr had given me advice on which part would be the best to use for an excerpt of the excerpt… for the 3 hour and 35 minute CD release in the triple box is indeed an excerpt of the original 6-hour performance.

William Zukof & William Lyon Lee
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

Merging with Many Many Women is a matter of adaptation, from the regular speed and fractionalism of daily life to a kind of active meditation. It takes a while for most people to slow down to the kind of mental atmosphere that lets this music flow and live and rise to mighty proportions inside you. The process of entering is not unlike the adaptive phases you go through on a hike in the northern mountains of Sweden, or any extended hike in wilderness areas. On mountain hikes I have experienced that I manage to merge with the active stillness of nature after a couple of days of hiking, but after that I feel at one with the wind, the streams and the mountains, being able just to breathe and see, breathe and exist, without interferences of all kinds.

Albert de Ruiter & Elliot Levine
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

I suggest this approach to this music, which bestows rich rewards on the patient listener who takes time to hike through the score and to attune himself and his energies to the vibrant energies of Many Many Women, as would he attune himself to the tempi of mountains, clouds and glaciers...

Petr Kotik & Susan Sperl
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

A couple of excerpts from Gertrude Stein's text may serve as excamples of the kind of beads of words that she uses in Many Many Women:

Anyone is one having been one, anyone is such a one; anyone having been that one, is one remembering something of such a thing, is one remembering having been that one; each one having been one, is being one having been that one, each one having been one, is remembering something of this thing, is remembering something of having been that one…

Gertrude Stein

She had this thing, she had loving children, she had one, he did not live to be going on being living, she was not expecting him to be one not going on being living, she was one not succeeding in living, she was a sad enough one…

Those are the kind of spiraling, mirroring sentences that move like shifting strata through the 3 hours and 35 minutes’ excerpt of the 6-hour piece on this triple CD… and the music of the ensemble move in the same strutting, tripping, stopping-starting kind of manner, allowing for long pauses, long silences, broken by singers or musicians or by both, as the texture of the music densifies or thins out, in a slow breathing throughout the work.

Deborah Ann Ungaro & Salvatore Andolina
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

The combination of these intricate, absentminded, verbal incantations of Gertrude Stein with the translucent instrumentation of Petr Kotik in the trance-like performance by The S.E.M. Ensemble is hypnotic, leveling the listener out in a weightless soaring of perception.

There is no use in trying to label this composition. It is indeed an artwork completely unto itself, as time goes by gaining recognition as one of the most original and important musical works of the 20th century.
Some analogies have been suggested, as one has referred to Guillaume de Machaut’s (1300 – 1377)
La Messe de Nostre Dame and Igor Stravinsky’s sacral works and to… John Cage.
All these referrals are but approximations, which, however lead to a large, lofty space of a cathedral-like structure where a kind of timelessness is breathing, slowly and unhurriedly evolving out of the music of Petr Kotik and the complex, stubborn lingual weaving of Gertrude Stein.

Lon Gormley & James Kasprowicz
(Photo: Blaise Tobia)

The vocal & instrumental ensemble, divided into 6 groups of 2 instrumentalists or singers, performs 173 different segments independently of each other.

The sounding result of this construction may be received as a kind of spiritual experience; an acoustic rite of sorts, as the music moves on spider legs through the space-time continuum.

Kotik comments on his music by stating that he tries to attain simplicity and clarity. In this piece he has worked individually with each instrumental and vocal voice, combining them horizontally. Each of those voices becomes a layer in the composition, but bear in mind that all the participants appear in pairs, so that in reality there are 6 voices; instrumental and vocal, according to the setting provided above, and indicated by each of the pictures of the participants.

Gertrude Stein’s text is of course crucial to the hypnotic effect of the piece. She had many original and distinctive ideas for her texts. In a work called
The Making of Americans she strived to describe every thinkable kind of woman and man, but she extended her ambition in her never finished A Long Gay Book, where she set out not only to describe every possible human, but also each possible couple, trio, quartet, quintet and each possible crowd! As accessories or appendixes to A Long Gay Book, Gertrude Stein wrote several shorter books, of which Many Many Women is one, describing the nature, characters and situations of an assortment of women, in long, minimal, lightly varied text layers.

The composed segments in Petr Kotik’s score for Stein’s text are of varied durations; some extended, some very short.
The sections are dispersed more or less evenly between the 6 couples of performers. All the couples go through their segments chronologically, but insert pauses of different lengths between the sections. Some pauses may be very long, and one may come and go at will in this music, which the composer also clearly states. This also applies to the performers, who may need to visit the bathroom or have something to eat during a 6-hour performance, or take a strengthening and refreshing walk outside.
It is in fact very seldom that all of the 12 performers are in action at the same time during this recording, which is more translucent and transparent than dense and compact, even though the structure fluctuates in a breathing manner.

Many Many Women is an atmosphere, an austere landscape, a big-sky spaciousness, an intricate but transparent web of rising and descending musical and lingual morphemes, a gradually setting state of intense bliss…