USA Stories was completed in 1998 and premiered by Cantori New York, directed by Mark Shapiro. Since then it has been performed by a great number of professional and amateur choral groups across the U.S. and Europe.
The three sections of USA Stories , “Adagio Dancer”, “Art and Isadora”, and “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” are based on texts borrowed from The Big Money, the third novel in John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A.
Dos Passos’s prose style in these portraits of Rudolph Valentino, Isadora Duncan, and the Wright Brothers, like other portraits which appear throughout the trilogy, is characterized by long sentences and irregular rhythms, witty alliterations and colloquialisms. As a former rock musician, I found them appealingly close to the spirit of pop lyrics, but of course without being lyrics at all. (The edited passages are listed below. Words between brackets  are sung at the same time as other passages.) Dos Passos’s portraits of these three famous personalities represent, for me at least, three strands in American culture: in Isadora Duncan the tradition of “high art” (her snubbing of it itself a part of that tradition); in Valentino popular culture writ large – capricious, ephemeral, ultimately cruel; in the Wright Brothers, the promise of American progress, a blend of science, utility, and risk.
Cantori New York Mark Shapiro, director
Rodolfo Guglielmi wanted to make good. A born tango dancer, he took the name of Rudolph Valentino.
*[Waving hands autograph books tailored dress suits]
[Lazy, handsome, good tempered and vain he got his chance in The Four Horsemen.
Stucco villas, tiger skins and silk robes, limousines, night clubs and fine horses]
He wanted to make good in the bright lights. He wanted to make good in the glare of million dollar search lights. He wanted to make good.
He married his old partner, married the daughter of a millionaire, went into lawsuits with producers. The Tribune called him a pink powderpuff. It broke his heart.
He broke down. Doctors. Ether. Hospital swamped with calls. Corridors were filled with flowers. Crowds filled streets outside. Peritonitis. He was only thirty one when he died.
[He lay in state. Casket covered. A cloth of gold. Undertakers.]
[Tens of thousands men women and children. Hundreds trampled masses stampeded. Chapel gutted traffic tied up Broadway. Women fainted got into view the poor body of Rudolph Valentino]
[Many notables attended the funeral.]
[America’s sweetheart sobbing bitterly in a small black straw with a black band. Black bow behind in black georgette followed. Coffin covered by a blanket of pink roses. The funeral train left for Hollywood.]
Shipped off to America, to sink or swim (Rodolfo Guglielmi) the family was through with him. To sink or swim, a born tango dancer. Women thought he was a darling, lazy, handsome, good tempered and vain. The Sheik made good.
Art and Isadora
In San Francisco in eighteen hundred seventy eight Mrs. Isadora O’Gorman Duncan, a high-spirited lady with a taste for the piano set about divorcing her husband, the prominent Mr. Duncan. The whole thing made her so nervous she declared to her children she couldn’t keep anything on her stomach except a little champagne and oysters.
Into a world of gaslit boarding houses, ruined southern belles and basques and bustles, she bore a daughter who she names after herself, Isadora. Mrs. Duncan turned into an atheist, the Duncans were always in debt, the rent was always due. The Duncans weren’t Catholic anymore or Presbyterian, Quaker or Baptist. They were artists.
Isadora had green eyes, reddish hair, a beautiful neck and arms. She could not afford lessons in conventional dancing so she made up dances on her own. She went to New York in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the family followed her they rented a big room in Carnegie Hall, put mattresses in the corner and invented the first Greenwich Village studio.
They were always one jump ahead of the sheriff, they were always standing the landlady up for the rent. When the Hotel Windsor burned they lost everything they owned and sailed for London to escape the materialism of their native America. In London they discovered the Greeks.
Under the smoky chimneypots of London they danced in muslin tunics, they copied poses from Greek vases, went to lectures, art galleries and plays. Whenever they were put out of their lodgings Isadora led them to best hotel and sent the waiters scurrying for lobsters, champagne and fruit out of season. London liked her gall, her lusty American innocence, her California accent.
One day she picked up a good looking young mechanic who drove a Bugatti racer. She made him take her out for a ride. Her friends did not want her to go but she insisted. The mechanic put his car in gear and started. She got in beside him and turned back and said: “Adieu mes amis, je vais a la gloire.”
The Campers at Kitty Hawk
On December seventeenth nineteen hundred and three Bishop Wright of the United Brethren received a telegram from his boys Wilbur and Orville, who’d gotten it into their heads to spend their vacation in a little camp out on the dunes of the North Carolina coast with a homemade glider they’d knocked together themselves. The telegram read: SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING AGAINST TWENTY ONE MILE WIND STARTED FROM ENGINE POWER ALONE.
The figures were a little wrong but the fact remains a couple of young bicycle mechanics from Dayton Ohio had designed and flown for the first time ever a practical airplane.
In those days flying machines were the big laugh of all the crackerbarrel philosophers. They were practical mechanics; when they needed anything they built it themselves.
They hit on Kitty Hawk on the great dunes and sandy banks that stretch south to Hatteras seaward. Overhead the gulls and swooping terns, fishhawks and cranes flapping across the salt marshes.
They were alone there and figured out the loose sand was as soft as anything they could find to fall in, taking off again and again from Kill Devil Hill they learned to fly.
Aeronautics became the sport of the day, congratulated by the czar, crown prince, the King of Italy, King Edward for universal peace.
[Taking off again and again they learned to fly. In the rush of new names the Brothers Wright passed from the headlines: Bleriot, Farman, Curtiss, Ferber, Esnault, Petrie, Delagrange can blur the memory of the chilly December day two shivering bicycle mechanics first felt their homemade contraption soar into the air, above the dunes of Kitty Hawk.]
[“I released the wire that held the machine to the track. The machine started forward into the wind. Wilbur ran at the side holding the wing. The machine started slowly facing twenty seven mile wind, it lifted from the track. Wilbur was able to stay with it until it lifted from the track after a forty foot run. The course of the flight up and down was erratic, the first flight in the history of the world. The machine carried a man by his own power into the air in full flight forward without reduction of speed landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”]
[When these points had been firmly established we packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.]
Used by permission of Elizabeth Dos Passos
Here are two recent video performances, the first by the Los Angeles chorus C3LA, the other by the Chaffey College Chamber Chorus, recorded inside the college’s airplane hangar.
Score available through American Composers Alliance [BMI]
Recording available on my 2002 CD Five