It Happens Like This

It Happens Like This sets the recitation of a poem by James Tate against an adaptation of a traditional Persian chaharmezrab melody and dance rhythm. Perhaps the cyclical embroiderings of the chaharmezrab echo the successive embroiderings of the narrator’s tale of the goat.

It Happens Like This was commissioned by Mary Sharp Cronson and Works and Process, Inc. for a celebration of James Tate at the Guggenheim Museum. Many thanks to Greg Hesselink for help and advice with the cello notation, and Mary Rowell for ideas and advice for the two-instrument version.

It Happens Like This was written while in residence at the Civitella Ranieri and is dedicated with affection to Diego Mencaroni, who once loved a goat.

I was outside St. Cecelia’s Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There’s
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. “It’s not my goat,”
I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking
my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,”
one of them said. “I wonder when my turn is.” “Soon,”
I said. “Be patient. Your time is coming.” The goat
stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked
up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew
everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-
man on his beat looked us over. “That’s a mighty
fine goat you got there,” he said, stopping to admire.
“It’s the town’s goat,” I said. “His family goes back
three-hundred years with us,” I said, “from the beginning.”
The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped
and looked up at me. “Mind if I pat him?” he asked.
“Touching this goat will change your life,” I said.
“It’s your decision.” He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, “What’s his name?” “He’s
called the Prince of Peace,” I said. “God! This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery
and wonder. And I’m just a child playing cops and robbers
forever. Please forgive me if I cry.” “We forgive you,
Officer,” I said. “And we understand why you, more than
anybody, should never touch the Prince.” The goat and
I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning
to wonder where we would spend the night.

james tate

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Here is the traditional chaharmezrab on which the piece is based:

It Happens Like This is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. To hear a live recording of the duo version by BRIM, please visit July 6th.

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Here is a score of the original cello plus actor version. And here is the two-instrument version of It Happens Like This. It has been done as a violin/viola duo, and as a mandolin/guitar duo. For a set of parts, please order by clicking the donation link below (and let me know if you need different transposition or clefs.)

Where Your Treasure Is

In September of 1967, when I was nine, and my brother six, my parents brought us to my aunt’s house in Michigan and went to Ireland for a month on their own. Thinking back on it, I find this a little surprising. My parents were not the type of people who had “date nights”, let alone “date months.” School started right after Labor Day in New Jersey in those days, so I missed the first month of third grade, and my brother of first grade. My cousins were in school already in Michigan, and my aunt and uncle both worked, so we were home with the cleaning lady most days.

I wonder why my parents didn’t bring us along on this trip to Ireland. Could they not have made the trip in the summer instead of the fall, and brought us along with them? (In fact, we never once traveled as a family outside the United States, and rarely within the country either, except to visit other family members, even though we all traveled separately quite regularly.) Or they could have gone on their own in the summer, which would have made our visit to the cousins in Michigan a little more like a vacation for all of us, and avoided having my brother and me miss a month of school.

Perhaps they were having what would have been called “marital troubles”, and decided precipitously to rekindle their relationship with a trip to Ireland. Or perhaps we children were driving my mother insane and she needed a respite from us. (She was a stay-at-home mother in the 60s, with a husband who traveled a great deal for work, which would drive almost anyone insane, and my mother was more sensitive and high-strung than most.) But when I asked my aunt about this recently, she confessed to being as unclear as I am. So I guess I will never know what led my parents to embark on this slightly mystifying adventure.

They returned with many stories and photographs, and with all the enthusiastic energy a good trip engenders. They had rented a car and wandered all over the country, and while I don’t remember many details, the overall emotion was utter joy. I think they had a very good vacation. (I haven’t found the photos yet, they’re in one of the boxes in storage, and when I find them I’ll post a few.)

And they had bought a painting. They were very excited about it. They had met the artist, a young woman, younger than they were themselves. They loved her work and they thought she was impressive and talented.

Maybe a month or two later, the painting arrived, having been shipped from Ireland, probably on a freighter.

I have a vague memory of the immense wooden box it was shipped in. And the painting itself was very large. And unlike any painting I had ever seen. It was a painting of a dolmen, a prehistoric burial mound. And there were Irish rocks and Irish moss affixed to the canvas itself, to make not just a painting, but really sort of a sculpture, since the stones and plaster actually protruded from the canvas. I was fascinated. I thought the head of the dolmen looked sort of like the skull of a horse, perhaps, even though I knew it was stone and not bone. And the background of the painting was so different from the dolmen itself. It seemed very flat, almost an abstraction of sky and horizon and a bit of hills in the distance, and a ragged fence on one side. I kind of loved the dolmen, its feeling of being somehow organic, even though it was stone depicting stone. But the background bothered me. It seemed, I don’t know, incomplete, maybe. Half-formed. An afterthought.

My parents absolutely loved this painting. I don’t know if it was a talisman of their excellent vacation, or aesthetic delight in the painting itself, or both. They spoke of the young artist with great respect and delight: her talent was their shared discovery, their shared pleasure. The painting felt like it contained mysteries of adulthood, of my parents’ existence as a couple, as two individuals in a relationship, rather than as parents. It may have been the first time I glimpsed them in this way.

And so the painting was hung in the place of honor, over the fireplace in the living room of our house in New Jersey. And when we moved to Los Angeles two years later, it hung over the fireplace in the living room of that house for fifteen years. And when they sold the house in California and bought a house in Westchester, it hung over the fireplace in the living room of that house as well, for eighteen years. After my father died, and we had to sell the Westchester house and move my mother to assisted living, the painting went with her to New Jersey once again. A couple of years later, my brother wanted a turn taking care of my mother, so we moved her to Los Angeles. But my brother refused to take the painting. He told me he had always hated that painting.

So I packed it up and brought it to my tiny New York apartment, which has no fireplace. And I hung it for a while over the dinner table in the living room, but it was overwhelming and ridiculous. When my then-lover visited from Athens, she, in her forthright Greek way, asked me if I liked that painting, if I wanted it looming over the dinner table. And I explained this whole story (she was patient), and she told me I didn’t have to hang the painting in my apartment. You understand I was in my late forties by now, certainly an adult. I had had my own apartment for thirty years. But it had never occurred to me that I had a choice about living with this painting. It was part of my inheritance, whether I wanted it or not.

So with great emotion, we encased it in packing foam and bubble wrap and put it in the very back of the hall closet. It sat there quietly for maybe eight years. In the meantime, my mother died, and then my brother died. I am the only person left of my immediate family, and I have no children to whom to burden or gift this inheritance.

Ten years ago, I bought land in Vermont. It’s quite a bit of land, and there’s a stream and a ravine, and a beautiful view of the Green Mountains, and lots of trees and ferns and rocks. Many rocks. Vermont is rocky. And one night in June I was sitting on the porch of the master bedroom (every room is a separate structure: there’s a bedroom shelter, and a composing cabin, and an outhouse shelter, and dining shelter and a reading/guest-room tent and so on.) And I suddenly had the idea to bring the painting from out of the closet in New York and put it on top of one of the big rocks on my land, the one that overlooks the dining area’s fireplace. I imagine the big rock is a formation left by the glaciers, a glacial erratic, that itself looks almost like a prehistoric burial mound. I could place the dolmen painting on the natural dolmen, and gradually the painted dolmen will disintegrate into the natural dolmen.

This is the right thing to do with the painting. I am sure of it.

In mid-July of 2015, I pulled the painting out of the back of the hall closet, and my friend Meredith helped me lash it to the top of my car (it wouldn’t fit inside), and I drove it up to Vermont and placed it at its final resting place. Every day I am here on the land, I take a photograph of the current state of the painting. I don’t know how long it will take to disintegrate, but I will document it as well as I can.

And there will be a piece for the dolmen every three months in A Book of Days, at each solstice and equinox. As time goes on, each of the pieces will be revised (both musically and visually) to reflect the current state of the dolmen painting. My idea is that the texts for these pieces will all be taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that may change as the project develops.

And one of these days I will take my own trip to Ireland, in honor of my parents’ psychically important trip, in honor of my Irish ancestors about whom I know nearly nothing, and in honor of my own status as an “erratic”, carried by forces larger than myself to a resting place I cannot predict or imagine.

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Orphan Girl is the first piece I have made as part of this project. It is posted as September 21st in A Book of Days. This is the first version of the piece, and I am imagining I will revise both the music and the video in response to the effects of time.

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Tower of Ivory is the second piece I have made as part of this project. Matt Petty made the video for the piece. It is posted as December 21st in A Book of Days. This is the first version of the piece, and I am imagining we will revise both the music and the video in response to the effects of time.

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Mistake is the third piece I have made as part of this project. It is posted as March 21st in A Book of Days. This is the first version of the piece, there will be a video shortly. And I am imagining we will revise both the music and the video in response to the effects of time.

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You are warmly invited to support this ongoing project:

What Justice Looks Like

What Justice Looks Like was written for Payton MacDonald to perform at South Pass City as part of his Sonic Divide project. Esther Hobart Morris (1814-1902) served as Justice of the Peace there in 1870, during the Gold Rush, right after women were given the vote in Wyoming Territory. After her term was over, she had her husband arrested for assault and battery. She eventually left both him and South Pass City, becoming an activist for women’s rights nationally.

What Justice Looks Like is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to my recording by visiting Valentine’s Day, which is the day when Esther was sworn in as Justice of the Peace.

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Here’s the vocal score at the transposition that works best for me. I am happy to supply you with a different transposition, just let me know what you need when you click the donation button below.

I think you want to think of this piece as an intimate invocation to Esther. You’ll want to find the transposition that lets both the lowest and the highest notes of the (rangy) vocal line be vulnerable and loving. You are welcome to do the piece slower (or faster) than the marked tempo if you like, and you don’t need to stick too precisely to the notated rhythms as long as the phrases stay coherent.

You can do it as a solo vocal piece, or you can invent a rhythmic accompaniment that helps you express the piece, adding extra bars of rest between verses for improvisational flourishes as you prefer. If you like a drone, feel free to use one. For the demo, I used Henry Lowengard’s excellent iPhone app, Srutibox, in just intonation mode. And I added a couple of totally optional samples from “Suffragette City”, which I’ll send you if you want them.

And thank you for supporting this low-key way of publishing: