From the Same Melancholy Fate

From the Same Melancholy Fate (2015) is an improvisatory piece for any instrumentalist, inspired by visionary artist Cleveland Turner, aka the Flower Man. Pete Gershon, author of Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston’s Visionary Art Environments, introduces the Flower Man’s story this way: “after seventeen years as a homeless alcoholic, he had a near-death experience in the gutter in 1983. Then, a divinely inspired vision of a whirlwind of colorful junk prompted him to devote the rest of his life to brightening his neighborhood and the lives of countless visitors with the deft arrangement of colorful refuse.” The Flower Man worked on his whirlwind constantly, roaming the neighborhood to forage for abandoned treasures to add to his ever-evolving yard show. But immediately after the Flower Man’s final illness and death (in December 2013), the house and its array of urban detritus began to decay. On 7 February 2015, the city demolished the structure, and it is now a vacant lot. Matt Petty’s video documents that day.

The player is given a pre-recorded track which has as its base my reading of Louise Glück’s poem recorded and re-recorded in space so that it is engulfed by room resonance (a la Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room), along with additional layers of music and song. The performer records every performance of the piece, and each performance recording becomes the pre-recorded track for the next performance. Thus the original track gradually disappears into the new layers, the performer responds to his/her previous self as part of the counterpoint of sound, and every performer’s tape part is unique, a palimpsest of previous performances of the piece.

The title of the piece comes from a gravestone Matt Petty showed me the day after I met him for the first time. In the white people’s cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the gravestone says in its entirety: “Negro, From the Same Melancholy Fate.”

Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we—waves
of sky blue like
a critique of heaven: why
do you treasure your voice
when to be one thing
is to be next to nothing?
Why do you look up? To hear
an echo like the voice
of god? You are all the same to us,
solitary, standing above us, planning
your silly lives: you go
where you are sent, like all things,
where the wind plants you,
one or another of you forever
looking down and seeing some image
of water, and hearing what? Waves,
and over waves, birds singing.

—Louise Glück: Scilla: from Wild Iris

In addition to being part of Lighten Up, a multimedia project about visionary visual arts, the piece is also part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. Please visit 19 January to watch and listen to Alison Bjorkedal’s third pass on the harp. You can go here to hear David Steele’s second pass on the clarinet, and here to hear Timothy Rosenberg’s second pass on the saxophone.

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To perform From the Same Melancholy Fate, you’ll start with the original pre-recorded track (with the optional video.) You’ll record your performance of the piece each time you play it, and use that performance recording as the pre-recorded track for your next performance. Gradually, the original track will be obscured under the layers of your successive performances.

I’d love for you to send me performance recordings periodically so I can hear where your version of the piece is going. My idea is to gather a bunch of different versions after some time has passed, and figure out some interesting way to present them as a group.

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Early in the Morning

I remember having once walked all night with a caravan and then slept on the edge of the desert. A distracted man who had accompanied us on that journey raised a shout, ran towards the desert and took not a moment’s rest. When it was daylight, I asked him what state of his that was. He replied: ‘I saw bulbuls commencing to lament on the trees, the partridges on the mountains, the frogs in the water and the beasts in the desert so I bethought myself that it would not be becoming for me to sleep in carelessness while they all were praising God.’

Yesterday at dawn a bird lamented,
Depriving me of sense, patience, strength and consciousness.
One of my intimate friends who
Had perhaps heard my distressed voice
Said: ‘I could not believe that thou
Wouldst be so dazed by a bird’s cry.’
I replied: ‘It is not becoming to humanity
That I should be silent when birds chant praises.’
Sa’di: Gulistan II:26

Early in the Morning was inspired by a text in the Gulistan (Rose Garden) by the 13th century Persian poet and mystic Sa’di, which is said to be one of the most widely read books ever produced. Saadi was beloved by Emerson and Thoreau, and a quotation from his poetry adorns the entrance to the Hall of Nations in New York, but his work is currently virtually unknown in the United States.

While traveling down the Mississippi River in 2009, I was awakened in Iowa one night by an incredible din of frogs and insects. I recorded the racket, and its percussion creates the rhythmic material for the piece. About a year later, I happened upon a work chant from the Mississippi Delta called Early in the Morning,” which was recorded in the 1947 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. An adaptation of that work song became the basis for this piece.

Well, it’s early in the morn-
in the morning, baby
When I rise, Lordy mama
Well, it’s early every morning a-baby
When I rise well-a well-a
It’s early in the morning, baby
When I rise, Lordy baby
You have-, it’s I have misery, Berta,
Wa, in my right side
Well-a, in a my right side, Lordy baby-
R-in-a my right side, Lordy, sugar.
Well, it’s I have a misery, Berta,
R-in-a my right side, well-a.

(Chorus)

Well-a, it’s-a, Lordy, Ro-Lordy-Berta,
Well, it’s Lord (you keep a-talkin’), babe,
Well, it’s Lord, Ro-Lordy-Rosie,
Well, it’s, o Lord, Gal, well-a.Well-a, whosonever told it, That he told a-
he told a dirty lie, babe.
Well-a, whosonever told it, that he told a-
he told a dirty lie, well-a.
Well-a, whosonever told it, that he told a-
he told a dirty lie, babe.
Well the eagle on the dollar-quarter,
He gonna rise and fly, well-a.
He gonna rise and fly, sugar.
He gonna rise and fly, well-a.
Well the eagle on the dollar-quarter,
He gonna rise and fly, well-a.

(Chorus)

Well-rocks ’n gravel make -a
Make a solid road
Well-a takes a-rock –a gravel make a
To make a solid road, well-a
It takes a good lookin woman to make a
To make a good lookin whore
Well-a It takes a good lookin woman, Lord, Baby
To make a good lookin whore, Lord sugar
It takes a good lookin woman to make-a
To make a good lookin whore, well-a

(Chorus)

Boys, the peckerwood a-peckin’ on the-
On the schoolhouse door, sugar.
Well, the peckerwood a-peckin’ on the-
R-on the schoolhouse door, Well-a.
Well, the peckerwood a-peckin’ on the-
On the schoolhouse door, sugar.
Well he pecks so hard, Lordy, baby,
Until his pecker got sore, well-a,
Until his pecker got sore, Lordy, baby,
Until his pecker got sore, Lord, sugar.
Well he pecks so hard, Lord, mama,
Until his pecker got sure, well-a.

(Chorus)

Well, hain’t been to Georgia, boys,
but, Well, it’s I been told, sugar.
Well, hain’t been to Georgia, Georgia.
But, it’s I been told, well-a.
Well, haint been to Georgia, Georgia.
But, it’s I been told, Lord, mama.
Work Song, Parchman Farm, 1947

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Here is a score of the piece in pdf format. This score is the version for flute, clarinet, violin/viola, cello, piano, and percussion. There are other orchestrations of the piece for up to 16 players. If you would like a customized orchestration for your ensemble, up to and including concert band, please get in touch with me.

Early in the Morning is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can hear Kisatchie Sound’s recording of the piece, which is called the Lulu in the Gaslight Mix, by visiting September 14th.

And you are warmly invited to support this very low-key way of publishing: