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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Where Your Treasure Is: Mistake

Mistake is one of a series of pieces called Where Your Treasure Is, about the slow disintegration of a painting I inherited. The painting is of an Irish dolmen, a burial mound, and I have placed it on a glacial erratic on my land in Vermont, where I am documenting its gradual decay into the landscape.

The text that inspires the piece is from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.

The piece is also part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. Please visit March 21st to listen to the piece, with a video by Emma Courtney.

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Here is a score of the piece, which requires four keyboard players on three pianos (or electronic keyboards.) In addition, there is a drumset part, which can be improvised by a live player, or done as a pre-recorded track.

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I will not be sad in this world

Originally written for alto (or bass) flute, I will not be sad in this world is based on the Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova’s song Ashkharumes Akh Chim Kashil. The piece is often played on the duduk, and your flute playing should respond to the ornamentation, intonation, and vibrato of traditional duduk playing.

I will not be sad in this world is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to Tim Munro’s live recording by visiting June 28th. There are several studio recordings available, including those by Marya Martin, Manuel Zurria, and Claudia Anderson.

Thanks to Marya Martin who commissioned the piece for the Flute Book for the 21st Century. You can purchase the performance materials here. Many thanks to my dear friend and colleague Margaret Lancaster, who tried out the piece for me and advised me about notation. Thanks also to the Civitella Ranieri Foundation who were my generous hosts while I was writing I will not be sad in this world.


Open Secrets

Open Secrets was a semester-long project in spring of 1999 at RPI sponsored by Chris Jaffe, in which architect Malcolm Holzman and I worked with teachers and students in architecture and intermedia on “an investigation of the relationships between acoustics, architecture, and music and an exploration of spaces, both secret and revealed, natural and mediated.”

The core idea was to play with visually and sonically encoded versions of a text from Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

It was a crazily ambitious and fun project! There’s a 1999-era website devoted to documenting our work together. It could use some updating, but it’ll give you an idea.

A musical translation of the Morse code version of the text was played by Kathy Supové on toy piano in an anechoic chamber hidden beneath a ramp.

You had to be there.

That score was turned into a cool little music video by Duff Dufresne, and can be seen and heard in A Book of Days, on 18 November. If you’d like to play the piece, in or out of an anechoic chamber, please get in touch with me!


Walking Music

Walking Music was originally written for an opera based on a Stephen King story called The Man in the Black Suit. This music accompanies a boy’s walk to the stream where he unexpectedly meets the devil. It’s a decorated arrangement of an old hymn of the sort the boy might have been humming as he walked. The hymn, called The King of Love, is a reworking of Psalm 23, set to an old Gaelic tune.

Several years after making the piece, I made an arrangement that can be played as part of the River Project. Thankfully, I did not meet the devil on my journey down the river(!) But I feel that the music captures something of the trusting elation I sometimes felt on the journey.

Walking Music is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can listen to a live performance by BRIM and the Guidonian Hand visiting May 11th.

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The original version of this piece is for two singers, two guitars, chorus, string quartet, and optional stream ambience. The BRIM and Guidonian Hand version is for singer, violin, guitar, trombone quartet, and piano. You can download a score of that version here. If you would like a version that works for your ensemble, just let me know your needs.

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Waiting for Billy Floyd

Waiting for Billy Floyd was written in response to Eudora Welty’s short story, At the Landing, which takes place in a town called Rodney, Mississippi, that I visited during a trip down the Mississippi River in November 2009 with Mary Rowell and again over Easter weekend 2010 with H. C. Porter. The river pilot and poet David Greer was my guide and compass, both practically and conceptually, through this part of Mississippi, and it was he who selected which Welty stories I needed to re-read and which towns I had to be sure not to miss. I am grateful to these three traveling companions, and to Despina Sarafeidou, who helped me when I got stuck.

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Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

“She’s waiting for Billy Floyd,” they said.

The original smile now crossed Jenny’s face, and hung there no matter what was done to her, like a bit of color that kindles in the sky after the light has gone.
from At the Landing

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Here is Newspeak’s live performance of Waiting for Billy Floyd.

Here are scores for two different versions of Waiting for Billy Floyd.
original sextet version [fl, cl, vln, vc, pf, perc]
octet version [Newspeak version: as above, plus guitar and trombone]

When you order the performance materials by clicking the button below, please let me know the instrumentation you need. There is some flexibility, so talk to me if you have specific needs for your ensemble.

A set of images of Rodney, Mississippi can be projected as part of the performance of the piece. Please let me know if you would like those materials as well.


Until It Blazes

Until It Blazes is an amplified solo piece for piano, guitar or other plucked string instrument, harp, marimba, or vibes. The piece requires a stereo multi-tap digital delay for processing. You can also perform the piece using a MIDI keyboard or mallet controller. If you’re using a MIDI instrument, I can supply a Max patch that implements the delay as MIDI delay, if it’s easier to do that than to use an audio delay.

The piece’s duration is variable: I imagine it could work at any duration between six and twenty minutes. I have made a twelve minute version, but it is only one possible version of the piece: please don’t regard it as definitive.

The overall idea of the piece is to set up various repeating patterns and then gradually group the notes so that new melodies grow out of the accents. For example, when you are playing a three-note pattern, if you accent every fourth event, you will get one melody; if you accent every fifth event, you will get a different melody.

There are six patterns in Until It Blazes, each an outgrowth of the previous pattern. In each case, you will first want to establish the pattern very softly with no accents at all, and then very gradually begin to stress a grouping that creates a slower melody arcing across the pattern. This accenting happens gradually during a slow overall crescendo, reaches some high point, and then the accenting recedes as you diminuendo. The length of the piece will vary depending on how slowly you want the cross-melodies to build and recede. The most interesting place is where you can hear both the pattern and the melody that cuts across it.

Prior to beginning to play the piece, you can say the words: “I have cast fire upon the world, and watch, I am guarding it until it blazes.” This line is attributed to Jesus in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

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Cory Arcangel has created a video for the piece that can be played back in live performance. If you are interested in this aspect of the piece, please get in touch with me.

The stereo delay should be set up as follows: The left channel should have a delay time of 454 ms (equivalent to a dotted eighth at MM = 99) and should give three repeats. The right channel should have a delay time of 303 ms (equivalent to an eighth note delay at MM = 99) and have four repeats. The delay should be set to approximately 70% of the volume of the direct sound. The direct sound should come from the center of the stereo field.

Once you have reached the last pattern, you can begin to gradually bring in distortion or some other processing that gives the feeling of a watched fire beginning to blaze. Performers have handled this in a variety of ways, and I am open to all of them.

Until It Blazes is dedicated to Kathy Supové with love and thanks.

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There are three recordings of Until It Blazes currently available; all are performed on guitar. Here is Giacomo Fiori’s recording; here is Emanuele Forni’s; and here is Seth Josel’s. As you prepare to play the piece, you might also want to listen to my original keyboard version.

Until It Blazes is part of my ongoing project A Book of Days. You can go to April 15th to watch Cory’s video and listen to an excellent live performance by Eric Mellencamp of the Robin Cox Ensemble on vibraphone.

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You can download a pdf of the score and information here. If you perform the piece, please let me know.

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