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.
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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- Instrumentation: flute oboe clarinet bassoon saxophone trumpet horn trombone tuba percussion (pitched) harp harpsichord synthesizer guitar violin viola cello bass open instrumentation
- Ensemble Size: solo
- Duration: 5-12 minutes
- Electronics: Fixed Audio
- Video: Yes
- Project(s): A Book of Days Lighten Up
- Year: 2015