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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Please use the PayPal button to purchase the materials. And thank you for supporting this low-key way of publishing.

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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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!


Wolf Chaser

Wolf Chaser: for amplified and processed violin, wolf chaser, optional percussion, electronics, and optional video

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In the early summer of 1995, the violinist Robin Lorentz gave me a wolf chaser ― a tool made of whale baleen for scaring wolves in the Arctic. It had been a gift, in turn, from the man who made it, James Nageak. I sampled the wolf chaser and made a recording that slowed the sound down so far that you can HEAR the sampling rate as a rhythm (sort of the audio analog to the jaggies you see when displaying curves at low resolution on a computer.) That recording is the bed for this piece for acoustic wolf chaser, amplified and processed scordatura violin, and optional metallic percussion. In 2008, Vittoria Chierici (with editor Phil Hartley) made a video to accompany live performances of the piece.

Here’s the video with Robin Lorentz’s recording of the piece:

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Click here for the score of the piece, which includes all the information you need to know about playing it.

If you would like to play the piece, please order the materials below and let me know the following information:

  • whether you want to do the percussion part live (I haven’t yet implemented the percussion processing in Ableton’s Live, but can do it easily with a bit of notice.)
  • in which format you want the video (DVD or embedded in Ableton)
  • proposed dates of your performance(s), so we can figure out logistics for getting you the wolf chaser.


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.

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


Light up Your face

Light up Your face began as a piece about the murder of Medgar Evers on 12 June 1963. Eudora Welty wrote a story the next night from the point of view of the murderer, who had not yet been identified. It has been hailed as an uncanny portrait of the killer, but it is wrong in one important respect. Byron De La Beckwith was not an impoverished nearly illiterate redneck, he was an upstanding middle class salesman and WWII veteran, who along with participating in the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan, regularly attended the Episcopal Church in Greenwood, MS.

That last fact is the inspiration for the piece, which includes an excerpt from Eudora Welty’s story against my harmonization of the chant version of the refrain of Psalm 80: Light up Your face, that we may be rescued.

After three trials, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of first-degree murder in 1994.

The video for Light up Your face is a collaboration between Bradley Wester and Matt Petty. Bradley works with an image of Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, and the carport where he was killed. Matt Petty’s contribution is a meditation on the murder of James Craig Anderson in Jackson in 2011, a murder committed by a group of white high school students from the neighboring town of Brandon. The students were convicted of their crime and are currently serving time in federal prison. The family of James Craig Anderson asked that the murderers be spared the death penalty.

Light up Your face is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can watch and listen to the piece by visiting June 12th.

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The original version of this piece is for actor, singer, and piano. You can download it here. The piano part can be replaced by chamber ensemble or chorus. If you would like a version that works for your ensemble, let me know your needs. Please get in touch with me for more information about showing the video as part of your performance.

And thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing!


In and Out of the Game

In and Out of the Game (2007, rev 2010) began life as part of the score for a collaboration with choreographer David Neumann called FeedForward. In 2010, I made a video for the piece using footage I shot on my trip down the Mississippi River the previous fall. I made this new version of the piece for the trombone quartet, Guidonian Hand. It is dedicated to Paul, whom I met in Cape Girardeau on 15 October 2009. You can read about our meeting here.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments . . . . I witness and wait.

Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass

The piece can be performed by trombone quartet or sextet. You can download the score for both versions here.

In and Out of the Game is October 17th in my ongoing project A Book of Days. A recording of the Guidonian Hand’s performance is available on Songs from the River Project, Volume 2.

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If you would like to perform the piece, please click below, and I will provide you with the backing track and the optional video: