Joe Clark, "not merely bad or broken"

[This Sunday, October 9, Quince will premiere Joe Clark's new piece "not merely bad or broken" at the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago. Read the composer's words on his journey to creating this piece]


There is a dance from West Africa called the Moribayassa. The dance is a rhythm, the rhythm a dance. It is very old and it is only performed by women.

I had a difficult year. My grandpa died. My dad died shortly after from a horrible fight with cancer. My marriage fell apart. I lost some of my best friends. I lost my cat. A crew broke into my family home and stole our valuables and heirlooms. It was a very dark time for me.

When struggling with problems -- childlessness, illness, famine, hunger -- and lacking any other options, a woman could make a vow to dance the Moribayassa in the event that problem could be overcome. It is a serious vow: the dance is performed once and only once in a woman’s lifetime.

The original idea for the piece that would become "not merely bad or broken" was to transcribe a recording I made at 3 a.m. on a particularly bleak Tuesday. I had been sitting in my car, totally despondent, cold and alone. I was convinced it was my last recording and, if it wasn’t for the love and support and friends and family, it may have been.

The Moribayassa is witnessed and musically accompanied by the community. The dancer dresses in old clothes -- rags -- and dances around town many times. At the end of the dance, the rags are removed and buried.

In the year that followed, I was surprised to find how common these experiences are: not just death, infidelity, crime, and loss--but also rebirth, creativity, and love. Almost everyone had similar stories. We are surrounded by survivors.

Finding a new direction in life made it easier to find a new direction with “not merely bad or broken”. The piece borrows texts and rhythms from an old Mardi Gras Indian tune called "Indian Red" and the Moribayassa. "Indian Red” begins with a call: “Madi cu defio”. The spelling and pronunciation varies from tribe to tribe but one of its meanings (according to the 1886 article in The Century from which the piece draws its name) is “I am going into the wilderness”.

“not merely bad or broken” draws from other sources as well, including fragments of other texts and birdsongs from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. It has some secrets.

Thanks to the Peace Corps “Mandinka Grammar Manual” and “Mandinka/English Dictionary”, Mamady Keïta, Paul Nas, Kate Brucher, and Avo Raandrut.


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