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The Things We Leave Behind (2024)

for TTBB choir, alto saxophone, harp | 00:25:00

by Melissa Dunphy | text by Melissa Dunphy

Commissioned by Chor Leoni (Erick Lichte, Artistic Director).

Composer's Notes

"In 2014, I became an accidental archaeologist after my husband and I bought a property in Philadelphia and discovered two 18th-century privy pits beneath our building filled with artifacts from before and during the Revolutionary War. As I dug, cleaned, and catalogued these household objects—with the help of some real archaeologists at the National Park Service, the Museum of the American Revolution, and Colonial Williamsburg—I became obsessed with the stories embedded in them, starring the ordinary people who left them behind. While most of us think of archaeology as the study of people from the very distant past—those who created Ancient Egyptian pyramids or Peruvian temples or Paleolithic cave paintings in France—I was struck by the way these more recent finds connected me to archaeology’s constant and continuing process. Everything we abandon, from the trash on our streets to the trinkets in our attics to the chemicals in our soil, is a record of who we are, and future generations (assuming humanity survives) will divine our everyday stories by studying our detritus.

"In modern North America, we are so wedded to living in the “now” that we tend to disregard our long-term storyline. Our exploitation of natural resources and marginalized populations for short-term gains has had obvious detrimental effects on the environment and our society. One of the ways that archaeology can shift our thinking is by encouraging us to see our place in a broader timeline and guiding us as we prepare the world for future generations.

"The Things We Leave Behind contrasts stories of the past with stories we are currently creating through abandoned objects, from the stone-age Willendorf Venus to mass-produced novelty mugs and microscopic man-made particles deposited in the ground. One song’s text is taken from the wills of the first Europeans who owned my property in the 18th century, and another is a tribute to an enslaved 19th-century potter whose work I learned about as I dove into the world of Early American ceramics. Throughout, the past stories are connected to the familiar present, in the hope that we will consider our own impact in the ongoing material record of humanity. Woven into the score are a few musical artifacts: the Gregorian chant Per omnia saecula saeculorum, and a sneaky Ave maria and Dies irae."

1. The Testimony of the Spade

In saecula saeculorum.
In 1908, a workman digging in soft soil
struck stone with his blade,
and from the ground he pulled
a tiny stone woman, smaller than his palm.
Twenty thousand years separate us
from the carver of that stone,
but we can feel her hands
cupped around the figure.
We can feel her concentrating
as she shaped its details.
Maybe it was a prayer,
or a mirror of her own braided hair
and soft, rounded features.
We don’t know her name,
we can’t see her face,
but we know who she is.
Behind us in our path we cast
The broken potsherds of the past,
And all are ground to dust at last,
And trodden into clay.

1A. The Doll

She couldn’t see herself in the doll,
with its perfect hair and wasp-like waist.
So she cut off its locks
and scribbled on it with a pen,
and pulled its head clean off—
much better!
Now its corpse is in a box
tucked away in the attic,
an artifact of her childhood,
frozen in polyvinyl chloride.

2. The Last Will and Testament

In the name of God, Amen,
I, being sick and weak in body
but of sound disposing mind and memory,
and considering the certainty of death,
do make my last will and testament
in manner following, that is to say:
First I commend my soul to God,
my body I resign to the earth
to be buried at the discretion of my executors.
I give, devise and bequeath:
ITEM my great Bible,
ITEM my gold watch,
ITEM my silver shoe buckle and my silver buttons,
ITEM five tablespoons,
ITEM my house and lot of ground,
ITEM my coat and jacket,
ITEM my brass kettles and my bell metal pots.
But if she shall happen to marry again,
then it is my mind and will
that all right in my bequest hereby made to her
shall from thenceforth cease and terminate.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal.

2A. The Things He’d Leave Behind

The doctor’s face was grey
when she broke the news to him.
For a moment, his hands shook
and his head whirled.
But instead of breaking down,
he called his lawyer and made a list
of all the things he’d leave behind.
Somehow, he found comfort in knowing
these things would be in good hands
after he was gone.

3. The Ledger

The mud in Crawford Lake
is a record of our deeds,
a ledger with bands of light and dark
that mark our years:
algae and chalk,
then pollen from crops,
then ash and fallout and plastic particles
deposited in layers and layers,
faster and faster.
A scientist can point to a laminated stripe
and name the moment,
like an accusation.
Our deposits earn interest,
and the lake bed waits
for a day of accounting,
in saecula saeculorum.

3A. The Engagement

She cried with joy
when the ring slipped onto her finger,
but little by little,
it felt heavier and heavier
and tighter and tighter,
until one day, after a screaming fight
on a rain-drenched street corner,
she wrenched it off,
and threw it in a sewer grate.
And as the gold and brilliant-cut diamond plummeted into the silt,
she vowed she would never think of it again.

4. Great and Noble Jars

His name was David Drake—
Dave the Potter.
He made great and noble jars
in Edgefield, South Carolina,
where reading and writing
were forbidden by law.
But Dave had skills,
and on his clay, in cursive,
he inscribed his name and thoughts,
defying rules, defying obscurity.
  I made this jar for cash,
though it’s called lucre trash.
   I made this jar all of cross,
if you don’t repent, you will be lost.
   A better thing I never saw
when I shot off the lion’s jaw.
   Give me silver, or either gold,
though they are dangers to our soul.
   Horses, mules and hogs:
all our cows is in the bogs.
There they shall ever stay
till the buzzards take them away.
   This noble jar will hold twenty,
fill it with silver then you’ll have plenty.
   I wonder where is all my relation?
Friendship to all—and every nation.

4A. World’s Greatest Dad

A gift arrived in the mail the day she was born.
He can’t remember who sent it—
maybe it was his brother-in-law
or one of his aunts:
a cheap China mug, proclaiming:
“World’s Greatest Dad,”
and he swore it would be true.
He filled it with coffee on sleepless nights
as he rocked her in his arms.
He reached for it as he made her breakfast,
and learned to braid hair,
and answered her questions.
Over the years, it chipped and cracked,
and the handle fell off,
and one day, it was left in the garden
between overgrown rose bushes,
where it sank into the earth.
The mug was lost,
but the words lived forever,
in saecula saeculorum:
World’s Greatest Dad.

Artwork by Cate Marcelli.


  • 10 May, 2024 - 11 May, 2024: Chor Leoni at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, Vancouver, BC, Canada