All Our Yesterdays is scored for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano. It is both the score for a projected play and a composition for a chamber ensemble. The subject here is Alzheimer’s. In five movements, the work reflects the impact of the disease on both the caretakers and the Alzheimer’s victim.
The music and play are dedicated to James Gregg, a neighbor of mine in Florida who passed away several years ago after living a joyous life as a brilliant scientist blessed with an artist’s imagination that expressed itself in large metal sculptures dotting his lawn.
The theme of the work deals with three major concepts. One is the dilemma of a composer’s blindly striving to finish a masterpiece, and failing repeatedly, until he focuses on living his life and not his music. Two is the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, that incurable disease erasing memory, even to the point where the victim forgets why he or she exists. Finally, the work treats the issue of youth versus experience, the battle between what is current and what is past, the personal changes we experience as we move from childhood to parenthood to death. In the face of old age, or forgetfulness, or oblivion, to what can we hold on to?
My work is primarily composed for live theatre and dance; my tendency is to create music that evokes and evolves from a personal response. I come to this music from a theatrical perspective and my process of composition parallels that of rehearsals for a play. I try in All Our Yesterdays to share my emotional response with both the performers and the audience.
Each of the five movements has its own theme and concerns.
I. At the Edge: Flute, String Quartet, and Piano.
This movement deals with that moment when one realizes he or she must now become the caretaker in that tragic and yet ironic situation where the child becomes “parent” to the parent. The image I have is plunging off a cliff into freezing water, then pulling oneself up to come right back to where you started–but with a new perspective. There are moments of agitation, instability, and raw expression that are inseparable from organic thought and growth.
II. It Comes to You: Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano.
After the initial shock of having to care for a patient with Alzheimer’s, one is tempted to retreat into oneself, into a dark room isolated from the world. As this movement progresses, however, the person comes slowly to a more settled place, and realizes the world isn’t so overwhelming. There is a peace of mind in letting the world come to you.
III. That Despite Our Fears: Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano.
Moments of peacefulness and of light anxiety mix together in this movement. Having committed oneself to the role of caretaker, deciding to stay rather than flee or put the burden on someone else, still it is difficult to assume a task that might well take up a large part of your life, even a lifetime. Yet now, completely, utterly dependent on the caregiver, the person with Alzheimer’s may not recognize you and know why you’re there.
IV. All Our Yesterdays: String Quartet, Piano, and Actor.
There have been documented cases of people who, after not speaking for years, suddenly experience one powerful moment, one last breath, in which they give voice to everything they’ve thought about in silence, from the onset of the disease to the present, indeed, thoughts that span an entire life otherwise buried. What they wanted, what they did, their regrets, their love, their life, and who they really were. I have taken this concept and turned it into a dramatic work. An elderly man, the Alzheimer’s patient, comes onstage and delivers the text for this movement. Here, in the old man’s dementia, logical thinking may be lost, but higher levels of both thinking and feeling remain, once hidden behind a faceless exterior but now surfacing as speech. I found that when, as boy, I took care of my neighbor Mr. Gregg, he always responded when I played the piano for him. The role of music in therapy, of course, is well documented. The music that defines us as individuals is retained, and can still be enjoyed.
I thought that no other language than Shakespeare’s could do justice to the idea of the hidden complexity of a person that then finds a voice. My father (a Shakespearean scholar and actor) and I (a Shakespearean by default) have compiled a selection of lines from the plays and sonnets, delivered by an old man, and focusing on these related themes of love, death, of playing a role, of nature and the seasons, and time. This is his last breath. The old man calls up lines from Shakespeare he has known before the disease struck, and in the process finds some resolution and clarity.
V. Have Been Resolved: Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano.
The perspective returns here to that of the caretaker. This short, quiet movement meditates on the last breath of an old man who comes to peace with himself. What caretakers have written about or expressed to me is that in order to deal with someone in this situation, in this constant downward spiral where the victim loses all sense of the past, one can live only in the present. It does little good to think of who the Alzheimer’s patient was, or of what might have been. Most often, the caretaker will not be recognized from the last time he or she attended the patient. Without expectations, one can still take a pleasure in what is present—now.
Through this composition I am trying to understand our common experience with love and death, illness and time. I try to gain a perspective on what Shakespeare calls in King Lear “the mystery of things.” At the edge it comes to you that, despite our fears, all our yesterdays have been resolved.