Places we can no longer go

Vocal Music, Wind Ensemble/23'/Difficulty - Hard/2019

for soprano and wind ensemble
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Performed by the University of Georgia Wind Ensemble
conducted by Cynthia Johnston Turner
Lindsay Kesselman, soprano

In April 2016, I posted this on Facebook:
My mom has been suffering from rapid-onset dementia, and has reached the point that she can’t form a sentence that anybody but her can understand. Tonight, I saw her for the first time in several months, and in the car on the way back home after dinner, I turned on the radio. Within seconds, she said, “Oh – Scheherazade!

I’ve played this piece.” And she started humming along. It was Scheherazade, and she has played it – decades ago.

The only other complete and understandable sentence she said tonight, when I was leaving, was “I love you.” Music is an incredible thing. It doesn’t pay well, and maybe your parents said it’s a terrible career choice, but the fact is that it reaches people on a level that nothing else can. If you’re ever questioning “does practicing all of these hours so I can play this instrument – does it matter?” The answer is yes.

Two days later, Gary Hill, Director of Bands at Arizona State University, contacted me, and asked me if I would write a piece about my mother and her struggle with this terrible disease. My initial reaction: no way. I couldn’t imagine a scarier, more personal piece.

Gary persisted, and I eventually acknowledged that I was resisting writing the piece not because it was a bad idea, but because it was a terrifying idea – and that’s not a reason to say no. If anything, that’s a reason to say yes. So, 11 months after he first asked, I agreed to write “Places We Can No Longer Go.”

My mother was a flutist, and also a soprano. She sang at home all the time, and played flute even more frequently. I never studied an instrument, but thanks to her, I was surrounded by live music constantly. She was a single parent, and was too poor to afford babysitters, so I attended community orchestra rehearsals with her on Sunday nights (I’d sit in the back of the high school auditorium where they’d rehearse), and choir rehearsal on Thursdays. We moved a lot – different schools, different friends – but music was a constant.

When my mom – Elizabeth – was in her early 60s, my sister, Lisa, and I started to see a change, mostly in her short term memory. It didn’t register for a long time. She was an alcoholic her entire adult life, so it wasn’t unusual for her to forget things, but this was different. She’d repeat the same question twice within 90 seconds. I wasn’t understanding; I was annoyed. I wasn’t patient. I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough, irritated that she just wasn’t paying attention. I should have stayed on the phone. I didn’t know what was coming.

Within a few years, my mother forgot my name. She clearly recognized me, but she called me “Yuki” – the name of her most-recent Siamese cat. I wasn’t hurt. To her, “Yuki” just was the name for “thing I love.”

Her memory for music stuck, though. That “Sheherazade” story is one of many. That was three years ago, but even last summer, I found a tape of one of her choir concerts from the late 1980s, and I played it for her, and although she couldn’t remotely form a sentence of conversation, she “sang” along with the tape. She moved her lips to the words, and approximated the pitches on the recording – but always a little behind the beat, and never quite on key. My name was gone, but that concert from 30 years ago was still in her mind.

She can’t do that anymore. I took a friend to meet her recently, and my friend brought her flute to play for Elizabeth. You could tell from Elizabeth’s face that she loved to hear the instrument again, but she couldn’t sing along anymore. Still, though, she somehow knew how to hold the instrument when it was handed to her. As she took it in her hands, her teeth started chattering. I can’t begin to imagine what was happening in her head, but she was happy. My mother can’t really speak at all anymore, but hearing Mozart that morning, live on the flute, made her laugh with joy.

This story seems sad, and it is. Nobody wants to hear a piece that tells the story like this, and nobody wants a piece that starts “coherent” and becomes lost and confused as it progresses. So “Places We Can No Longer Go” tells the story of this disease, but does it in reverse. It starts in the present, or maybe even in the future, and over the course of 22 minutes, goes in reverse, as confusion turns to clarity, and grief turns to comfort.

The soprano is the literal voice of the afflicted, struggling to recall memories before they’re gone. The flute plays a prominent role as well. The piece excerpts several major flute solos – solos that my mother used to practice at home when I was young – and presents them as if my mother is struggling to remember them. A phrase of something – Debussy’s “Syrinx” or “Afternoon of a Faun;” the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto; Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” – starts, but never quite finishes before the initial memory is lost in a haze. When an excerpt does start, often the solo is echoed out of time and out of key – the way my mother eventually would sing along to recordings in recent years. Sometimes the flute can’t remember the solo at all. Other times, it remembers the solo but mixes up where it goes, and resolves the phrase to a different piece.

The soprano in the beginning of the piece struggles to communicate, but can’t quite make an intelligible word. Fragments become full words as the disease “regresses” in this backwards telling, and although initially those words don’t quite make sense together, they eventually become coherent statements. The idea of the text, by A. E. Jaques, is that these are memories that my mother wishes she could still share with me – of places, in both space and time, where we were together. A Mexican restaurant, a shabby apartment, a photograph from a time that is gone.

The piece is dedicated to my mother, Elizabeth, but would not exist without Gary Hill. My sincere gratitude to him and to all of the consortium members who commissioned this in honor of their loved ones who have suffered with this disease.


Places we can no longer go – text by A. E. Jaques

I look for you in all the old places
a series of shabby apartments and a Mexican restaurant
that teal-slashed sweater from your yearbook photo

gone now, land unmarks

I trace the trail of us in memory’s atlas
a dotted line crossing borders like in an old movie
big letters for your grandfather’s store, italicized
rivers of music

garbled now, lost-making

I run the roads of us all uncharted
boundaries blur like the lenses in old movies
I see you smudge-soft in Christmas and
Siamese cats

clouds hide the end of the world

called a nurse by your name, saw your face on a stranger
out of place, out of places, I find you everywhere
the bright arrow that fixes the map of vanished things
You Are Here

and so here I am


February 22, 2019

Arizona State University Wind Orchestra
conducted by Gary W. Hill
Lindsay Kesselman, soprano

Commissioned by

A consortium of ensembles

Abilene Christian University, Steven Ward, Director of Bands
Arkansas State University, Timothy Oliver, Director of Bands
Augustana College, James Lambrecht, Director of Bands
Austin Peay State University, Gregory Wolynec, Director of Bands
Cal Poly Pomona University, Rickey Badua, Director of Bands; dedicated to Beatrice DePonte
California State University, Fresno, Wind Orchestra, Gary P. Gilroy, Director of Bands
Capital University, Jeffrey D. Gershman, Director of Bands
Casco Bay Wind Symphony, Jacqueline Townsend, Conductor. In celebration of our 40th anniversary, we honor the friends and families of Casco Bay Wind Symphony who have been affected by dementia or Alzheimer's Disease.
Florida State University, Richard Clary, Senior Band Conductor
The Hartt School, Glen Adsit, Director of Bands
Indiana University, Rodney Dorsey, Conductor; dedicated to Merritt Woodley and Nardi Nance
Kansas State University, Frank Tracz, Director of Bands
Lone Star Wind Orchestra, Eugene Migliaro Corporon, Music Director and Conductor
Loyola University New Orleans, Serena Weren, Director of Bands
Miami University, Gary A. Speck, Director of Bands
Michigan State University, Kevin Sedatole, Director of Bands
Morehead State University, Wilson B. Wise, Director of Bands
Murray State University, Trae Blanco, Director of University Bands; for my grandfather, Charlie Blanco, whose struggle with dementia grows daily
New Jersey Wind Symphony, Chris Wilhjelm, Conductor
The Ohio State University, Russel C. Mikkelson, Director of Bands
Sonoma State University, Andy Collinsworth, Director of Bands
Texas Tech University, Sarah McKoin, Director of Bands
University of Arizona, Chad Nicholson, Director of Bands
University of Arkansas, Chris Knighten, Director of Bands; dedicated to Monteene Knighten Tanner
University of California, Los Angeles, Travis J. Cross, Wind Ensemble Conductor
University of Georgia, Cynthia Johnston Turner, Director of Bands
University of Illinois, Stephen Peterson, Director of Bands
University of Louisville, Frederick Speck, Director of Bands
University of Montana, James Smart, Director of Bands
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Carolyn Barber, Director of Bands
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Shawn Smith, Director of Bands
University of North Carolina at Greensboro Wind Ensemble, John R. Locke and Kevin M. Geraldi, conductors
University of West Georgia, Josh Byrd, Director of Bands