Several months had passed since acclaimed composer John Mackey had seen his mother when he drove her home from dinner in April of 2016.
Conversations were beginning to become difficult for her. She could hardly put together a sentence that anyone could understand, a consequence of the Alzheimer’s that had steadily chipped away at her memory for years.
So Mackey decided to play some symphony music in the car, an obsession of hers for her entire life. This particular song was one she had played as a flutist in her younger years.
She lit up.
“Oh, Scheherazade!” she said, as Mackey would post on Facebook later that night. “I’ve played this piece.”
She hummed along, off-key and a little slow, but remembering the piece in a way she couldn’t remember almost anything else. Even her son’s name had washed away from her memory years earlier.
Since-retired Arizona State band director Gary Hill saw Mackey’s Facebook post, and he reached out.
“(Hill) saw the post and thought, ‘There should be a piece about the experience of what it might be like to suffer from dementia and lose your ability to communicate,’” Mackey said, “and he thought it would be a good experience because it touches so many people.”
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Mackey resisted initially. The subject matter was simply too painful.
Initially, he wrote recently, he didn’t recognize the disease creeping. If he would have known, he thinks now, he might not have rushed to end phone calls years earlier, thinking she wasn’t listening when she asked questions multiple times within minutes.
By the time she was diagnosed, it was quickly becoming too late to recall memories with her. But the music lingered in her brain longer than anything else, and she’d occasionally even play the flute.
Smith persisted with his idea, and Mackey eventually realized that he was resisting for the wrong reasons.
So he began writing. He started with memories he wished he could have discussed with her, and his wife put them into a poem that would eventually be sung in the piece. He wrote from her perspective, with clear, beautiful music portraying her as if she were lucid. As it went on, the music became more garbled and confused, and the soprano lyrics turned into simple tones. It included flute solos that his mother used to practice at home, which slowly became confused and off-key.
After it was finished, Mackey reversed the piece. Instead of a mind deteriorating, the finished work portrays a person beset with dementia slowly recovering her memories. The soprano singer begins in the hall or in the audience and slowly comes onstage with the band.
“The piece is tragic in its subject matter, so just knowing that is going to make it a sad, hard piece for the audience to experience,” he said. “I thought telling it forward in time was going to be even more tragic and also not very nice to listen to. Because the idea of the piece is that musically, it starts very confused, and over the piece it comes into focus. And I feel like as a listener, you don’t want to hear a piece that does it the way her mind actually would have done it. You don’t want to hear a piece that starts crystal clear and over the course of 20 minutes just becomes more and more confused.”
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‘Places We Can No Longer Go,’ as the work was named, premiered in February. Mackey’s mother never heard it, because by then, she couldn’t leave the facility in which she lived.
University of Illinois director of bands Steve Peterson and his wind symphony saw the piece at its premiere in February at Arizona State during a convention.
Peterson had his own experience watching a loved one’s memory fade with Alzheimer’s.
“It goes from this incredible sense of frustration and anger to a certain sense of peace at the end, or at least resignation,” he said. “There’s a sense of resignation, a sense of peace, a sense of having to turn the page and move on. But it’s interesting the way he has elicited all of these emotions that fit the words incredibly well.
“It’s stunning and incredibly powerful. I heard it and I said, ‘We need to do this piece.’”
So Peterson commissioned the work and set up three-day residencies for Mackey and soprano Lindsey Kesselman, who has performed the piece several times. The 24-minute composition will serve as the centerpiece for tonight’s Wind Symphony and Wind Orchestra concert in Krannert Center’s Foellinger Great Hall.
Tonight’s concert will have a different kind of significance for Mackey. In November, his mother died. This will be the first time a band of this caliber has played the piece since her death.
“I know it will go well,” Mackey said. “That actually might make it harder. Because the more real and emotional the rehearsal is, the harder it is to keep the distance that I need to keep.
“The biggest challenge with it is ... I have to sort of take myself out of it in a way. Because otherwise, if I’m just sobbing in rehearsal, that’s not very useful. I need to be able to kind of take myself a little bit out of it emotionally in the rehearsal process so that I can give constructive feedback to the players and the conductor and the soloist to best realize the intentions of the piece.”
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Tonight, Mackey will be at Krannert Center to explain the piece beforehand. He knows that, at the beginning, it’s not comfortable music to listen to, so attaching context is important.
Because of its format, the piece has a cathartic tone, and Mackey wanted to make sure the experiences he included were universal for people in similar situations.
Still, no matter how much he listens to accomplished musicians from across the country play the song, the pain still lingers.
He’s always left wishing he could have another conversation with his mother to talk about the memories that were lost.
“I’m glad the piece exists because I think it’s an important subject matter for art to address,” he said. “I think in my own circumstance, because I was writing it after she was already unable to communicate, it brings up a lot of things that I wish we could have talked about, but it was too late to talk about them by the time I was writing the piece. There’s no way I could have written the piece when it could have been helpful.
“My personal relationship with her, I wish I could hear her talk about the memories that are in the piece and hear more about the things that I remembered when she was around, just stories that are gone because she couldn’t tell them anymore.”