‘This is the paper that gives the date
This is the kettle to boil the water
This is a china breakfast plate
This is a note to call my daughter’
The libretto from Shadow and Light: An Alzheimer’s Journey in 16 Movements – an epic choral-orchestral work on the subject of Alzheimer’s – is at times comical, inspiring, and heartbreaking. Anyone who has experienced dementia firsthand will see and hear their own journey in the words being spoken and sung.
Shadow and Light was commissioned by Diane Retallack, Artistic and Executive Director and Conductor of the Eugene Concert Choir, in collaboration with her colleague and friend, Oregon composer Joan Szymko.
“Joan had never had any contact with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, so she had really fresh eyes which is one of the project’s strengths.”
Joan spent time with people and families living with dementia, from early stages to end of life. She brought that journey to life through song, spoken word and music. From diagnostic testing, remembering the dreaded three words, to the memory aids people use, to sundowning and to their greatest fears:
‘This is what we fear
No sight, no sound
No taste or touch or smell
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with’
Diane recalls that rehearsals were often challenging and painful, especially as the journey is coming to an end. From the 14th movement, Hold Hand:
‘I’m going to give you three new words: BE – HERE – NOW.
You know you love me
But you can’t recall my name
So we just hold hands’
‘It’s a very emotional piece,’ Retallak says. ‘My singers are good enough sight readers. We would go through a movement and then take a break while everyone wiped their tears. Most of the people would be crying through most of the rehearsals at the beginning.’
Retallack’s grandmother had severe dementia and she appreciates how devastating the disease can be for people when they are losing their memory and are aware of that loss too.
‘I have a vivid memory of sitting with my grandmother who was looking at a photo of my brother above her TV and asking me “who is that?” She then realized ‘oh, it’s my grandson’ and began hitting herself in the head over and over again.’
Retallack is proud of having taken on the challenge at such a large scale.
‘It’s a very beautiful and very healing work. I also think it brings a sense of dignity to those with dementia. Regardless of how you need to interact with them, there’s a part of them that’s still there.’
And while she admits it’s hard to hit your audience over the head with a deeply emotional piece after the pandemic, she says the piece has a long life.
‘Shadow and Light is about a subject that’s not going to go away, it’s always relevant. More and more people are being affected by dementia, and are becoming aware that it can touch their lives as well.’
The creation of the work was captured in a documentary: The Story of Shadow and Light, Giving Voice to an Alzheimer’s Journey which is available for viewing and purchase. The project was made possible by The Fred W. Fields Fund Creative Heights Initiative of the Oregon Community Foundation and by the Oregon Cultural Trust with additional support from the Chambers Family Foundation.