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Radiant Moments - Lifesongs: A Case Study

By Molly Sturges, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Lifesongs; Artistic Director and Co-Founder, Littleglobe

As an artist collaborating in community contexts for more than 15 years, I have been particularly interested in moments that occur within a creative exchange that I consider transformational. This paper is an exploration of what I refer to as radiant moments. These moments defy simple definitions and conventional means of languaging them since they arise from the liminal spaces where everyday habits, perceptions and even identities are suspended and/or re-negotiated. Based upon my experiences these moments may include a strong sense of interconnection, unity, honesty, heart-felt beauty and courage – the kind of courage that moves hearts and brings tears to our eyes. These moments come and go, they emerge and dissipate and yet I have seen them accumulate and build what could be called a connective tissue—a place of recognition that can be invoked between people.

Radiant moments strike me as a kind of shared insight, a place where something deep within and between us expresses itself. I would like to explore this notion of radiant moments by looking closely at “Lifesongs,” a project I began in 2007 with Littleglobe and with Andrea Fellows Walters and Acushla Bastible of The Santa Fe Opera. It is important to understand the structure and practices of “Lifesongs” as these are the essential elements that give rise to radiant moments.

“Lifesongs” is an intergenerational, arts-in-community project facilitating the creation of original musical and artistic works with people in nursing homes and hospice care. Participants work with composers, musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers and youth to create new musical pieces that are then performed by local and professional musicians, choirs and artists of all ages. “Lifesongs” has two active components: (a) one-to-one sessions between facilitating artists and people in hospice care, and (b) a performance ensemble group (which includes the creation and use of electronic adaptive instruments) with people from nursing care facilities, community artists and youth.

Soft breezes of the sea, I have never felt you.
Quiet, so quiet, tranquility. I am searching for life, I am searching for life
Clara , 2008 “Lifesongs” Hospice Participant

“Lifesongs” emerged from a belief that social inclusion of our elders and people in aging and dying transitions is vital to our health as a society. The stories and experiences of people in nursing homes and hospice care shed an essential light onto our experience and notion of the shared human journey. We all age and die. Dying is a critical aspect of human development and yet many people find this topic uncomfortable and consciously or unconsciously push these fundamental experiences aside, out of our immediate areas of concern and reflection. While care for our elders varies tremendously from culture to culture, I am often struck by the isolation of vulnerable elders as I walk into the nursing home that has been my primary partner in “Lifesongs,” a center where 80% of the residents do not have active visitors.

The work of “Lifesongs” is relationship- and process-based. Participants work with composers, writers, musicians and visual artists for several months to create new artistic works that are unique to the participating elders and their collaborations with project artists. After many months of creating, the musical pieces are shared with the wider public in concert form. These concerts are gatherings that make possible a collective act of witnessing that brings audiences and participants into a shared reflection on aging and dying and the fundamental role these processes hold in human development and meaning making.

“Lifesongs” sessions typically begin with informal meetings where the facilitating artist and the elder participant exchange stories and ideas or just spend time chatting. There may not be a focus on “creating a piece” for several sessions. Other times, people jump right in and start writing a song. Some sessions are spent listening to or playing music to find inspiration and a point of creative entry for the participant. Other people begin by looking at photos, drawings or picture books. Many participants start out concerned that they are not musical or creative. With gentle reassurance, and with time, this concern dissipates.

Often this work is interpreted as a form of helping. I am uncomfortable with this notion since it promotes a false hierarchy that identifies the artist as helper and the participant as one in need of help. It is my experience that we need one another to grow as people in this world. If I am unwilling to be helped, to open myself with vulnerability in collaboration with another, then I am not working with integrity as a collaborator or facilitator.

In the “Lifesongs” Performance Ensemble, we create, exchange, listen and witness one another as a group. In doing so we challenge existing power hierarchies that define us as populations and numbers. At the beginning and end of each session we create a circle. The circle contains us and yet is bigger than us. I often hear from participants that “Lifesongs” is a place where they feel alive, where they feel they can learn something new. In the sessions we directly experience our individual and collective potential and discover new possibilities.

“Lifesongs” is now in its fourth year. It has grown quickly. The first year three women from a care center, Clara, Maria and Alice, created three music pieces that were performed by a local choir. Clara’s song was about a woman’s love of the sea that she had never visited. Maria wrote about her love for a childhood friend. Alice wrote about her anger at being stuck in a nursing home. At the end of the concert, all three said they could not believe they had actually done this as they smiled and held bouquets of flowers. Two of these women died within three days following the performances of their songs. I had the sense that these expressions of creative energy released something of great meaning for these women. For Clara, I believe her song was a parting gift to her family—a lucid transition to the next stage of her journey. Her piece spoke of a guardian seagull of white and gold that was looking after her. For Alice, the release of her anger seemed to bring a resulting sense of peace that freed her spirit from the constraints of her aging body and the frustrations of her daily life in the nursing home.

Equally important to “Lifesongs” is the creative relationship between performing youth and elders. Young people are invited to sing the songs of people who are dying in nursing homes. The impact on the project’s youth singers is deeply profound—singing the song of another who is marginalized through aging, illness or the dying process has been life changing for everyone involved. For many youth, the idea that elders in nursing homes have strong creative voices is an unfamiliar idea. For many elders, the idea that youth would be interested in them is surprising.

I had no idea I was capable of this.
Alice, 2008 “Lifesongs” Participant

RADIANT MOMENTS IN LIFESONGS: SOME EXAMPLES

I wait for this time with you every week. I just wish it would come sooner and last longer. It feels like life here and you feel like my family
Lilia, “Lifesongs” Performance Ensemble, 2011

EXAMPLE ONE: We are seated in a circle. It is a large group that attends our Thursday “Lifesongs” Performance Ensemble session. For several weeks we have been working on generating material for a piece about gardens. Our piece is quickly taking shape and includes stories of gardens from childhood, indexes of local crops, poetry and lyrics created by the group. Today we combine music, text and movement as we explore possibilities.

We are working with “moment duets” where two people come into a circle for a brief time to dance together. It is time for Echo and Lilia to dance. They enter the circle from two different places in the circle. Echo is a professional contemporary dancer and Lilia is an 80-year-old sparkly-eyed woman who rolls in on her wheelchair. They meet and sway together. The energy changes in the room. Echo moves behind Lilia mirroring her arms and hands as they bend, reach and massage the air. They reveal terrains with their bodies. Those of us witnessing become quiet. Their focus is intense and tender. Their dance goes on for several minutes. They find an end to the dance and quietly move back into the larger circle. Everyone is quiet for a few minutes after they finish.

EXAMPLE TWO: Juan has advanced Parkinson’s and is in his fifties. His muscles are tight but he is able to move his hands across the table slowly. We have created an instrument that allows him to trigger sound through moving a hand under a video camera that tracks his movements and triggers sound samples. Juan chooses to manipulate individual piano pitches. He composes with great care. He is creating a duet with a young singer from the Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program who is now moving toward him from across the room. He had requested to make a piece about mountains. He plays the role of the mountain while she is the moonlight. She sings to him as she moves towards him. He composes with and to her. She walks slowly as her song twists and turns, never taking her eyes off of him. She pauses behind him as they play and sing in call-and-response. The intimacy of the piece is potent. Their focus and commitment is fierce. They have become the mountain and the moon and so have those of us in the room.

EXAMPLE THREE: Bill is in hospice care. He has been a long-time photographer, documenting his interest in light and shadow. Bill is also a philosopher and a mystic. In collaboration with Bill, the facilitating “Lifesongs” artists have created a multi-media piece integrating his voice, images and choral contributions with a live musical ensemble. The 60-person choir at the University of New Mexico has been working with Molly Sturges to prepare the live choral component of the piece. Bill will be visiting in a few minutes and the group will rehearse the piece and solicit his feedback on the evolving musical composition. This back and forth dialogical process is critical to a sense of ownership for each participant. Bill arrives at UNM and is wheeled in by one of the “Lifesongs” artists. We introduce ourselves. One can feel the choir members trying to get used to the sight of his frail body and the oxygen tank. They are quiet, respectful and attentive. We turn off the lights to see the newly created video of his photographic images that will accompany the music. We then perform the piece with the video and his voice-over. Afterwards, Bill says, “As you can imagine, this is a wonderful moment for me. I am so grateful to you all.” Several students ask him questions about his work and his words. Regina, the UNM choir director, reflects that every year “there is always a moment when the young singers finally get to meet the participants…everything changes for them and they understand—it changes their lives.”

CAN WE NURTURE RADIANT MOMENTS?

A radiant moment cannot be forced, but skilled facilitating artists do a great many things to make such moments possible. I would like to talk about a few of those practices found in “Lifesongs” as well as other arts-in-community projects.

As a facilitating “Lifesongs” and Littleglobe artist, one of my commitments is to create a safe circle for all participants. This safety must be felt on many levels including the physical, emotional and spiritual. Each person needs to feel welcomed, acknowledged and valued. Whether the session consists of two people working together or an ensemble of 20 people, safety is a prerequisite for one and all to find and lift their voices and expressions. The force of this revelatory creative process often lifts profound beauty and collective meaning and expands our notion of who we are and what is possible.

As a facilitating artist, I listen, watch and feel with my whole self. I listen to each person. I listen to the group. I watch faces to see how each person is doing. I take time to check in. I watch movements. I listen to the tone of people’s voices. I notice who is talking and who is not. I listen with everything I am and by listening deeply I also demonstrate an expectation and model a practice that communicates an essential message–we are all important; this time is important, let us pay attention, be here and come into presence with one another. Over time we create a fertile ground for meaningful exchanges and moments that reveal ourselves to one another.

“Lifesongs” artists are responsive and flexible. There are moments in a session where it is important to hold a strong central vision for the group. There are also many times the project calls for the ability to follow what is arising from a conversation or creative exercise and go with the flow. Through this process, what emerges from each session can be something that is a true expression of that particular group during that one specific time together. These generative practices allow for the space required for radiant moments to emerge.

Finally, I find that wonder, play and exploration are important elements in this form of exchange. I have seen how open-ended creative discovery opens doors that have often been shut for those facing life-threatening illness or the isolation of living in nursing homes—or even for hard-working artists who may be overextended.

Our colleague at Tewa Women United, Kathy Sanchez, conducted a training for Littleglobe some years ago. She started the session with the statement, the circle is already listening. I felt the truth of this immediately. I believe that radiant moments emerge from something that is within us, something made by us, and something much larger than us. It is the circle, and it is listening.