On the Transmigration of Souls

John Adams

On the Transmigration of Souls

About this work

Much has been written about On the Transmigration of Souls, the first major response from the concert music sphere to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and still one of a very few works of art of any kind to have engaged itself on a large scale with that earthshaking event. The general consensus has been that John Adams did an excellent job with a very tough commission. The work was first performed, with Lorin Maazel leading the New York Philharmonic, in New York on September 19, 2002. It has since been given in other cities and has now been recorded in a performance by the forces that gave the premiere, by itself (the work is about 25 minutes long), for release on the Nonesuch label.

Adams has deployed the basic techniques of his musical language in such a way as to throw his hearers into the maelstrom of emotions that many people experienced in the days following September 11 -- an impressive accomplishment, and one that was even more remarkable in 2002. On the Transmigration of Souls is written for a combination of taped sounds and live performers, a common enough thing in the pop world but prefigured in classical music mainly, as critic David Schiff points out in an Atlantic Monthly essay included in the liner notes, by Steve Reich's Different Trains -- another work that deals with a violent event that remains partly beyond the limits of human understanding. For texts Adams takes several elements: a reading of a group of names of the dead, and words from the notes that were taped to walls all over Manhattan in the days following the towers' collapse, excerpts from The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief," the words "love" and "light," and the words of the flight attendant who may have been the first person to understand what was happening: "I see water and buildings." The texts are distributed among adult and youth choirs (here the New York Choral Artists and Brooklyn Youth Chorus), and the taped voices of Adams' friends and family members read off names of the dead -- a "minimalist" element, very powerfully used. The orchestra, as often happens with Adams, is something of a big bystander, moving the singers from one state of mind to another with a few outbursts but otherwise staying in the background.

At first fragmentary, the texts crystallize after a loud, violent orchestral passage near the piece's center into complete sentences, as if the memories of the dead have become clearer. But the music offers no resolution of anything, and it returns at the end to the sound of the faintly ominous street noises with which it began. Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question is quoted several times in the orchestra, and perhaps Adams' most powerful accomplishment here is to combine some of the conventions of memorials (the chorus, the cathartic recitation of detail) with a sense of continuing dread.