On The Transmigration of Souls

transmigrationI have a bit of a serious one to go with everyone’s tea and toast this morning.  John Adams (born 1947) was commissioned in January of 2002 by the New York Philarmonic and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers to do the utterly impossible.  He was to compose music in honor of the heroes and in memory of the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and have it ready for performance near the one year anniversary of the attacks in September 2002.  The attacks in New York and Washington DC, as well as the fourth plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field when the passengers fought back with the hijackers, all together are one of the biggest tragedies and one day loss of life to ever occur on American soil.  The commision came a mere four months after the event, when all of America was still reeling.  The music would have to be finished in a very short six months, with no room for error, if there were to be any significant rehearsal before the scheduled performance.  How could Adams be expected to formulate an emotional reaction to the events and incorporate it into music when that emotional reaction was still taking place?

This commission was not Roy Harris writing music in 1943 inspired by the Gettysburg Address, a civil war speech given eighty years earlier in 1863.  The mourning, the loss, the emotional steps of grief were still being endured on both personal and national levels.  I would have thought, “No way.  Can’t be done.  Not in New York, not so soon, and probably not for another 10 years.”  Somehow a piece of music was created in spite of those circumstances.

John Adams offered the following in an interview about the piece in 2002:

I want to avoid words like “requiem” or “memorial” when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a “memory space”. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event–in this case to 9/11–is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event. “Transmigration” means “the movement from one place to another” or “the transition from one state of being to another.” It could apply to populations of people, to migrations of species, to changes of chemical compositon, or to the passage of cells through a membrane. But in this case I mean it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.

Everyone has had soul-changing experiences, and reflecting on those events is the kind of thing Adams is trying to tap into with this work.  Sometimes those experiences are choices we have made, either lifting us up to a greater level of self-actualization, or setting us on a path that drains the life out of us and leaves us dying inside.  In this case, the events of 9/11 were not any sort of choice, but a deadly assault inflicted upon both the victims and the survivors.

9-11-flag22Adams has created a hypnotic collage with this work.  The live performers include a children’s chorus, an adult chorus and a very large symphony orchestra.  Layered over the live performance is a recording of street sounds and the names of victims read by friends and family members.   In the immediate aftermath of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City, it was known that there was a massive loss of human life, but also mass confusion about who might have escaped or survived.  Communication was impossible, phone lines were jammed or inoperable, and the bridges to the island of Manhattan were closed to isolate the area.  Soon every available wall, telephone pole and street sign contained missing persons posters hand made by people searching for their loved ones.  As time continued, the nature of these postings themselves transmigrated from missing persons, to more like makeshift memorials for those lost.  The majority of the text for the two choruses and all of the names recited on the prerecorded tape was taken from those posters.

There is a solo trumpet part as well, and the nature of the construction of this piece and the featured trumpet will have the listener clearly look at Charles Ive’s The Unanswered Question as a precedent.  The premiere of Transmigration  with the New York Philarmonic was conducted by Lorin Maazel, and the recording won several Grammy awards in 2005.  (In a sad coincidence, the music world has suffered a great loss just this month July 2014 with the passing of the great Lorin Maazel at the age of 84.)  John Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece in 2003, but I’m not sure there is a creative award high enough for the accomplishment of composing under those circumstances.

The complete 25 minute work is available on Spotify

John Adams, On The Transmigration of Souls



One thought on “On The Transmigration of Souls

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  1. Thanks so much for this post, Rich. I remember hearing the work for the first time on a PBS special, probably the year it won the Grammy. I can’t explain my personal grief and sorrow for the events of that tragic day. So many I’m close to are fascinated by the events themselves and have seen the many films and TV specials dedicated to them. I can’t watch them. After having been to New York City in March of 2002 and seeing the giant hole in the ground where the World Trade Centers stood, I can barely even think about that day without getting choked up. I didn’t know anyone personally who died or was injured. I didn’t even live in New York. All I think about is the needless loss of life in those three places. The thousands who perished weigh so heavily on me and I can’t explain why. John Adams’ work is so representative of the loss and grief that I feel personally that I have not listened to it since I wrote a paper on him and his compositions back in college. Even listening to it then was utterly painful for me.

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