Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic a very short time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls is a transcendent musical experience and a remarkable achievement given how recent the horrific event was and how difficult the task likely was for the composer, John Adams..
But Adams, whose work includes operas like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (the latter highly controversial in that Adams was perceived by some as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli) as well as pieces like Shaker Loops and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, emerged with a work that was somber and beautiful, reflective but hopeful, and emotive without being overwrought. Nor did it take on any overt tinge of political opinions and references like the Klinghoffer opera.
Given all that was entailed in a difficult subject fresh in the minds of so many people, the success of this work is all the more stunning. Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for it and the recording, released in 2004 by the Nonesuch label, received a Grammy--both of which were eminently well-deserved.
On the Transmigration of Souls begins with tape of sounds from New York and the adds the reading by family members and friends of the names of some of those who died on that day. A children's chorus (Brooklyn Youth Chorus) adds another layer of sound and meaning to that of an adult chorus (New York Choral Artists) and Lorin Maazel's orchestra, which performs the slowly building score from its minimal and simple start to its stately and tension building and releasing elements, bursting out with sound that evokes emotion in response to the recitations and singing. At the end, a woman's voice repeats a phrase heard earlier, "I see water and buildings" as the music and vocalizations fade and then the everyday noises return to end the 25-minute work, which seems to have progressed far faster than that.
Notably, Adams defined this piece as being about "memory spaces" (collective memory with significant historical events is a fascinating and multi-layered subject) and noted that "transmigration" is about the movement of souls from one place to another--this being a very Eastern philosophical concept not generally associated with thinking here in America. His mixing of pre-recorded with live sounds is done with great skill and effect. The chorales and the orchestra perform their parts with perfect sensitivity and import.
As a rank amateur in the understanding of the technical and historical complexities of classical concert music, this blogger benefitted from reading the interesting liners by composer and teacher David Schiff, who observes a close connection between Adams and the work of the early American modernist composer Charles Ives, soon to be featured here. Adams, in fact, has written a piece called "My Father Knew Charles Ives," which explicitly makes a musical linkage between himself and Ives, whose works dated from the early to mid (roughly) 1900s. Schiff also observes that Adams, with his skillful blending of recorded voices and symphonic sound blurred the distinctions between the concert hall and the everyday lives outside it.
By any measure, John Adams produced a masterpiece with On the Transmigration of Souls and for this listener, who does not easily watch footage of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks, there is something in this work that is easier to take. The blending of real-life sounds with the transcendant power of orchestral music provides an accessible avenue to revisiting that awful day, probably because the qualities inherent in the music allow for a reflectiveness that watching video footage and commentary cannot provide. An occasional hearing of this great work seems necessary, particularly as time distances the direct connection the listener has with the events of that day, eleven and a half years ago.