On the Transmigration of Souls

John Adams

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, February 15, 1947; now living in Berkeley, California

When the New York Philharmonic approached John Adams in January 2002 about creating a work to commemorate the lives lost on September 11, 2001 for the opening concerts of its 2002-03 season, which would fall close to the first anniversary of that terrible tragedy, the composer remembers that he said “yes” without any hesitation.

There were indeed good reasons to refuse. Usually, Adams explained, a commission for such a major work would come at least a year in advance, but this one would need to be accomplished in no more than six months. Nevertheless, “I knew immediately that I very much wanted to do this piece — in fact I needed to do it. . . . I was probably no different from most Americans in not knowing how to cope with the enormous complexities suddenly thrust open us. Being given the opportunity to make a work of art that would speak directly to people’s emotions allowed me not only to come to grips personally with all that had happened, but also gave me a chance to give something to others.”

It was hardly surprising that the New York Philharmonic would choose Adams for this special commission, for more than any other American composer working today he has shown an extraordinary gift for taking events right out of the newspapers and turning them into eloquent works of art. In collaboration with the iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, he first stunned audiences with a singing Richard Nixon and a dancing Chairman Mao in his 1987 operaNixon in China, based on Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in 1972. This was followed in 1991 by another topical opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, about the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of one of its Jewish passengers, as well as Doctor Atomic (2005), about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the scientific and moral crises surrounding the creation of the first atomic bomb. But creating music in response to 9/11 seemed a far more difficult task for that day was far too recent and its pain not yet cauterized.

Adams decided that this should be quite different from a conventional memorial piece. “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 [it] a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. . . . My desire . . . is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. ... Even though you might be with a group of people . . . you feel very much alone with your thoughts and you find them focused in a most extraordinary and spiritual way.”

Ultimately, Adams decided on a sound-collage approach that would mingle a large orchestra and mixed chorus, including a children’s chorus, with a pre-recorded tape of voices speaking words and phrases about the event drawn from a variety of sources. “I eventually settled on a surprisingly small amount of text. One is the simple reading of names [of the dead], like a litany, ... starting with the voice of a nine-year-old boy [saying over and over, “Missing”] and ending with two middle-aged women, both mothers themselves.”

The two women at the end repeat an enigmatic phrase: “I see water and buildings”; these were among the last recorded words of Madeline Amy Sweeny, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, as she tried to tell her supervisor what was happening on her doomed plane. Adams continues: “I mixed this with taped sounds of the city — traffic, people walking, distant voices of laugher or shouting, . . . sirens, breaks squealing — all the familiar sounds of the big city which are so common that we usually never notice them.” These ambient street sounds are what we hear at both the beginning and the end of Transmigration; it is as though we are still outside the door of Adams’ imaginary cathedral, about to enter and later depart from the sacred space of the music.

The composer chose other bits of texts from the New York Times’ remarkable series “Portraits of Grief”: brief, touching biographies of the victims as remembered by family members and friends. Another source was the missing-persons signs that dotted New York in the days and weeks after the tragedy.

The completed work was given the evocative title On the Transmigration of Souls. Adams explains its meaning: “ ‘Transmigration’ means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ . . . 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 who stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.”

For its first audiences in New York in mid-September 2002, On the Transmigration of Souls seems to have had the deep cathartic effect Adams had intended; it has since traveled around the United States and to Europe as well. In 2003, it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music, and in 2005 a recording made at those inaugural performances received three Grammy Awards. But more than most musical works, its effect depends to a large degree on the depth of concentration and feeling its listeners bring to it. “Modern people have learned all too well how to keep our emotions in check,” says Adams, “and we know how to mask them with humor or irony. Music has a singular capacity to unlock those controls and bring us face to face with our raw, uncensored and unattenuated feelings. That is why during times when we are grieving or in need of being in touch with the core of our beings, we seek out those pieces that speak to us with that sense of gravitas and serenity.”