For 9/11: John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls

On the Transmigration of Souls. Loren Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral artists and Brooklyn Boy's Choir.(Photo: Nonesuch)
On the Transmigration of Souls. Loren Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral artists and Brooklyn Boy's Choir.(Photo: Nonesuch)

I was late on board the John Adams bus. He’s reached the top of the music profession-and not just the “classical” music profession-without me. Nixon in China is done everywhere. Penny Woolcock made a gorgeous film of The Death of Klinghoffer. The Chairman Dances, Fearful Symmetries, El Nino, and Short Ride on a Fast Machine are only some of his works, all written the past thirty years, that have entered the international repertoire.

I “came of age” in New York in the early 1980s. Adams and Phillip Glass were the “minimalist” bad boys of music. Wanna talk branding? Minimalism was the grunge of the early 80s. Except minimalists had too many college degrees and drove taxis.

I well remember a new music concert by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center thirty (gulp) years ago. Adams Grand Pianola Music was on the program. It’s an experiment in sounds, cluster of notes that are bent, stirred and shaken. Not to know Grand Pianola Music back then was a sign of being resolutely uncool. The concert was sold out. For the last thirty seconds of the piece there was a discernible tune. You could hum along. And with that, the audience rose and screamed and booed and cried and booed some more. A tune! Shame!

I came to enjoy Adams’s music. I admire the craft. I admire the wit and the precision. I still get the sense he’s trying to put one over. Adams rewards repeated listening.

For the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Adams wrote On the Transmigration of Souls for Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic. Loren Maazel conducted the premiere on September 19, 2002.

This is a sound collage. First there’s about 30 seconds of the sounds of that day. Sirens. Papers and debris blowing. People running. Laid over the orchestral fabric is at first a wordless chorus. Then the names of some of those lost are intoned: John Florio, Christina Flannery, Kaylan K. Sarkar, John Bergin…..

A young boy repeats “Missing…missing” (this tears me up).  The rest of the words are verbatim from the bulletin board memorials placed all over lower Manhattan in the days following. Some words are spoken, some sung by the chorus

I’ll miss you, my brother, my loving brother

She had the voice of an angel, and she used to share it with everyone, in good times and bad.

He used to call me every morning

I loved him from the start…I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is.

Mozart, Verdi and Brahms are among the composers who knew how to grieve and comfort at the same time. So did Barber.  So does John Adams.

Listen to Musica Sacra, presenting sacred choral music Sunday nights at 8 on Classical 101.

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