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Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

5.0 1
by Lorin Maazel, Lorin Maazel
John Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls on commission from the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and this live performance, conducted by Lorin Maazel in only his second appearance as the Philharmonic's newly anointed music


John Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls on commission from the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and this live performance, conducted by Lorin Maazel in only his second appearance as the Philharmonic's newly anointed music director, was taped a year later at the opening of the orchestra's 2002 season. Adams steers clear of customary terms like "composition" when talking about Souls, labeling it instead a "memory space" that is intended for private reflection -- even if that experience is shared with other concertgoers. Fittingly, his work, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for music, follows no traditional mold, avoiding clear rhythm and melody in favor of an organic, slowly unfolding design. As the music begins, taped voices declaim the names of the dead in clipped, whispered utterances, intermingled with an insistent "missing." Sounds of city life hover in the background. A chorus sings angelic parallel chords. Gradually, the orchestra takes hold, at first with high strings and a doleful trumpet, while voices chant brief phrases -- such as "he was tall and extremely good looking" and "she had a voice like an angel" -- taken in part from the posters of the missing that sprang up across New York City in the days following 9/11. Tension builds with agitated string passages and heavy brass chords, reaching a high point as the chorus frenetically cries, "Light! Day! Sky!" The crisis over, voices once again coolly murmur victims' names and telling phrases of the day as the work draws to a haunting conclusion. It's no small task to express in music an event as powerful and freighted as that one, but Adams deserves full credit for creating a work of beauty that, in its essentially unsentimental and reserved way, speaks movingly to listeners. Stitched together in only two rehearsals, the Philharmonic's performance under Maazel could hardly be bettered.

Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - James Manheim
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, 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 reading off names of the dead -- a "minimalist" element that takes on great power. 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 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 fuse some of the conventions of memorials (the chorus, the cathartic recitation of detail) with a sense of continuing dread.
Gramophone - Rob Cowan
[October 2004 CD of the Month] This is no external narrative, more a shared ritual set to a mostly meditative backdrop, carefully thought through, deeply felt but unsentimental.... I cannot fault either the performance or the recording.
Time Out New York - Steve Smith
Wiser than his critics will allow, Adams borrowed tactics from Charles Ives -- restive microtonal dislocations, the lonely trumpeter of The Unanswered Question -- to evoke the ineffable in On the Transmigration of Souls.... Nonesuch's live recording captures Maazel in full command of a daunting score; his forces respond with utter security, imbuing the music with an awed clarity.
The New Yorker - Alex Ross
Adams does not try to depict the destruction of the World Trade Center blow by blow, nor does he write an official requiem. Instead, his music captures, on some raw, unconscious level, what it was like to be in the city on September 11th--to see millions wandering without purpose, to hear those importuning voices, to feel grief in sunshine. At the climax, the massed voices--here including the marvellous Brooklyn Youth Chorus, under the direction of Dianne Berkun--sing the words "Light! Sky! Day!" obsessively, and the music climbs far into the upper register, forming terrible bright chords of D major and C major combined. Then it all vanishes, and a semblance of ordinary life resumes: sounds of cars, buses, voices, footsteps.
Fanfare - James H. North
New Yorkers surely will need to hear this music, but Adams’s universality should make it meaningful to all, well beyond the city line.

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  1. On the Transmigration of Souls, for children's chorus, chorus, orchestra & tape

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Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As one who was there on that awful day, I am grateful to John Adams and filled with wonder for this work. We can and must remember, without hesitation, reserve or filter, and Mr. Adams helps us do that. This is not an easy piece to hear. It was not meant to be. It may not be for everyone. But it has a place for all of us.