Site-Specific Music - by Tom Savage
"On the Transmigration of Souls" Music by John Adams.
Words assembled by John Adams
The New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel
Brooklyn Youth Chorus led by Dianne Berkin
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt,
Director Joseph Flummerfelt, Director
Sound Design by Mark Grey
Review by Tom Savage
Because On the Transmigration of Souls is the first piece of classical music inspired by the World Trade Center disaster, its premier was attended with and preceded by an enormous amount of press coverage for a new work of contemporary concert music. The composer was interviewed many times in the New York press and on the radio. This performance, being given in the city where the event occurred and happening only a week after the much-publicized one-year anniversary of the catastrophe, added even more psychic weight to the presentation and reception of the piece. Thus one is forced to evaluate not only the work itself but how it achieved the objectives and intentions presented by John Adams in the many statements he made about it. Ultimately, the work itself will have to stand on its own without reference to its creator's intentions. When and if the work is revived decades from now, it will be easy to listen only to the music itself.
But that isn't the case, at least for now.
John Adams is one of America's most well-known and widely performed living classical composers. At first famous for his groundbreaking operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghofer, he may have seemed the obvious choice to be commissioned for a work about September 11th. These operas were radical when first heard in 1987 and 1991 in part because they dealt with events from the news. They were written in the musical style called Minimalism, which involves constant repetitions of triads and tetrads, also associated with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, among others. While these composers have chosen to remain within the Minimalist mold, John Adams broke with that style. He has written non-Minimal work for voice and orchestra at least since The Wound Dresser (1989), a wonderful piece for baritone and orchestra which sets most of one of Walt Whitman's Civil War poems to music.
On the Transmigration of Souls opens with a taped sound like waves or soft machines purring. The first word spoken is "missing." Then the chorus joins in. The names of the dead, by tape and acoustical inventiveness, appear to be coming from the walls of the concert hall itself or from the audience. Then there is a musical quotation for horns from by Charles Ives. The first part of the orchestral writing sounds vaguely twentieth-century French with a touch of A Fanfare For, The Common Man, but without directly quoting any of Copland's work. Some of the words presented were also broadcast as supertitles (or surtitles) on a large screen above the choristers' heads. (Although the Metropolitan Opera and City Opera have used titles for years, this season is their debut at the New York Philharmonic, where they will be used for any music they play this year which employs text, whether in English or some foreign language.) A more conservative, though modernist musical language dominates On the Transmigration. There is one short, loud section played by drums which seemed to represent the collapse of the WTC buildings, but this was very short. The climax on "I love him. I know just where he is" verged on the melodramatic for a piece intended to be contemplative rather than descriptive but this, too, was short. The true climax of the work, aesthetically and emotionally, comes with a marvelous, almost Mahlerian, setting of the repeated word "light." At one and the same time, "light, light" reminds us of the light from the World Trade Center fire, the experience dying people have of a bright light just before unconsciousness, or whatever, takes over, and Goethe's dying words ("more light, more light"). It may even be an indirect reference to the idea of "enlightenment" or "reincarnation" or "rebirth" to some listeners. This is the piece's most effective moment. It's sad but fixable that at the first performance one was distracted by the continued presence on the surtitles by the phrase "love you to the moon and back." At first this phrase was effective. One thought, oh well, we went to the moon once, in 1968, or at least our astronomical representatives did. But with repetition, this phrase came to seem sentimental and obtrusive. This was followed by a further recitation of names, which was okay. At the end of On the Transmigration of Souls there is a quiet return to the water-or-machine-like sound that began the work and which here achieves what Adams intended, a kind of tranquil passing over from turmoil. But the voices coming apparently through the walls throughout the piece inevitably conjured up the idea of ghosts of the dead rather than their survivors to whose concerns Adams says he addressed the piece. Are the survivors the real ghosts? It's an interesting idea but may not have been the intended one. Transmigration is a little more than half as long as Gabriel Faure's Requiem, a masterpiece which achieves throughout what Adams intended but achieves only at the end. If this work is John Adams' bid to become America's new public composer, a role assumed by Aaron Copland in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, he may succeed with this work for as long as September 11th remains the national obsession it currently is. But whether that role is destined for Adams, or even if he wants it, is anyone's guess. There is no doubt he was genuinely moved by September 11th and he conveys that successfully to the audience.
Adams has said that he wanted to create a work without a point of view which has an effect similar to that of walking into a great cathedral. But assuming that no organ is being played and no priest or preacher has begun to speak, isn't the effect of a large, holy place one of silence? Those non-believers among us who go into churches only to meditate in the silence experience something other than what this musical work provides. As wonderful a piece as it is, there is very little silence in On the Transmigration of Souls. If one is looking for that kind of peace from music, one might have to follow this fine work with some music by John Cage or Morton Feldman to achieve either the absence of a point of view or the quietness aimed for. This isn't to say that On the Transmigration isn't complete as it is. Here I'm only referring back to Adam's statements to see if they are realized in the music or if something quite different from his intentions and equally valid may have been achieved.
Although On the Transmigration reminds one of Adam's Wound Dresser, a work which demonstrates some of the horrors of was and the sadness of the relationships between men who wage these wars, and deserves to be reheard whenever our country contemplates or wages a war, the musical work which parallels Transfiguration most in thought content if not in musical style is Richard Strauss' orchestral poem Tod Und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) (1889). Although scored for an orchestra without human voices, the Straus work, like the Adams' Transmigration, begins quietly and lasts between twenty and thirty minutes. It also ends peacefully, as does the Adams. But the Straussian heroics, perhaps influenced by Liszt's orchestral style and Nietzsche's philosophical ideas, are absent from On the Transmigration. Adams seems more interested in the ordinary, human experience of dying, whatever follows, and the experiences of those who survive, than was Strauss. On his deathbed Strauss is reported to have said that dying was just as he depicted it in Tod Und Verklarung. Of course, the victims of 9/11 don't have the luxury of telling us what their dyings were like. Thus Adams' work has to rely on the survivors' words. Adams has said that he has no desire to depict the actual events of the destruction of the WTC and the deaths of thousands of people in his music. He also claims to have no desire to produce a requiem. Instead, his aim is to produce a "memory space." But because the events of 9/11 are still fresh in the minds of most New Yorkers, hearing or seeing a work relating to those events inescapably comes to depict them. On the Transmigration of Souls is a wonderful work. It makes one cry and cheer. But there is more serenity in the parallel works of Strauss and Faure. Perhaps, one day, that won't matter.