On the transmigration of souls...

Jun 6, 2014

Does 9/11 feel to you like it was a long time ago?   Members of the Peabody Children’s Chorus, who are performing with us this week and who are singing about the event, were not even alive when it occurred.  What understanding could they possibly have of the text they are singing?  But wait, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  (And perhaps it is their innocence which gives the text poignancy anyway.)

John Adams, one of our country’s most prominent and most admired living composers, did a brave thing.  He was approached about writing a piece of music for a 9/11 memorial in 2002, when the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh.   And he said yes. The result was On the Transmigration of Souls, for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, and an anonymous New York family.

Reading interviews with Adams about the piece, it is clear that he approached the project with some trepidation. And rightly so. “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 the piece a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and e alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event – in this case to 9/11 – is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event.” His desire to distance himself from writing a “9/11 memorial” is clear. And one can hardly blame him. Many composers writing a piece of this nature, so soon after a traumatic event, could be accused of exploiting the event for purposes of self-promotion, or of misrepresenting the events, taking a political point of view, elevating victims to martyr status, over-romanticizing, or any number of other possibilities for misinterpretation. Art is allowed (and maybe even expected, in our modern American culture which prizes romanticism and emotionality) to do all of those things. Yet John Adams chooses not to.

Adams claimed he wanted to create a “memory space.”  He does so, eloquently.  This 23 minute experience of sound layers, in obvious homage to Charles Ives, has moments which are stirring and poignant, but which allow the listener to have their own personal experience.  The use of text fragments gleaned from missing person posters is emotionally potent, but not sensationalized. Adams does not play upon our emotions, but instead suggests, in an oddly distant manner, that we feel them.  

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” (Thomas Merton)

The Baltimore Symphony performs this work,  followed by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, all weekend long.  Come prepared for an experience.

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Lura Johnson