A composition by contemporary musician John Adams
, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic
to commemorate the events of September 11th
, 2001; the composer has called the piece "a musical space for reflection and remembrance, of meditation
on an unanswerable question
." The work can thus, to a certain extent, be seen as New York's official commission in memory of 9/11. p>
Mr. Adams accepted the commission freely and immediately
, despite his extremely crowded schedule and the very minimal time
which was available for him to write the piece, some six-odd months, less than half of the time usually needed to plan and execute
a large-scale orchestral work. Additionally, the commission was paid for by a private and anonymous donor
, which speaks well of things, in a way
"Transmigration" is scored for orchestra, chorus, children's chorus, and prerecorded sound, and was given its world premiere on Thursday, September 19th, 2002 in a program also featuring Beethoven's 9th Symphony, that ageless tribute to that which is best in humanity.
The libretto for the work is unusual: instead of poetry, with its measured eloquence, Adams selected as the piece's text the simple, poignant words which could be found, scattered like leaves, throughout New York after 9/11. In his words:
The text falls into three categories. One is the simple reading of names, like a litany. I found friends and family members with different vocal timbres and asked each to read from the long list of victims. Then I made a sort of mantra-like composition out of the tape-recorded reading of these names, starting with the voice of a nine year-old boy and ending with those of two middle aged women, both mothers themselves. I mixed this with taped sounds of the city — traffic, people walking, distant voices of laughter or shouting, trucks, cars, sirens, steel doors shutting, brakes squealing — all the familiar sounds of the big city which are so common that we usually never notice them.
While a recording of the reading of names and the city noises quietly surrounds the audience, the onstage chorus sings texts that I took from missing-persons signs that had been posted by the families of the victims in the area around Ground Zero. These signs, photos of which were taken by Barbara Haws, the New York Philharmonic's archivist, had tremendous poignancy. Most had been hastily written and photocopied, usually with a snapshot photo along with a physical description and often a heart-wrenching little message at the end, something like "Please come home, Louie. We miss you and we love you." What I discovered about the language of these messages was that it was invariably of the most simple and direct kind. No one stunned by the shock of a sudden loss like this has time or inclination to speak or write with eloquent or flowery language. Rather one speaks in the plainest words imaginable. When we say "words fail" in situations like this, we mean it. So I realized that one of the great challenges of composing this piece would be finding a way to set the humblest of expressions like "He was the apple of my father's eye", or "She looks so full of life in that picture."
The title of the work, "On The Transmigration of Souls," refers not only to the 'transmigration' of life to death, and from death to - well, who knows what - , but also to the transformation of living people's 'souls' in the aftermath of tragedy and sorrow, that is, the process of change, of grieving, of anger, and of forgiveness. In this respect, a parallel could be drawn to Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem", which is consciously concerned not with blessing the dead, but with comforting the living. (And incidentally the "German Requiem" was the first piece the New York Philharmonic performed after the 9/11 attacks, replacing a planned Beethoven violin concerto. (The performance was the first of the season, and was conducted by then-music-director Kurt Mazur; it was his final season - Lorin Maazel is now music director and conducted the premiere of transmigration).
Mr. Adams has shown a remarkable affinity for Music Drama in the past, in works such as the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the oratorio "El Nino." And while as of this writing (Nov 1, 2002) no recordings are commercially available of "On The Transmigration of Souls," given the wide media exposure of this piece it is doubtless that one will eventually be available.
I, for one, can't wait.