On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams


Nonesuch has recently released a recording of John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, performed by the New York Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel conducting. The recording was taken from live performances in 2002 of the world premiere performances of the work, commissioned by the Philharmonic to commemorate the attacks of 9/11. The work won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003.

The idea of writing a musical work to reflect such horrific events is daunting, but John Adams is the composer for the job. Who else but Adams has taken on such events as Richard Nixon’s visit to China (Nixon in China); the Palestinian/Israeli conflict (The Death of Klinghoffer); and the HIV/AIDS pandemic (The Wound Dresser)?

In recent interviews Adams has been quite firm in his statements that On the Transmigration of Souls is not a Requiem, but the apotheosis of memory in musical terms. The music begins and ends with recorded street sounds and recitation across the sound horizon of names of the missing. (A listening tip: be sure to listen to this piece either in a very quiet room or on headphones to get the full impact of the soundscape. I haven’t heard the piece live, but I’m guessing that much of the impact is lost in the concert hall.)

The musical language is full of typical Adams “flora and fauna” and reaches two large climaxes before fading away, as the souls are released and we are left with our memories.

This is a powerful work.

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