9/11 Special: John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)

Photo by Margaretta Mitchell

by Derrick Lord

It happened much the same way these type of things usually do — be it Elvis, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin … whatever: Late one night, roused out of sleep by a sound on the radio you’ve never heard before, or can’t quite place — something different. That was my introduction to John Adams and his 2002 piece “On the Transmigration of Souls.”

At first, there were street sounds and sirens. Understandably, that is probably what woke me. Then came the sound of a boy’s voice chanting names, monotone, over and over. A lot of names. Different names. I couldn’t understand what it was. A quick glance at the XM radio gave me the information, through bleary eyes, that what I was listening to was a composition by someone with the oddly presidential sounding name of John Coolidge Adams — and the name of the music had something to do with souls.

Somehow, I vaguely became aware that it had something to do with 9/11 souls. I’m not sure if I recognized some of the names or maybe it just made sense. Whatever the import of the piece or the subject, I’m afraid I failed to give either the proper respect they deserve and promptly rolled over and went back to sleep.

So much for that. Or maybe not. The next day, I got curious and I did what we always do here in the post-Elvis age (some might prefer as “BE” and “AE”) — I Googled. Perhaps it speaks somewhat of the power of the piece, or the subject, that it stuck with me long enough to even remember those sketchy details.

I won’t fiddle with the truth here: “Souls” is difficult, not so much because it is a classical operatic piece of the minimalist school but simply because 9/11 is the type of subject that so many of us have so many different feelings about — and further still, so many of us just don’t know how to feel about what happened, even after such a long period of time. I believe it would be fair for me to say there are so many different emotions stirred by those memories that there is no way to predict how any piece of music of this nature is liable to strike a person.

“Souls” is such a work and it turns out that John Adams is such a composer. It was tough to get a handle on any opinions because it seemed every review on Amazon.com was different. Depended on whom you asked. Either Adams was inspired (a 2003 Pulitzer Prize and three 2005 Grammy Awards make the point) or he was a cheap hack making a few bucks off 9/11.

It is an interesting thing that the collapse and fall of the towers, 10 years ago today, has produced a certain effect among some. They just got tired of hearing about it and very quick. Some of the negative reviews on Amazon seemed to be inflicted with this peculiar disease. But “The Transmigration of the Souls” is too powerful to be so easily dismissed: Much of the “lyrics” of the 25-minute recording are nothing more than words and names taken directly from the homemade missing posters that began to appear all over New York. The playing is as wonderful as you can expect from the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned the piece in 2001 for the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

Adams, it turns out, is likely at least as interesting as the piece — since the liner notes tell the tale of charges of anti-Semitism thrown at one of his previous compositions (1991’s “The Death of Klinghoffer”) as well as unstated controversies regarding his piece “Nixon in China” -– neither of which I’ve heard, or had a clue about previously. “The Death of Klinghoffer” also faced accusations of romanticizing terrorists, which also makes Adams a very interesting choice indeed to compose a piece on 9/11. I imagine there is quite the interesting story about that somewhere, but even Google has its limitations apparently.

In the end, I suspect we would all agree the 9/11 was a miserable day, though with occasional dashes of inspiration thrown in. Ultimately, how much enjoyment you get from the music will depend on how much you want to relive that particular experience — and that is what makes “Souls” a tough call.

“On the Transmigration of Souls” is an intriguing enough piece of music to investigate. In its entirety, I find it a sad, lonely work without many answers or inspiration given in the end.

Then again, that pretty much sums up my 9/11 experience.

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Derrick Lord

Derrick Lord

An Alabama-based blues- and roots-music lover, Derrick Lord was an original co-founder, with S. Victor Aaron and Nick DeRiso, of the music site that grew into Something Else! Reviews. One of Nick's all-time favorite meals happened with Derrick, at the legendary Dreamland BBQ. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Derrick Lord