Adams On the Transmigration of Souls

A musical postlude to a tragedy, sensitive but powerful, and well-suited to recording

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Adams On the Transmigration of Souls

  • On the Transmigration of Souls

When I first heard this 25-minute Pulitzer Prize- winning musical response to 9/11 at the Proms last year, I was unsure. Listening alone to the CD is a very different experience: pre-recorded speaking voices that were lost in the hall spring to meaningful life and the sensation of private grieving – so essential for what is in effect an extended threnody – never lets up.

On the face of it, Adams took on an almost impossible commission from the New York Philharmonic. Abstract ‘tragedy’, like religious myth or narrative, has often inspired great music; far less so tragic, historic events that call for a more personal response. Sixty years on from the Holocaust we’re still waiting for a worthy commemorative masterpiece, so it is much to Adams’s credit that On the Transmigration of Souls is a relative artistic success.

Nonesuch has done well to issue this as a CD single. My initial impulse after first hearing was to listen to it again, which I did – and might not have done had there been something else on the disc to distract me. It may well be that, like Reich’s Different Trains, Transmigration is best heard in private, so that sundry noises – street sounds, walking, talking, the distant drone of a police siren – can catch the imagination.

And yet this is no external narrative, more a shared ritual set to a mostly meditative backdrop, carefully thought through, deeply felt but unsentimental. There are no references to specific events, no hints of melodramatic overkill that might make for short-term poignancy but which posterity would possibly deem surplus to artistic requirements. Instead, names of victims, sometimes particulars, recollections (‘she had a voice like an angel’) and fragments such as ‘light… day…sky’ that rage towards the end of the piece and that Adams infuses with pathos.

The use of a choir of children avoids clichéd ‘innocence’ while the tortured climax that sets in at around 17'17" has the gnarled, angry, at times hopeless, aura of the storm’s eye in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony.

The most affecting passage in Transmigration (the title alludes to all manner of migration, physical or abstract) is the quiet, otherwordly coda with names pattering down, evocative of a crucial image recalled by Adams as more significant than most: the silent paper blizzard, millions of displaced documents that floated lifelessly to the ground after the attack, a symbol more telling than most. This is surely an aspect of Transmigration that will endure once 9/11 has become painful history and the events that grow out of it, whatever they may be, have replaced it in the foreground of our consciousness. I cannot fault either the performance or the recording.

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