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John ADAMS (b.1947) On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
New York Choral Artists
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Philip Smith (trumpet)
Preben Antonson (boy’s voice). Other voices: Sam Adams; Emily Adams; Ditsa Pines; Deborah O’Grady; Morgan Staples.
Mark Grey (soundscape engineering)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
Recorded in concert at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City, 19-24 September 2002. DDD
NONESUCH 7559 79816-2 [25’04"]
RECORDING OF THE MONTH for September

 

I was eleven years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 so that event didn’t make quite the same impact on me that it would almost certainly have done if I had been a few years older. However, I know that many people older than I still say to this day "I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard that Kennedy had been shot." The dreadful events of September 11, 2001 made a comparable impact on me and on millions of other people worldwide. No doubt that was due in large part to the truly awful nature of what unfolded that day. The fact that the dreadful drama was played out in front of a worldwide television audience magnified its impact immeasurably.

For me there was another factor that brought the events home hard. Just the day before my 20 year-old daughter had arrived in Manhattan to visit for a few days. Happily I was able to contact her within minutes of first hearing about what everyone still thought then was a terrible accident. Over the following anxious days until she was able to fly home our frequent telephone calls gave me a small insight into the impact of the terrifying events in New York. How unimaginably worse must it all have been for those bereaved or injured by the tragedy, those anxiously waiting for news of missing loved ones and for those seeking to find, rescue and tend to the victims?

Whatever one’s stance on the political and military events that have unfolded across the world in the aftermath of 9/11 I doubt anyone would deny that that day was a defining one in the modern history of our world. Equally, the overwhelming majority of the global population can only have felt compassion for all those innocent people caught up in the savagery of that day.

Now, in response to a commission from the New York Philharmonic and the Lincoln Center, financially supported by an anonymous long-time New York family, John Adams has produced a musical response to 9/11. In so doing he has focused on the innocent victims of that day. This recording was made ‘live’ at the première and the series of performances that followed the first performance. In the past John Adams has confronted political and controversial events in his music, most notably in his operas, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which dealt with the hijacking of the cruise liner, Achille Lauro and, of course, in his masterpiece, Nixon in China (1987). On first hearings it seems to me that he has treated 9/11 with the same conviction and sensitivity that he brought to the afore-mentioned operas (I’m well aware that Klinghoffer is a controversial piece.)

The composition of this work must have represented a huge challenge to Adams in all sorts of ways and I don’t think I’m being trivial when I suggest that one of the hardest things must have been to find a suitable title. How to avoid mawkish sentimentality or brazen patriotism? The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb transmigrate as: "(Of soul) pass into, become incarnate in, a different body." So, it seems to me that perhaps Adams is suggesting in his title that the victims of 9/11 have truly "moved on". But there’s more to the work than this. In a recent article in Gramophone magazine the composer had this to say: "I wanted a cathedral-like feeling: you’re aware that hundreds of years’ of souls have passed through the building but there isn’t any grief or the horrible stabbing pain of having lost someone. It’s not about the dead. It’s about the survivors. It’s about those who were left behind to struggle with the obscene incongruity of it all." I think anyone coming to this extraordinary piece needs to keep in mind those words of John Adams for it is surely the key to why he has chosen to use for much of his text the words of the bereaved about their loved ones.

In his enthusiastic first review my colleague Neil Horner gives an excellent overview of the construction of the work and I refer readers to that. I find it fascinating that Adams has drawn on Charles Ives’s movingly elegiac The Unanswered Question both in the haunting trumpet solo near the start of the work and also in the string music towards the close. Adams, as conductor, has already given us an outstanding recording of Ives’ score on his excellent and provocative 1989 album, American Elegies (Nonesuch 979249-2), which I enthusiastically commend to readers. Here I find it genuinely moving that he should have been so clearly inspired by the earlier American composer. Is it stretching things too far to suggest that at the heart of both works is the question "Why?"

There are two loud passages in the piece, the second of which is a great tumult (between 15’53" and 19’59") where I suspect Adams is expressing horror and revulsion at the waste and injustice of 9/11. For most of its 25 minutes, however, Transmigration is quiet and subdued in tone and for me this restraint just makes the music all the more effective and moving. The use of spoken and sung fragments of words about the victims takes a bit of getting used to but I think it’s an appropriate and sincere form of artistic expression. The last few minutes, in which a mood of peace and even radiance is attained, are very affecting.

I have a tape of the radio broadcast of a performance by Adams and BBC forces at the 2003 Henry Wood Promenade concerts. The vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall and the attentiveness of the large audience contributed to the sense of occasion and atmosphere but I think this CD recording gets us closer to Adams’ work. So far as I’m able to judge, Lorin Maazel directs an excellent and committed performance into which the tape of street noises and speaking voices has been most effectively interwoven. There’s a very good note, which sensibly ranges wider than a discussion just of this one work by Adams and the English texts are provided. I believe that the CD is offered at mid-price to reflect the short playing time; it would have been an impertinence to include any other music on the disc.

I have little doubt that John Adams’ portfolio of compositions to date includes at least three masterpieces in the shape of The Wound Dresser, El Niño and, most of all, Nixon in China. I am not yet sure whether On the Transmigration of Souls is another masterpiece, nor whether it is a Great Work of Art. However, my reservation is simply because the piece has not yet had time to sink in sufficiently. I think definitive critical judgements must be deferred until, after the passage of time, we have a greater sense of perspective both about 9/11 and about John Adams’ musical response to it. What I am sure about, however, is that Adams has produced a sincere and moving piece of music, avoiding excess or poor taste very skilfully indeed. It is a work that should be heard widely and which should be listened to very carefully. It deserves no less.

Neil Horner described this as an "absolutely essential disc." I can only concur and recommend it strongly.

John Quinn

see also review by Neil Horner

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RECORDING OF THE MONTH John ADAMS (b. 1947) Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4’05"] The Wound Dresser* (1988) [19’19"] Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983) [25’28"] Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924) arr. ADAMS Berceuse élégiaque (1991) [9’27] *Nathan Gunn (baritone) Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop Recorded at the Lighthouse Poole Centre for Arts, UK, 10 – 11 June 2003. DDD NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559031 [58’20"] [JQ]

Excellent performances in good recorded sound .... an ideal very inexpensive introduction to one of the most stimulating composers currently before the public. Well-nigh ideal. Urgently recommended. ... see Full Review




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