John Adams, On The Transmigration of Souls

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 08.08.11 in Reviews

On the Transmigration of Souls

John Adams

Our 9/11 Requiem. The piece that got Adams his Pulitzer. There was (and remains) a lot of distracting reputational noise around “On the Transmigration of Souls” — so much so that it can be a challenge to actually hear the work underneath. And while it’s easy to see how a piece of this nature, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to open its 2002 season one year after 9/11, could be overestimated on the basis of sentiment alone, you should really try to hear it with ears stripped of all cynicism.

The sirens and other street sounds played on tape, underneath the orchestra and chorus, aren’t gimmicks; they tie back to Adams’s early interest in musique concrete. And while no one would mistake the Philharmonic’s then-music director, Lorin Maazel, for a progressive champion of new music, the conductor smartly saves the biggest dynamic wallop for the emotional climax: a moment where the chorus, taking as its text a widow’s testimony to the New York Times, proclaims of a dead husband: “I wanted to dig him out / I KNOW… JUST…WHERE HE IS.”

The effect is incredible.