In reviewing "On the Transmigration of Souls," John Adams's Pulitzer Prize-winning memorial work to commemorate 9/11, I hope my (usually) reliable words don't fail me. For this is a difficult task, given the effect this work can have on one. It is an unusual work, psychically and spiritually moving almost beyond description, and I believe we all should be thankful that the commission for the work had been awarded to Adams, for I perceive no other composer - certainly no other American composer - as being even remotely up to the task set out. Adams succeeds on every possible level (despite his apparent initial concern that a suitable musical memorial was in fact possible). This is a work of universality, not polemical or political or jingoistic in the slightest. It is neither a requiem nor a kaddish but is in fact a true memorial to those who were lost, not only by Adams, but, through the texts used, by the people who suffered those losses.
And, while it is a "public" piece, it is one of such "private" introspection that it seems to me that only through the recording medium - and then under the best of circumstances, such as the quietest possible background ambience or, better yet, listening with headphones - can its fullest impact be properly made, if only to establish that every single sound one hears in this work is intended to be there. (I had the opportunity to hear the concert performance of the work when it was webcast. I took a bye at the time, and I'm glad that I did. I feel as if, had I listened then, I would always be wondering whether I was actually listening to the work qua work or to the work under "live audience" conditions, with the distractions such conditions can produce.)
"On the Transmigration of Souls" borrows somewhat from, or at least builds largely on the soundworld of, Charles Ives. This works on multiple levels, in both obvious and unobvious ways. There is some innate symbolism in how it mirrors the ambiguity of "The Unanswered Question" in a number of ways (including an intoned trumpet solo, performed to perfection here by Philip Smith, the NYPO principal trumpeter). In various places, the strings play simple diatonic harmonies, just as in TUQ. The nature of the work is, at its core, collage-like, again an Ives touchstone. And there is an unforced connection that may be made between this work and the final movement of Ives's Second Orchestral Set, Ives's spontaneous creative reaction to being in a New York crowd of people on the day that the Lusitania was sunk.
But there are other touchstones familiar to those who know Adams's works well. His earlier masterpiece, "Harmonielehre," established a connection with the soundworlds of Sibelius, Mahler and Wagner, and it is to Sibelius that he seems to turn when, about 17 minutes into the work, a great brass peroration, as if to rise to the sky, punctuated by bold timpani strokes, leads into a massive choral outburst: "light...day...sky..."
"On the Transmigration of Souls" opens with what sounds like normal street noise. But it is soon followed by readers softly intoning "Missing..." and an a capella choral entrance with only harp accompaniment. Then begins the reading of names, softly repeated across the sonic stage. Gradually the orchestra enters as the name reading continues. The solo trumpet intones the Ivesian touchstone, as if to suggest: "What IS the answer to this question?" The choral richness grows ever so slowly and subtly as the readings include not only names but personal reminiscences of the day - and the loved ones lost - that constituted 9/11.
The orchestral music becomes more collage-like; fragments come seemingly from everywhere; harmony becomes more ambiguous and unstable. After eight minutes, the choral intonations become more minimalistic and repetitive, as if to match the readings of the speakers.
At 10 minutes, one hears footfalls while further descriptions of the lost victims continue. A sinister tone on contrabassoon and double bass underpins the readings, and then the brass begin to lash out, with timpani strokes and percussion, mainly bells. At 12 minutes, the chorus begins to intone a more soothing incantation, with the children's choir, and then the adult chorus, singing the tributes and remembrances; once spoken, now sung.
The choral outburst leads to a cacophony of bells and strings, gradually to subside, leading into, at the 17-minute mark, the Sibeliean brass peroration and then the bold massed choral entry. Ultimately the brasses struggle upward and downward simultaneously briefly, fading to (once again) enigmatic string fragments as the reading of the names resumes. Near the 21-minute mark, the harmonies settle into something less ambiguous; more identifiable, almost Mahlerian in their angst, then only to have the enigmatic string harmonies, now mainly in the tonic, return as if to once again and finally remind us of "The Unanswered Question." There is also an Ivesian transcendence to the final harmonic ambiguities, not unlike the closing bars of his 4th Symphony, just prior to the final fade-out, when the street noise is all that is faintly left.
All of this takes place in just 25 minutes, and this is the only work on this Nonesuch "CD Single." We are left to contemplate the day, and the music - what Adams calls "a memory space" - in commemoration of the day. And that is as it should be.
I have long been an admirer of Adams and his compositions. He long ago moved well beyond his initial characterization as a "minimalist," in conflation with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, to become an "artist without stylistic borders." "On the Transmigration of Souls" is an unquestioned masterpiece; absolutely everything about it is "right": it hurts; it doesn't heal; it reminds us; and it must be heard.