John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls

During the 2011-2012 season the Utah symphony is playing all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, in reverse order. This weekend’s season opener of the 9th symphony, with its choral finale, will be sure to attract large crowds, who will also have the pleasure of hearing On the Transmigration of Souls, by contemporary composer John Adams.
We asked Chad Cannon, a Utah native who recently graduated from the Harvard School of Music and is now attending Julliard, to send us some comments on the piece:

On the Transmigration of Souls is dedicated to the victims of the Sept. 11th terror attacks. It starts with a recording of the NY cityscape, with sirens and automobiles, after which you begin hearing the victims’ names read aloud. The orchestra and choir then come in gradually, as if emerging from the dust in Lower Manhattan. A children’s choir is used in addition to a full choir and orchestra, and they all sing words written on the walls and fences surrounding Ground Zero. The effect of the whole piece is highly tragic, and even more haunting.

The piece is somewhat unique for Adams because it avoids taking a strong stance on the politics of the situation, and instead just focuses on reflecting on the events of that day. Some of Adams other works have been very controversial. In particular, there is an opera called The Death of Klinghoffer, which was about a Palestinian terrorist attack on a boat in the 80s. His portrayal of the Palestinian point of view caused a lot of negative backlash, as it was thought to be too positive (they said he gave too much credence to the terrorist actions). This is actually also connected to Sept. 11th since there was a Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performance of the choruses from the opera scheduled for the week of September 11th, which got canceled because it contained a terrorist theme. Adams was very upset!

As for understanding it, you just need to know that Adams’ music is all about rhythmic variety. He usually uses some very basic harmonies (though they get complex as he stacks them – something called “clustering” in modern music), with a ton of rhythmic “hiccups” or shifts. Adams comes from the Minimalist school of composition, which came about as a reaction to ultra-Modernism in the 50s and 60s, so his music is full of this kind of patterning. I think the piece is fantastic. I actually had lunch with Adams in April as part of one of my classes at Harvard, where we studied his music. He was in Boston for the Boston premier of Transmigration, which was put on by the Harvard choirs and orchestra. He is a great guy and a brilliant composer. Another piece you should definitely check out is his Dr. Atomic Symphony, which is an orchestral work taken from his opera Dr. Atomic, which is about the creation of the atomic bomb and the events at Los Alamos leading up to Hiroshima.

Utah Symphony
September 9, 10 | 8 pm

Thierry Fischer, Conductor
Erin Morley, Soprano
Jill Grove, Mezzo-Soprano
Garrett Sorenson, Tenor
David Pittsinger, Bass-Baritone
Utah Symphony Chorus
Madeleine Choir School

Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 “Choral”

more info

related content: See our article on Frank McEntire’s Spontaneous Memorial, honoring the September 11th victims, in this month’s edition of 15 Bytes.

Categories: Music

1 reply »

  1. I have had this CD since it came out. Steve Reich has a brand new piece, WTC 9/11 which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. Structurally similar to the piece Different Trains which they commissioned Reich to write probably 20 years ago. The Reich p[iece comes out on September 20th but is already available on It-Tunes or through Nonesuch. Worth a serious listen.

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