John Adams is an American composer, best known for his operas, the symphonic fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, On the Transmigration of Souls. He was born in Massachusetts, graduated with a BA and a MA from Harvard, and taught at the San Francisco Conservatory. In addition to directing the New Music Ensemble at the conservatory, he also worked in the electronic music studio. His work has become quite popular, especially Short Ride in a Fast Machine. His operas Nixon and China and Doctor Atomic are frequently performed nationally and internationally.
His style is minimalist, but rather than born out of personal exploration, it occurs as a reaction to the serialism that was prominent during Adams college years. He reacted against the scientific and methodical approach of serialism. Initially he began to explore electronic music, however, this did not satisfy his compositional ideas. The pulsation and tonality he found offered the means of expression he desired.
Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls in 2002, for a commission by the New York Philharmonic. It was premiered in New York on September 19, 2002. It was commissioned as a tribute to the events of 9/11. Adams does not consider this work a “requiem” or “memorial;” he also did not attempt to create a narrative though the piece. Rather, he considers the work a piece that creates a “memory space” where one can retreat with personal memories and thoughts related to this or any tragic moment.
To create this “memory space,” Adams begins with a recording of quiet city noises that soon evolves into the reading of names of the missing, as the choral and orchestral texture gradually thickens. (Recorded sounds and the names of the victims will reappear throughout the work.) The texts sung by the chorus and children’s chorus are drawn from the heartbreaking “missing person” notices that sprang up around the World Trade Center site after the attacks. One of Adams’s inspirations for this kind of layering of various quotations is the early 20th-century composer Charles Ives, and he makes this especially clear by including a long reference to the trumpet solo from Ives’s The Unanswered Question. A long opening section ends with a sudden thinning of the texture, and the sounds of digging. The music grows threatening and there is quick burst of anger from the orchestra, which just as quickly subsides into a long choral passage. This reaches an emotional peak with the words “I know just where he is,” followed by a ferocious orchestral interlude. The chorus responds with the words “light” and “love”—failing at first to stop the orchestra’s fury, but the music eventually subsides, and the work ends with long, quiet, and deeply touching epilogue. The last words we hear—“I love you.”—are the best response of all to tragedy and horror.
This work is unique in its’ conception. Given the gravity of the occasion for which it was commissioned, Adams employed many stylistic elements from several portions of his past, such as the use of prerecorded electronic sound. It is hard to compare this work specifically with another work, not only because it is a synthesis of many approaches, but is is also of a slightly different genre than most of his output. The use of electronic aspects is comparable with some of his work from that period, although in On the Transmigration of Souls it mostly functions to create a sound scape for the work. The minimalism found in the orchestra and voices is comparable to the minimalist qualities of his operas, specifically Doctor Atomic. The use of percussion is also heavy in both works.
I attended a performance of this work in New York in 2005. It was one of the most moving musical moments of my life. The ethereal and spacial qualities created by this piece are immense and extremely appropriate to the occasion for which it was created.
Catherine Pellegrino. Aspects of Closure in the Music of John Adams. Perspectives of New Music. Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter, 2002). p. 147-175. http://www.jstor.org/stable/833551.
Sarah Cahill. "Adams, John." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/42479.