A Musical Memory Space

John Adams, On The Transmigration of Souls

Friday, August 12, 2011

John Adams was one of the first major composers to take on the challenge of writing a work to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001. His Pulitzer Prize-winning work On the Transmigration of Souls is something of a sound collage, performed by orchestra and choirs along with pre-recorded ambient sound: we hear a voice reading names of people who were lost in the towers, the choirs singing reminiscences of their family members.

But when writing his tribute to the fallen, Adams actually avoided using terms “requiem” or “memorial,” because he felt they were too specific. In a 2002 interview he said he'd "probably call the piece a 'memory space'. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions."  

He recently described that space to WQXR's Brian Wise as a giant cathedral: “where you go in out of a sun-filled, busy, urban street… and the moment you’re inside, you’re in this very quiet space, where you feel you’re in the presence of thousands of souls — people who have lived and whose spirits are there.”

John Adams elaborates on the genesis of On the Transmigration of Souls in an interview with WNYC's John Schaefer:

WNYC's Soundcheck (John Adams; 9/10/2002)

What are your reactions to the Adams piece? Did it succeed in creating that desired "memory space"? And maybe more to the point, what would a piece have to do to appropriately honor the complexity of such a moment?

WQXR will air its complete interview (excerpted above) with John Adams in the weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001.


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Comments [1]


Adams may well be one of the first, or at least one of the first known composers, to do so. But I'm certain there are countless others. Though I have barely any recollection of it, I composed "The Birds of Barclay Street" on 9/12/01, a short work for piano inspired by the events there. I'm honored to have it performed again, this time on 9/11/11, at the New York Chamber Music Festival.

Aug. 16 2011 09:47 PM

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