Composer John Adams Reflects on Pulitzer Work, Public 'Overreaction' to Sept. 11

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Composer John Adams, looking back at On the Transmigration of Souls, his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece remembering the victims of Sept. 11, expressed satisfaction with the work's success, but also concerns about the abundance of 9/11-related art in the last decade.

In a wide-ranging interview, Adams also took issue with what he perceives as the American public’s overreaction in the aftermath of 9/11, while noting that his “feelings to the American response to the attacks are very complex.”

“I was sensitive to Philip Roth’s remark that September 11th became a kind of orgy of self pity,” said Adams. “I think some people could have been very offended by that comment but I understand and felt it myself.

“When we look at what other countries have had to put up with – what Europe suffered by Allied bombing and what England suffered by the Nazis' bombing or what Japan suffered by endless firebombing that literally destroyed almost every Japanese city and killed millions of people – yes, this event was tragic and it was kind of a terrifying and very profoundly disturbing thing.” Yet, he added, “In a sense, there was an overreaction. Americans said, ‘what, you can’t do it to us. We can do it to you. You can’t bomb us.’”

The 25-minute On the Transmigration of Souls, for orchestra, chorus, children's choir and tape, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in Jan. 2002 and premiered in Sept. 2002. The piece's texts are drawn directly from the victims' names, from missing persons' signs and excerpts from The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" series. The work won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and the Philharmonic’s recording of it won three Grammys in 2005.

The composer expressed particular regret that the commissioning orchestra hasn't revisited the work, nor will it be reviving it around the 9/11 anniversary. “I was disappointed that the New York Philharmonic didn’t bring it back," he said. "But they realized they would have to make their concert play to potentially millions of people and a quiet, reflective piece in a contemporary idiom was just a hard sell for a concert that had to speak to so many people. So I understand their choice to default to Mahler.”

The Philharmonic will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on Saturday, Sept. 10 (to be broadcast live on WQXR and on PBS). Adams’s piece will be heard on the Philharmonic’s regularly weekly radio broadcast on Thursday, Sept. 8. In an interview in the New York Observer, Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert said the piece was too "loaded with associations" for this particular moment.

Adams noted that the complex piece has become easier to perform. It no longer requires real-time electronics, synchronized with the orchestra, but rather, “it can be run off a DVD or laptop,” he noted.

Other artists have wrestled with personal questions about whether about 9/11-themed works are exploitative or reactionary.

“My reaction to Sept. 11 has as much to do with my connection to New York City as with the United States,” said the composer Aaron Jay Kernis, in an interview with WQXR’s Naomi Lewin. “While I can see in scale in lives lost a vast difference to events in the last century and previous centuries, it is impossible to take away the visceral and deeply scarring toll that the event has had on New Yorkers in particular.”

John Corigliano, whose piece One Sweet Morning reflects on 9/11 and will be premiered by the New York Philharmonic in late September, expressed ambivalence. “To look at how England deals with [terrorism] is amazing,” he said. “So we have to learn to deal with this. After a while it took its perspective as a tragedy in the midst of many tragedies.”

As the composer of operas like Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, Adams views Transmigration in a larger framework of his socially and politically engaged music. “I’ve written operas about Nixon and Mao and communism and capitalism, about the atomic bomb, about terrorism,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a political composer. I just think that I can use my musical voice to articulate and make expressive certain events in the national psyche that need to be poeticized. It's in the way that the great dramatists were poeticizing their experiences or Dante his.”

Adams on the Inspiration for 'Transmigration':