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

Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - 05:07 PM

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':

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Comments [18]

Frank Feldman

God save the listening public from John Adams. Is there anything worse than his music? Perhaps John Adams pontificating about his music. But I don't think so.

Sep. 18 2011 07:34 PM
Robert from NYC

Since the article doesn't include any quotes from John Adams substantiating the claim that he feels there might be too much 9/11-related art, we have to take writer Brian Wise's word for it. But if true, it is remarkable. Here is an artist who produces a work specific to 9/11 -- a work that garners a Pulitzer, 3 Grammys and the composer's own satisfaction -- and the artist regrets that the commissioning body hasn't performed his piece again, not even for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Yet this same artist is supposedly concerned about the abundance of 9/11 art.

Might Adams' concern be seen as self-serving? Wouldn't a Pulizer be enough to make an artist feel his work has earned a secure place amidst all the competing works from fellow aritsts? Who should decide which artists are permitted to create topical artwork? Should there be limits to the number of topical pieces an artist can produce? (See the long list Adams has created!)

I wish this "wide-ranging interview" had included some more questions for the artist who produced a work related to 9/11 yet is concerned that there are too many artworks related to 9/11.

Sep. 12 2011 12:22 PM
Concetta Nardone from Elmont, NY

It is a disrespect to the memory of the dead to keep bringing this terrible day over and over again. Please let them rest in peace. The history of the world is full of terrible events. Let them rest in Abraham's bosom.

Sep. 12 2011 11:27 AM
Music mama from NYC from nyc

How amazing that we Americans are so blessed to be able to deal with our collective horror and grief publically through music-making at this level. If others had an opportunity for free expression of this kind, perhaps this level of violence against us would not have had to occur in the first place, for the perpetrators to get the exposure and validation they craved. So many must suffer intense loss in silence and fear. We must continue to express, as a statement of good against evil, openess over insidious ill-doing. We must stand collectively against evil, and be that beacon of light and healing for the suppressed and kind-hearted to see,hear and be inspired to hope for themselves. (I hope this is possible.) I sang in Adam's "Transmigration", as well as the Brahms "Requiem" that was broadcast Thursday night. Ten years ago it was healing for me, and I prayed that it would help someone listening, as well. It is interesting to listen now, and remember how I had felt back then. There was a level of anxiety that I hope to never have to feel ever again. But it is important to remember our own terror, so that we will feel for others in similar circumstances, and stand for them when they cannot for themselves.

Sep. 08 2011 10:46 PM
Richard from UWS, NYC

Bernie, politicians and celebrities? ... there's a measure of nuance.

Sep. 08 2011 07:32 PM
Bernie from UWS

I stand by my earlier comments. I think too many composers easily fall in line with an orthodox way of thinking - that classical music must only "uplift" people and there's no room for questioning the conventional wisdom.

That said, I commend Adams for taking a potentially unpopular stand as a public figure. I also believe he's far more nuanced in his views than most politicians or celebrities are today.

Sep. 08 2011 07:24 PM
Richard from UWS, NYC

Aren't we sick of John Adams yet and his hideous music and pathetic thought process -- both banal and without nuance.

Sep. 08 2011 06:45 PM
Michael Meltzer

The job of the musician (or any artist) is to help us confront and work through our feelings (e.g.: Brahms Requiem), not to judge our feelings. Hopefully, we can be shown how to experience them in a beautiful and memorable way and lessen the chaos, to be made to feel that the world makes a little sense.

Sep. 08 2011 06:33 PM
Mike from Brooklyn

Thanks for the lead, Steven. At your prompting, I read up on the controversy surrounding several of its performances, as well as its characterizations. Of particular interest was Adams' dismissal of Richard Taruskin's analysis. Good to learn something everyday!

Sep. 08 2011 03:43 PM
Steven R, Gerber from NYC

Mike from Brooklyn:

You are right, but if you know anything about his opera "Klinghoffer," you will not be surprised that he said nothing about terrorist bombings of Israel.

Sep. 08 2011 03:03 PM
Mike from Brooklyn

Excellent point, Mr. Gerber! Let me add another in an attempt to balance Mr. Adams' weirdly skewed bombing list: terrorist attacks within Israel in shopping malls, bus stops, pizzerias, nite clubs etc. In the time-frame 2000-2006, the Israelis were struck 95 times in this manner, creating a "ground-zero" somewhere in their country on a monthly basis! Anniversary commemorations are almost pointless there, and if the Israel Philharmonic were to make musical revisions with each tragic occurrence, none of the standard classical repertoire would find its way onto the concert program.

Sep. 08 2011 02:45 PM
Richard Brode from Manhattan

Mr. Adams is right, but perhaps did not explain it in the best of terms.

September 11th was a day that we will never forget. I, for one, was standing not from the WTC looking at the first attack when the second occurred. It was an image that blackens my memory still. For days, weeks, indeed months my eyes would well up seeing the posters of missing people. And years later I had to leave the exhibit half way through at St Paul's - that blackened memory came racing back.

This Sunday we will all revisit it. To remember, to feel the brute strength of it - it will all come back - which I think is natural. And I, for one, will have to endure it. But I will not, nor should any of us, wallow in pity and self-importance. This was a tragedy not only for the people who died and their families - surely they suffered the most - but all of us in some manner. And not just this country. The kind of hatred which was expressed by the hijackers was not theirs alone. History has proved this through the centuries. And as humankind owns it, so it owns the solutions. If we are to learn anything from this, we need to listen and help rather than pound our own chests.

Sep. 08 2011 02:20 PM
Steven R. Gerber from nyc

Adams's comments on politics, especially World War 2, are remarkably obtuse. It is telling that of the 3 examples of bombing he mentions, in a defensive war fought to defeat Hitler (and then Japan), 2 of the examples he gives are of bombings done by the Allies. As a composer I am not surprised, because most artists tend to be obtuse about politics, but Adams's comments are absurdly p.c., naive, and ideologically based.

Sep. 08 2011 01:22 PM
Flute Lady from New York City

There's no doubt that people in other countries have also had similar tragedies to deal with, and that the media is saturated with talk about the anniversary. But our national tragedy is not relative, and should not be belittled in an "our loss was worse than your loss" kind of way. Nobody has the right to say that to anyone else. And by the way, I lived in England for years during the 1990s and I found it shocking how people still took every imaginable opportunity to bring up the subject of the blitz, as if it had just happened the previous week, while dismissing any mention of 9/11 in "can't you Americans just get over it already?" terms. The fact is that WW2 ended long ago, while we have no such assurance about the battle against the latest evil of terrorism.

Sep. 08 2011 12:35 PM
Steve from White Plains

He's right. After all, were we still going 'oh, poor pitiful us' about Pearl Harbor in 1951? Hell no, we won, we beat them, nuked them twice, end of story. Well guess what America, you've caught up to the rest of the world. They've suffered 100's of times what we did that day. What about 'the blitz' for one thing? Well guess what? Bin Laden's dead, Al-Queda is a shadow of it's former self, they can't even get a shoe bomb or an underwear bomb right, they're done. Suck it up and move on, I say.

Sep. 08 2011 11:14 AM
KRB from Boston

I do not agree with what I see as an exclusive focus on the 9/11 attacks on New York City. Manhattan is one part of the United States -- a vast, diverse, complicated and still remarkable country. 9/11 was a shared national tragedy and sorrow, an act of terrorism that profoundly affected our collective psyche. By limiting our attention to the World Trade Center we forget that a plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania (one of my closest friends was on it) and into the Pentagon. Yes, the 10th anniversary is overhyped -- as a society, we tend to overhype lots of things -- but it is a tragic event in our national history worth contemplating and commemorating.

Sep. 08 2011 06:22 AM
Bernie from UWS

Adams makes some excellent points. This week the cable TV networks have gone completely overboard with all of this nonsense. Enough with the 9/11 self-pity.

It was tragic that a couple thousand people died, but it's far less than have died in any of the wars the US has fought in, or even who die in traffic accidents in an average year. We don't see that kind of wall-to-wall news coverage around anniversaries of Vietnam, WWII, etc. I hate to say it so bluntly but we've become a nation of crybabies.

Sep. 08 2011 06:05 AM
Michael Meltzer

In all our lives we come to experience grief, and not only once, and we all recognize that when it goes on for too long it is not healthy. But, in the case of mass murder, too many of us have suffered for too long from the opposite malady, indifference.
I think it is commendable that so many have identified with 9/11 victims and empathized with and even helped their survivors. Part of the reason that the unspeakable evil of the Jewish holocaust, Ruanda and those lesser in body-counts but no less evil like Budapest and Beijing's Red Square, have happened is because the perpetrators have always known that deep down, the most of the world really doesn't care enough to get involved.
Our unique involvement may be a humanitarian turning point, and can be kept healthy simply by continuing to channel it into reconstruction and aftercare for victims, and we're doing a good job of that. Guilt, witch-hunts and public displays of self-flagellation are clearly the wrong way to go, and in fact give a measure of victory to the perpetrators.

Sep. 08 2011 03:13 AM

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