The date: September 19, 2002. I was riding in a car, somewhere on the Triborough Bridge, 8 PM. The New York Philharmonic was about to broadcast the premiere of its joint commission with Lincoln Center’s Great Performers and one anonymous wealthy New York family. “On the Transmigration of Souls” by John Adams (b. 1947), for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and prerecorded tape, was prompted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
I was stiffening internally, for I have mixed feelings generally about the Phil, and about radio broadcasts. I did not have mixed feelings about 9/11, however. It was the “direct/indirect” cause of my leaving Manhattan after 22 years to purchase an affordable co-op in Queens. I saw the planes hit the towers from my day job at the now-defunct Saint Vincents Hospital, and felt the frustration as all those immaculate gurneys sat in Seventh Avenue outside the emergency room, waiting for victims that never arrived. Twelve people I had known, albeit casually, died. I had PTSD for about a year afterward, obsessively scanning the air over Manhattan, fully expecting every plane either to explode midair or crash into a building. Nightmares, depression, the whole deal.
So, it was not with a great sense of optimism that I was greeting the broadcast. How could any occasion-specific music not trivialize this cataclysm? However, when the piece began, with rustling city sounds, whispered names and faint pleas, I was a goner. “Missing.” “Remember me. Please don’t ever forget me.” “It was a beautiful day.” “I love you.”
Adams described the piece as a “memory space” where each listener can be alone with his or her thoughts. He said that he wanted to create a similar sense to that one has upon entering one of the vast cathedrals like Chartres, a sense of the thousands of previous souls that had been there over time, and awe in the space itself. He wished to avoid any words like “requiem” or “memorial” because he said they suggested “conventions” that his piece didn’t share; and he hoped that the work would outlast its immediate cause. “Serenity” and “gravitas” were his hoped-for aims, in lieu of the much-overused “healing.”
“Transmigration” won the 2003 Pulitzer, and the recording of the premiere also won multiple Grammys.
Adams has become one of America’s most representative composers, while remaining experimental AND accessible, both at once. His operas “Nixon in China” (1987) and “Doctor Atomic” (2005) are modern classics. The controversial “Death of Klinghoffer” (1991) brought an unheard-of public discussion, pro and con, about opera into mainstream media. Clearly, he doesn’t shrink from difficult topics. The politics in “Nixon” bring Adams squarely into the Verdi “Risorgimento” tradition. He worked with the same team of Alice Goodman, librettist, and Peter Sellars, director, on his operas.
In 2000, his oratorio “El Niño” was premiered in Paris. It tells the Nativity story from the woman’s (mother’s) point of view, by using only texts by women authors, including contemporary Latin-Americans. It too, garnered its share of supporters and detractors.
He has also composed piano music (“China Gates” and “Phrygian Gates”) and large orchestral works, like “Harmonielehre,” “Shaker Loops,” and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” to name but a few.
Adams continues on his way, with a Zen-like placidity, composing from inner necessity, and fortunate that he can make not only a living, but an impact from his work. I call him the “maximal minimalist.”
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs