Berkeley composer offers music amid New York’s post-Sept. 11 grief

The Associated Press
Wednesday September 25, 2002

NEW YORK - The faces said it all. No beaming smiles, only frozen stares. The 252 performers standing on stage at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City had just completed the world premiere of John Adams' “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a meditative tribute to the victims, survivors and heroes of Sept. 11. 

The 25-minute composition, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its season-opening week, took the performers and audience on a solemn journey of pain, uncertainty, hope, loss, yearning, remembrance and resolution. 

“There are two eruptions of emotion, although not necessarily representing the collapse of the twin towers. I didn't want to turn it into some kind of musical documentary,” Adams said from his home in Berkeley. 

Besides the philharmonic, the huge ensemble, led by Lorin Maazel, included children's and adult choruses, two pianos, celesta, two harps and an array of speakers that engulfed the audience in a dizzying cityscape. Last week’s concert began with the recorded sounds of the whoosh of traffic, footsteps and a siren.  

Then a young boy slowly repeated “miss-ing, miss-ing,” before the hushed mantra of names started a sanctified roll call of unwitting martyrs. Moments later, the adult chorus entered, “re-mem ... re-mem-ber,” and repeated it two dozen times. 

The text, compiled by Adams, also quotes from missing persons' posters: “She looks so full of life in the picture.” Family comments published in The New York Times' “Portraits of Grief are also included: “The mother says: ‘He used to call me everyday. I'm just waiting.’ ” And a cellphone call from a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the first tower is addressed: “I see water and buildings.” 

“It really has almost nothing to do with the violence or the cause of the event. My piece really is a piece of remembrance and reflection - it's really about loss and grief,” Adams said. 

Adams said he was trying to create an aural space for reflection rather than a requiem. “You know when you go into those great cathedrals in Europe?” he said. “Most people are quiet. But still, there's always sound. You hear people walking, and you hear city noises and I sort of wanted to bring that kind of feeling into the hall and into the piece.” 

The philharmonic, which began its season this month under new music director Maazel, commissioned the piece with financial support from an anonymous “longtime New York family. 

“It's our way of saying it's an event we would like to commemorate and we would like to continue to commemorate,” Maazel said in an interview shortly after enlisting Adams last January. 

Adams, one of America's most successful classical composers, has written operas about President Richard Nixon's trip to China and the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He had only six months to finish this one. 

“I had very conflicting impressions when I was asked to do the piece,” he recalled. “I was very wary of having another piece on the pile of what's going to be going on in New York during that (first anniversary) month. I just wondered whether maybe the best thing to do was just be silent because I really feel that the country has just been overly saturated with imagery and continuous imploring to remember. On the other hand, I felt that it was something that I had a duty to do as an American artist, that it was something incumbent on me to accept.” 

After the final fadeout at Avery Fisher Hall, Maazel and the Philharmonic's musicians, the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus stood stoically and the audience quietly applauded. As Adams entered the stage during subsequent curtain calls, the response warmed, crescendoing into an enthusiastic ovation.