The Green Room: John Adams

Classic Arts Features   The Green Room: John Adams
The composer talks about On the Transmigration of Souls, his September 11 memorial piece, which the New York Philharmonic premieres this month.

Composer John Adams conceived On the Transmigration of Souls‹the work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its opening week of concerts ‹ not as a requiem, but as a "memory space, a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions." Asked to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, he found his muse in the spiritual power of timeless, majestic European cathedrals. He sought to express in musical terms "both the serenity and the kind of 'gravitas' that those old cathedrals possess" and the feeling of being "in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them."

Although he only had six months to write the piece, Adams didn't hesitate to accept the commission. He said that the major artistic challenge was finding and setting the appropriate text. Realizing very quickly that the "lofty eloquence of poetry" was exactly the opposite of what was needed, he turned instead to "incredibly plain language ‹ the sort of stuff that normally no composer would be attracted to because it's so banal." The text, much of it taken from missing-persons' signs posted around New York City, includes simple messages such as "Remember" and "Please don't ever forget me."

While those words are performed by an on-stage chorus, the work also includes a pre-recorded recitation of names (taken from the long list of victims), interwoven with sounds of the city.

According to Adams, the word "transmigration" refers not only to the movement from one state of being to another, "but also the change that takes place within the souls that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed." While his piece was informed by a visit to Ground Zero as well as conversations with policemen and widows of fallen firefighters, the composer hopes that the work's message of grief and loss, while inextricably linked to 9/11, will be universal.

Elena Park is editor-in-chief at

Recommended Reading: