A listener’s thoughts on John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, which the PSO performs Saturday, Jan. 17 – Matt Campbell

John Adams will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in his Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls, a memorial of 9/11 commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic a year after 9/11, on Saturday, January 17 along with his Doctor Atomic Symphony. On the Transmigration of Souls was recorded by the New York Phil under Lorin Maazel, a son of Pittsburgh and former music director here in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts on the piece, the recording of which I’ve had for a while and listened to many times. I think this is a really remarkable piece of music, and I’m incredibly excited to hear it live, and with Adams himself conducting, it promises to be a really memorable experience that I’m sure I’ll cherish years from now.

Pittsburgh is very lucky to have Adams as its composer of the year. He’s in high demand everywhere, and the Metropolitan Opera staged his opera Doctor Atomic in the fall.

On the Transmigration of Souls isn’t so much a memorial of 9/11, and Adams in an interview on his website (http://www.earbox.com/W-transmigration.html) tries to avoid calling it a memorial. While the piece has connections and references to 9/11, the piece is more about loss, under any circumstances, and the reaction to it.

Adams, like Mahler in his Resurrection symphony, which the PSO will finish this year’s season with in June, gives us a work that is often tragic yet radiant.

Adams, in the same interview, said he called the piece On the Transmigration of Souls because the souls change state; they don’t disappear, death is not the end. So, to me, the work is therapeutic.

The piece starts out with taped sounds of what you’d hear walking down a street in New York City, just traffic noise, walking, a few laughs. Then, voices begin reading names of 9/11 victims, and another voice interjects “missing” at various points, while the chorus sings quietly in the background. The music is static, and you feel like you’ve entered a room, and you’re watching and waiting. Then, to the music, Adams adds another layer, and the voices continue reading names, but now add in longer phrases, “Jeff was my uncle,” “my father,” “eye color, hazel” that I find more touching because uncle is more informative than Jeff; names don’t tell you much about a person. When you hear “Jeff was my uncle,” you start to think about your uncles, and making that association is powerful because it taps into your own life and relationships. The chorus starts, in a very static manner, singing words now, while an off-stage trumpet quotes from Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” The trumpet is posing the question of existence, and in Ives’ work, the trumpet repeats the melody seven times, while different instruments, unsuccessfully, try to answer. At the same time this is going on, the voices are saying “I’ll miss you,” “God bless you.”


One of the things that makes this work so special is that it is universal: it’s about loss, not simply about 9/11. So, the pieces engages listeners in the people they’ve lost in their lives. The piece gives you the chance to meditate.


The texture starts to change, and the chorus sings “You will never forget” and “You will never be forgotten.” That’s interesting, because it reminds the loved ones left behind that they’ll never forget the lost husbands, wives, children, cousins, friends, co-workers, etc. In the interview,

Adams says this piece won’t heal the wound of losing a loved one, and it’s not meant to. And really, in the immediate aftermath, nothing can. Instead, he just tries to provide comfort with this work.

The different layers within the textures are what make Adams’ piece interesting. With the voices, you have the names of victims. The chorus and the instruments, which are in the background and are very subtle and veiled, provide an emotional reaction. The music is shaping your reaction to the names and the details about the 9/11 victims, but you don’t realize it.

The music begins to build up, slowly, and the chorus sings about some symbols of relationships like wedding bands and rings. Then, the music comes to a near-standstill before the voice saying “missing” returns, with searing stabs from the strings. Then, suddenly, there’s a terrible episode. The music staggers. Perhaps, it is the moment of first learning of the loss.


The next section of the piece has the chorus singing phrases about different people. The lines are like “The sister says: She had a voice of an angel, and she shared it, with everyone. In good times, or bad.” It goes to the mother, waiting for her lost son to call her, as he did every day. Then, to the lover, who says it’s been three months since they saw their lover’s beautiful face, saying “I love you.” This is one of the most remarkable parts in the piece for me. The different sections of the chorus (such as the tenors and the altos and the sopranos) separately sing “I love you,” but the words and pitches get all smushed and obscured and the words lose definition, they become blurred. To me, it’s time robbing you of the details of the person you lost. With each passing day, the sound of their voice, their mannerisms, their face, all these details gradually lose definition; time is slow, and corrosive.


The music becomes more intense, rising to a painful climax. The music isn’t music. The rushing chords, blaring brass, and cacophony and chorus are less sound, and more visceral emotion. It’s the physical emotion that hits your stomach, makes you lose your breath. But then the climax ends in a terrified manner. The low brass hit a pedal, and the strings churn back and forth. It’s like waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified.


To me, the music recreates just the physical emotion you feel when you learn of the death of someone close to you. At this point in the music, there’s no melody, nothing really to grab onto with your ears. And so often in contemporary classical music, people react negatively because there’s no melody for them to follow. But 9/11 can’t be contained in a melody.

Adams’ music is visceral, surging, uncontrollable, it lurches, sways from side to side. The music should be ugly and uncivilized. There’s a desire to throw aside the manuscript paper or computer and go get a shovel and rush to Ground Zero.

Then, the music calms down, and the voices begin reading names again. The strings and orchestra again provide the emotional reaction, and you hear the orchestra fighting to come to terms with the loss. It’s not easy, and the music is always ambiguous. One second the strings sound soothed, but then the music becomes less assured.


Then, as the voices say their goodbyes to their lost loved ones, the strings, tremolo, begin to rise, slowly and quietly. The traffic noise returns, and it’s a new day. The pain will pass, and life will continue.

1 thought on “A listener’s thoughts on John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, which the PSO performs Saturday, Jan. 17 – Matt Campbell”

  • I went to the BSO to see this performance and yes what the above blog says is the journey to took with the piece. I just recently lost my father and the raw emotion came from me as I listened and relived his lost as I associated with the losses of those affected by 9/11

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