On The Transmigration of Souls

Our in-class listening for September 10 and 11 is On The Transmigration of Souls by John Adams.

On The Transmigration of Souls is described by the composer as a “memory space” for the victims of 9/11. He explicitly avoided words like “memorial” or “requiem.”

The piece begins with the normal sounds of traffic in New York City – passing cars, sirens, doors slamming. Voices begin to speak words. At first we hear names, and the word “missing.” Soon the voices add more personal qualifiers – “my brother” and “my uncle.” Later words are taken from the hastily produced flyers that were posted after the event on any window, fence, or wall that would allow it. The orchestra and chorus add in, at first with beauty, and later with a cacophony of chaotic noise.

Adams says about the title:

“Transmigration” means “the movement from one place to another” or “the transition from one state of being to another.” It could apply to populations of people, to migrations of species, to changes of chemical compositon, or to the passage of cells through a membrane. But in this case I mean it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.

9/11 greatly affected my life, personally and professionally. Many of my students today see 9/11 as yet another event in history to learned about, repeated on a test, and promptly forgotten. I hope that our listening and discussion can bring a personal element to the story and remind us all of the impact that this event had on individuals, the United States, and the world.