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On the Transmigration of Souls
Composer John Adams In 2001, the New York Philharmonic commissioned American composer John Adams to write a piece to mark the first anniversary of 9/11. Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls received its premiere on September 19, 2002 at the opening of the NYPO's 2002-03 season.
Rather than focus on the actual events of 9/11 and all who were lost, Adams decided to center the work on those left behind and used their words, from posters hung around ground zero, as the source of the work's text. In an interview with Fred Child, Adams reflects on Transmigration and on the post-9/11 controversy involving his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the 1985 terrorist hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Listen to the interview (September, 2002)

John Adams (b. February 15, 1947)
On the Transmigration of Souls

John Adams grew up studying clarinet, and became so accomplished that he performed occasionally with the Boston Symphony. At Harvard he studied composition with distinguished teachers such as Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, Roger Sessions, Harold Shapero, and David Del Tredici. Armed with a copy of John Cage's book Silence (a graduation gift from his parents), he left the "eastern establishment" for the relative esthetic liberation of the West Coast, arrived in California in 1971, and has been based in the Bay Area ever since. During the ensuing decade he taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and explored an evolving fascination with the repetitive momentum of minimalism.

But by 1981 Adams described himself as "a minimalist who is bored with minimalism." That was the year he composed Harmonium, the first large orchestral work he wrote for the San Francisco Symphony as its composer in residence. Some of his most notable works -- including Harmonielehre, Grand Pianola Music, and the nativity oratorio El Niño -- were commissioned and premiered by that orchestra; he is currently working on a commissioning project for them for four new works.

In 1985 Adams began a collaboration with the poet Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars that resulted in two operas, Nixon in China (1987, based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 meeting with Mao Tse-Tung) and The Death of Klingoffer (1990, inspired by the hijacking, five years earlier, of the cruise ship Achille Lauro). Both have been widely produced internationally, making them among the most performed recent operas; they reveal Adams's willingness to use his music to address subjects rooted in contemporary life. Despite the heated responses these operas received from some, they were applauded by others for their subtle and non-partisan treatment of humanitarian issues. A third stage work followed in 1995: I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, a "song play" with a libretto by the poet June Jordan. I this work, as in many of Adams's instrumental compositions, one finds the confluence of "popular" and "classical" styles that reflects the breadth of his catholic inspiration and comprehensive language. Another telling example of this trait is his Naïve and Sentimental Music, a performance of which (by the Los Angeles PHilharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, one the Nonesuch label) is the newest entry into Adams's extensive discography.

A large-scale festival of Adams's music took place at London's Barbican Centre in January 2002. Further festivals will be held at Lincoln Center (March through May 2003) and in Rotterdam (March 2004). In 2003 he will succeed Pierre Boulez as composer in residence at Carnegie Hall. In addition to composition, Adams has grown increasingly involved in conducting, leading many of the world's most distinguished orchestras in programs that mix his own works with compositions by figures as diverse as Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Zappa, Ives Reich, Glass, and Ellington; in December 1999 New York Philahrmoni audiences heard him lead two all-Copland concerts. This followed the ORchestra's Dedication of its fifth annual COmposer Week to him in May 1997, performing his Slonimsky's Earbox and Violin Concerto (with Gidon Kremer as soloist)

INSTRUMENTATION: three flutes and piccolo (with third flute also doubling piccolo), three oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, glockenspiel, crotales, high trangles, chimes, suspended cymbal, brake drums, piano, celesta, quarter-tone piano, two harps, and strings, plus children's chorus, four-part mixed adult chorus, and pre-recorded sounds.
     References to The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives used by permission of Peer International Corporation.

-- James M. Keller, Program Annotator


Except where otherwise noted, the text consists of phrases from missing-persons posters and memorials posted in the vicinity of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Lower Manhattan, September and October, 2001.

"we will miss you...we all miss you...we all love you."
"I'll miss you, my brother, oving brother."
"It was a beautiful day."
"You will never be forgotten."
"She looks so full of life in that picture."
"I see water and buildings..."1

"Windows on the World"

"a gold chain around his neck, a silver ring...his middle finger...
     a small gap...his two front teeth...a little mole on his left
     cheek...a wedding band...a diamond ring."
"Charlie Murphy. Cantor Fitzgerald. 105th Floor. Tower One North.
     Weight: 180 pounds. Height: 5'11". Eye color: hazel Hair color:
     brown. Date of birth: July ninth, 1963. Please call...'We love
     you, Chick.'"
"Louie Anthony Williams. One World Trade Center. Port Authority,
     66th Floor. 'We love you, Louie. Come home.'"
The sister says: "He was the apple of my father's eye."2
The father says: "I am so full of grief. My hearts is absolutely
The young man says "...he was tall, extremely good-looking, and
     girls never talked to me when he was around."4
Her sister says: "She had a voice lika an angel, and she shared
     it with everyone, in good times and bad."5
The mother says: "He used to call me every day. I'm just
The lover says: "Tomorrow will be three months, yet it feels like
     yesterday since I saw your beautiful face, saying, 'Love you to
     the moon and back, forever.'"
The man's wife says: "I loved him from the start....I wanted to dig
     him out. I knokw just where he is."7


"My sister."
"My brother."
"I love Dave Fontana."
"My daughter."
"My son."
"It was a beautiful day...."
"I see water and buildings...."8
"I love you."

1 *AA #11 flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeny
2 sister of Francis Nazario; quoted in the New York Times's
     "Portraits of Grief," February 17, 2002
3 father of Paul Lisson; quoted in the New York Times's "Portraits
     of Grief," February 17, 2002
4 David WIlson speaking of Joshua M. Piver; quoted in the New
     York Times
's "Portraits of Grief," February 24, 2002
5 sister of Mary Yolanda Dowling; quoted in the New York Times's      "Portraits of Grief," September 16, 2001
6 mother of Michael Mullin; quoted in the New York Times's
     "Portraits of Grief," September 15, 2001
7 wife of L. Russell Keene III; quoted in the New York Times's
     "Portraits of Grief," September 17, 2001
8 *AA #11 flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeny

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