Friday, December 18, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)

This is the last Hippies vs. Punks post of the year. Next week I'll be out of town, and the week after is New Year's Day. Continuing with the December theme of quiet, I stumbled upon my few John Adams records this past weekend.

On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) is the choral work Adams composed to memorialize the 9/11 attacks. Commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic, it is the rare piece of contemporary classical music, clocking in at 25 minutes, that achieved not only broad critical acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and multiple Grammy's in 2005, but some crossover success as well. For instance, I bought the album in my hipster neighborhood rocker record store a decade ago (back when more brick & mortar record stores existed).

On the Transmigration of Souls moves from sort of background noise musique concrete, to full on discordant earth-shattering sublimity, to harrowing emotional loss, to jarring diabolical ominous modernism.

What is effective about the record is that you can never really place yourself in a classical narrative structure or a minimalist loop. I have probably listened to On the Transmigration of Souls 20 times this past week, and each time I have difficulty locating myself within the sequence of the composition. This I believe to be Adams' intent, a sonic isomorphism of the transmigration process when the soul leaves the body to take up another form.

When I was still in the possession of my college stereo and its two big-woofered speakers and I would be listening to On the Transmigration of Souls, whenever the part where the loud pattering/splattering of the bodies that had jumped from the towers would commence, followed by a jarring/shearing thunderous collapse of the World Trade Center skyscrapers, I would become totally agitated. Since I like to take my sonic medicine, I would ride it out. But it was painful.

The fact is 9/11 really fucked things up. How badly it fucked things up is daily on display. It terrified people. We'll have to revisit this. Before signing off let's hear from the composer himself, who was quoted in The Guardian:
Adams went to Harvard in 1966, but abandoned his music studies for a factory job because he wanted to compose. His success was crowned following 9/11, when the New York Philharmonic invited him to compose an 'aural monument' to the victims of the terrorist attacks. His choral ode, On the Transmigration of Souls, was premiered by the orchestra in 2002. 
However, Adams believes that the Republican administration manipulated the memory of the attacks. '9/11 was a very glamorous event,' he said. 'I'm using the term in a very ironic sense - 3,000 people being killed; it's a terrible tragedy, but in the scale of human tragedy it's very small. 
'I think Americans went into what the novelist Philip Roth called "an orgy of narcissism" as a result of 9/11 - we kept replaying those images and kept re-reminding ourselves of what an indignation and how horrible and terrible that event was. And then, of course, we struck out by invading the wrong country.'

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