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On the Transmigration of Souls
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Product Description

This is the first recording of Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls (which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music), by the orchestra and conductor that commissioned and premiered it. Adams grips from the start, with a slow buildup of taped mundane city sounds, the obsessively repeated word "missing" superimposed on them. The taped texts are drawn from fragments found on missing person posters, newspaper memorials, and the names of victims of the 9/11 attack. Sometimes the taped voices dominate; at others, the chorus intones the texts; the orchestra an ever-present commentator, its impressionistic harmonies fulfilling Adams' description of creating a "memory space" where each listener can find a personal response to the events. The orchestra erupts in an overwhelming climax after the words "I wanted to dig him out," managing, in a brief passage, to encompass anger, deep grief, and the enormity of the tragedy. Then it subsides into a long, slow decrescendo overlaid by the quiet recitation of names, as if the souls of the title hover over us. Adams has created music for his time and place that fulfills music's ability to move us. --Dan Davis

Customer Reviews:

  • A Shattering Experience; A Crowning Glory for Adams
    Fellow Amazon reviewer Bob Zeidler had recommended this recording to me ages ago and I did indeed buy it. But I left it in its shrink wrap until today. I had thought, from reading earlier reviews, that I would need to be in the right mood and have the opportunity to give it my full attention. As it happens, today -- Veterans' Day, the day we honor our war dead -- seemed appropriate, and I also had the house to myself with no pressing obligations. After the first time I was in tears. I've now listened to it three times back-to-back and have to say that it has been one of the most powerful musical experiences I've had in a long time. I realize that I have not much to add to what has already been said by earlier reviewers, except to add my own endorsement and also to call attention to the really quite wonderful booklet notes by composer/critic David Schiff. I didn't read them until after my first time through. That first time I simply sat back and let the work soak in, referring from time to time to the printed texts on which the work is based. Then I read Schiff's essay and found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with much of what he had to say about Adams, about the work, about Adams's approach to it. I particularly liked that he (as did Zeidler) gives some credit to that quintessential American composer, Charles Ives, for pioneering the sound-layering technique that Adams uses so effectively here. He does it so much better than Steve Reich did in his (to me) meretricious 'Different Trains.'

    My advice is that anyone the least bit interested in current music, Adams's in particular, or in having a fitting and moving memorial for those awful events of September 11, need look no further.

    Will this work last? Of course, one cannot be sure. But just as Britten's 'War Requiem' has lasted far beyond its memorialization of the dead in World War II because of its musical and universal values, I believe Adams's 'Transmigration of Souls' will, too.

    Scott Morrison...more info
  • Incredibly, intensely moving; yet ultimately cathartic.
    In reviewing "On the Transmigration of Souls," John Adams's Pulitzer Prize-winning memorial work to commemorate 9/11, I hope my (usually) reliable words don't fail me. For this is a difficult task, given the effect this work can have on one. It is an unusual work, psychically and spiritually moving almost beyond description, and I believe we all should be thankful that the commission for the work had been awarded to Adams, for I perceive no other composer - certainly no other American composer - as being even remotely up to the task set out. Adams succeeds on every possible level (despite his apparent initial concern that a suitable musical memorial was in fact possible). This is a work of universality, not polemical or political or jingoistic in the slightest. It is neither a requiem nor a kaddish but is in fact a true memorial to those who were lost, not only by Adams, but, through the texts used, by the people who suffered those losses.

    And, while it is a "public" piece, it is one of such "private" introspection that it seems to me that only through the recording medium - and then under the best of circumstances, such as the quietest possible background ambience or, better yet, listening with headphones - can its fullest impact be properly made, if only to establish that every single sound one hears in this work is intended to be there. (I had the opportunity to hear the concert performance of the work when it was webcast. I took a bye at the time, and I'm glad that I did. I feel as if, had I listened then, I would always be wondering whether I was actually listening to the work qua work or to the work under "live audience" conditions, with the distractions such conditions can produce.)

    "On the Transmigration of Souls" borrows somewhat from, or at least builds largely on the soundworld of, Charles Ives. This works on multiple levels, in both obvious and unobvious ways. There is some innate symbolism in how it mirrors the ambiguity of "The Unanswered Question" in a number of ways (including an intoned trumpet solo, performed to perfection here by Philip Smith, the NYPO principal trumpeter). In various places, the strings play simple diatonic harmonies, just as in TUQ. The nature of the work is, at its core, collage-like, again an Ives touchstone. And there is an unforced connection that may be made between this work and the final movement of Ives's Second Orchestral Set, Ives's spontaneous creative reaction to being in a New York crowd of people on the day that the Lusitania was sunk.

    But there are other touchstones familiar to those who know Adams's works well. His earlier masterpiece, "Harmonielehre," established a connection with the soundworlds of Sibelius, Mahler and Wagner, and it is to Sibelius that he seems to turn when, about 17 minutes into the work, a great brass peroration, as if to rise to the sky, punctuated by bold timpani strokes, leads into a massive choral outburst: "light...day...sky..."

    "On the Transmigration of Souls" opens with what sounds like normal street noise. But it is soon followed by readers softly intoning "Missing..." and an a capella choral entrance with only harp accompaniment. Then begins the reading of names, softly repeated across the sonic stage. Gradually the orchestra enters as the name reading continues. The solo trumpet intones the Ivesian touchstone, as if to suggest: "What IS the answer to this question?" The choral richness grows ever so slowly and subtly as the readings include not only names but personal reminiscences of the day - and the loved ones lost - that constituted 9/11.

    The orchestral music becomes more collage-like; fragments come seemingly from everywhere; harmony becomes more ambiguous and unstable. After eight minutes, the choral intonations become more minimalistic and repetitive, as if to match the readings of the speakers.

    At 10 minutes, one hears footfalls while further descriptions of the lost victims continue. A sinister tone on contrabassoon and double bass underpins the readings, and then the brass begin to lash out, with timpani strokes and percussion, mainly bells. At 12 minutes, the chorus begins to intone a more soothing incantation, with the children's choir, and then the adult chorus, singing the tributes and remembrances; once spoken, now sung.

    The choral outburst leads to a cacophony of bells and strings, gradually to subside, leading into, at the 17-minute mark, the Sibeliean brass peroration and then the bold massed choral entry. Ultimately the brasses struggle upward and downward simultaneously briefly, fading to (once again) enigmatic string fragments as the reading of the names resumes. Near the 21-minute mark, the harmonies settle into something less ambiguous; more identifiable, almost Mahlerian in their angst, then only to have the enigmatic string harmonies, now mainly in the tonic, return as if to once again and finally remind us of "The Unanswered Question." There is also an Ivesian transcendence to the final harmonic ambiguities, not unlike the closing bars of his 4th Symphony, just prior to the final fade-out, when the street noise is all that is faintly left.

    All of this takes place in just 25 minutes, and this is the only work on this Nonesuch "CD Single." We are left to contemplate the day, and the music - what Adams calls "a memory space" - in commemoration of the day. And that is as it should be.

    I have long been an admirer of Adams and his compositions. He long ago moved well beyond his initial characterization as a "minimalist," in conflation with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, to become an "artist without stylistic borders." "On the Transmigration of Souls" is an unquestioned masterpiece; absolutely everything about it is "right": it hurts; it doesn't heal; it reminds us; and it must be heard.

    Bob Zeidler...more info
  • A Gimmicky Work That Manages To Move the Listener
    I've always been of the opinion that all's fair in art; the contempt for this work displayed here by certain reviewers thus rings hollow. I'm also at a loss in understanding why the mere fact that it was a commissioned work should have a bearing on its merits as a listening experience. What The Transmigration of Souls manages to do is elicit a recollection of the "emotions of the moment" that surfaced in the aftermath of that horrible day coming up on seven years ago. As a remembrance of the victims, heroism, and sudden personal losses; I think it's a perfectly fine piece that serves its purpose well enough. As a work of absolute music, it's probably found a bit wanting.

    The use of an overlapping collage of spoken voices throughout the 25-minute work probably comes across as gimmicky to musical purists, but I found similar "musical" exercises in works by the likes of Stockhausen and others to lend a moving immediacy to the music. I think it works here as well.

    It's difficult to recommend purchasing this CD at full price with less than a half-hour of content, but hearing it at least once will not be a waste of anyone's precious time -- I borrowed it from the library....more info
  • More than a Requiem or Kaddish: A Memoriam and Refuge
    John Adams has created in ON THE TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS a monumental piece that is a fitting tribute to those lost on 9/11 and to the cosmic significance of that horrible event. The world will never be the same after that terrifying assault, and while poets and writers struggle to find a path of solace for those of us who remain behind, it takes a creative genius such as Adams to find the means to bring some semblance of closure. He does this in a 25 minute work that combines the spoken word (pre-recorded) of the names of those lost, fragments of messages found at the sight from both before and after the conflagration, and uses a children's chorus and a large adult chorus to pull these fragments of pain together. Encompassing the moments of silence and the nearly whispered repeated word 'listen' he uses his powers of orchestration and a profound palette of orchestral and vocal color. The end effect is riveting and even more otherworldly than the requiems sung across the nation after that day. This work comes from a man who understands his own humanity and coaxes us into embracing ours. The work is haunting, cleansing and sublimely beautiful. Loren Maazel and the New York Philharmonic give a deeply moving performance. Highly Recommended - for all of us who live.

    ...more info
  • A Requiem for the 21st Century
    When I first learned that John Adams was commissioned to write a piece dealing with the 9/11 tragedy, I was curious as to what type of work he would create. I am familiar with some of Adam's choral work and find it interesting and varied and wondered whether he would lean more towards his operatic works or would try to write a more traditional requiem.

    In fact, Adams went in a different direction entirely, writing a "memory piece" that incorporates an orchestra, two choirs and various taped speakers who read the names of victims and selections from some of the signs posted at Ground Zero. Even with all these forces at its command, the piece doesn't feel overcrowded. The music itself ebbs and flows behind the spoken text, allowing the text primacy and increasing in intensity at just the right key moments, instead of beating the audience over the head with the obvious tragedy.

    I find the effect of all of this to be spooky, intense and tremendously moving. With each re-listening, I hear new voices and feel a sudden chill when I hear a victim with a birthday close to mine or another victim with the name of my son. This is not comforting music, but it certainly projects the anger and the sorrow that we all collectively feel, while still allowing for each individual to find his or her own space within the work to locate an element that moves him/her. I believe this piece will stand the test of time....more info
  • A cathartic piece which ultimately rewards the listener with hope.
    There are a number of comments on this work expressing irritation--calling it "gimmicky" but allowing for its emotional impact, or expressing frustration and declaring it fruitless.

    I found it intensely personal--it brought me back to the senselessness of the day and the utter and almost unbearable loss. I don't share any of the sentiment of some that the quotations and moral have lost (or will lose) their impact over time. For me, it was just another example of how John Adams is the greatest living composer. This is perhaps the most daunting commission a composer could face, and the result is, put simply, transcendent. If not evocative of a universal truth defiant of stupidity and hatefulness. If not triumphant. The "bricolage" approach would appear to be reflective of the disjointed nature of the aftermath, and of the failure of knowledge systems to withstand the unthinkable--yet somewhere in there is this tragedy and this rising above.
    It is cathartic but intensely intelligent--perhaps the greatest tribute I've seen to those lost in 9/11. A little on the pricey side for a (very) short CD, granted. Recommended nonetheless....more info
  • Some music really makes you think.
    When I came across this piece I was only 17 years old. I watched the horrid events unfold on that faithful day from my school's window. When I heard that John Adams had undertaken the arduious task of composing a piece that would embody what everyone felt that day I didn't think it could be done. How ever when I heard the whole song in its glory, I knew that John Adams had done a spectacular job. Every instrument that was on stage that night at Lincoln Center had its own underlying message to convey to the audience. The adult choir was responsible for voicing all of the concerns and the outrage that everyone felt, the children were responsible for echoing the message with a touch of innocense. I had the honor of being in the children's chorus and listing to Mr. Adams talking about where he had gotten his inspiration for this piece; it was truly a life altering experience for me. I have never felt this way about a piece of music before or since this night. If you are looking for a way to remember this ordeal and also get a shimmering glimmer of hope I highly recommend this music. It is hard to listen to at times, but that is what makes it so good. If it was easy to listen to then Mr. Adams did not do his job. I give this music 5 stars for it's message and emotion that everyone can feel even if you were not there that night, or didn't see the event pan out with your own eyes. ...more info
  • Too soon to write such pieces
    It is too soon to write pieces dealing with the implications of 9/11, what it meant not only to Americans but the globe. But the corridors in the music world needed to fill this void,as well as the Pulitzer Prize Committee,who must have known of Adam's intentions let's not be ;so John Adams was the best choice for the job. The work of symphonic proportions seems to do all the right things even utilizing pre-recorded documentary-like materials, and the orchestrations are as always interesting and brilliant, but where does the work resonant?, does it have the scope and dimensions it should?, as say Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the brotherhood of man unpretrenciously or Britten's "War Requiem", or Eisler's "Deutsche Sinfonie" works that seem to transcend their frames. By comparison Adam's work seems less than adequete and a poor substitute for what it could have been,or should have been.We want everyone to remember 9/11, but what do Americans remember?, Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan?...more info
  • Masterful Memoriam of Our Defining Moment
    Realizing he is one of our most important and most played contemporary composers, I have to admit that in the past, I have run hot and cold on John Adams' music. At times, his work can be profoundly moving and emotionally stirring, but there are other times when his minimalist style can become obscure and droning. As it turns out, these opposing forces feed beautifully into this brief but elaborately arranged piece. In fact, Adams proves the ideal choice to produce this magnificent, multi-faceted work as he captures the range of feeling we all felt on 9/11 from abject horror to exhausted numbness. I'm sure there will be some who would have preferred something more Copland-esque, more messianic, more patriotically uplifting to commemorate the memory of that fateful day, but Adams uses his particularly atonal style to great effect producing a piece that is alternately spiritual and otherworldly. Adams is fully aware of the time that has elapsed, as well as the events and revelations that have moved us to opposing political factions. That's why his work feels like what he calls fittingly a "memory piece" since anything that tries to encompass our changed perspective on that day would be far too complex to embrace in a single work. What Adams does capture perfectly is how we remember the unmitigated feeling of violation and concurrently, the insecurity widely shared as to the immortal future of human beings. And he does it economically, clocking in at 25 minutes and conveying the basic message that we do not know where or when we are going.

    In totally atypical fashion, Adams has assembled a text comprised of three main sources: brief fragments taken from missing person signs that had been posted by friends and family members in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy; personal reminiscences; and a randomly chosen list of names of the victims. The work also employs a "soundscape" designed in collaboration with engineer Mark Grey that surrounds the audience with pre-recorded city sounds (quiet traffic, voices, footsteps, etc.) and the reading by many different voices of the names of the victims. Conductor Lorin Maazel leads the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, expertly evoking the post-industrial sound that meshes perfectly with the text and sounds, as the drama of the music heightens at the right moments. The aural combination is startling and moving. For the best experience, I recommend listening to this alone with your thoughts and emotions. Adams accurately chose the term "transmigration" to describe his piece since he vividly guides the movement of souls from one state to another with his music and text. Suffice it to say that this is a work for the ages....more info
  • wow
    ah! just kidding! this is crap! it should have 0 stars...it feels horribly cheap...the choir is simply cheesy...i think you should buy it though...seriously...buy it! send it back to john and tell him this blows...if he truly wanted to write this he wouldnt have waited for it to be commissioned like he did...more info
  • Moving
    I am not one of those people to praise modern music if it sounds like mindless noise. When I first found this CD, I had already read about it in the AJC (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and so I went to get it for myself. When I first heard it, I was not sure what to think. I was moved, almost to a point that I felt uncomfortable with, and subsequently put the disc away for over a year. When I finally pulled it out again and gave it another try, I felt though I was in the exact "memory space" John Adams was trying to convey. The music is haunting in a way that is unique to this matter. I am moved by music of all eras, but this piece is very special in how the simple lyrics (the missing persons signs) and the large orchestration collide to form a unique experience. Many people have scoffed at the piece, calling it trash, but those who really give it a try will be more than rewarded for it. I really enjoy this piece....more info
  • A stunning emotional experience
    When I first encountered John Adams' music in Berkeley in the mid-70s, I remember thinking that this guy might become the next Great American Composer. After listening to "On The Transmigration of Souls," I am inclined to believe he is now deserving of that title. Adams has intuited exactly what was needed in a memorial for the New York Philharmonic to the victims of September 11, and has incorporated the sound of the city itself into his work. That this work manages to be an incredible emotional experience (I wept the first time I heard it) without engaging in rhetorical posturing is a genuinely unique achievement. The work is spiritual without religiosity, and powerfully American without being jingoistic. Adams has long admired Charles Ives, and one almost senses Ives looking over Adams' shoulder in this composition ("A little trumpet solo here, boy!"), guiding his pen. The combination of chorus, orchestra, and natural sound is brilliantly achieved. Like others posting comments, I am disappointed at only 25 minutes of music on a $14 CD, but for the life of me, I can't imagine what piece, by Adams or anyone else, could stand next to this one. I needed a half hour of silence to recover from it!...more info
  • Gargantuan but yet short
    As I am writing this review I am listening
    to this reocrding...So far our new mellenium
    which is only 5 years old, in my CD collection
    I only have about three CD's with classical
    music composed in the current decade; and of
    those three pieces written this is has
    become the most dramatic and one of my
    favorites. This work is short but yet
    gargantuan, and powerful in intensity.
    This is one of those works that has left
    me with one thing to say: buy it! ...more info