John Adams

Classical music may not match the popularity of best-selling pop singers or star-studded movies, but our public moments of expression have tended to turn to it to add emotion and pomp to civic circumstance.

But long-dead composers typically are chosen, from Bach to Barber, and this has only heightened the stereotype that classical music composition is defunct — something thousands of living composers disprove daily.

For instance, when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, Leonard Bernstein chose Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Choral.” While his substituting of the word “freedom” for “joy”was clever, it was telling that he would choose a work older than the wall itself to mark the occasion.

When the New York Philharmonic performed Brahms’ “A German Requiem” for consolation in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed it would be business as usual. But, like much in American culture, the attacks also changed the music landscape. Contemporary composers poured out hundreds of works inspired by 9/11, and out of them a masterful new piece rose to speak about the events: composer John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls,” commissioned by the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center.

Saturday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will give the Pittsburgh premiere of the work for chorus, orchestra and tape as part of two special concerts conducted by Mr. Adams, whom many consider to be the preeminent American composer.

“America, quite possibly the world’s most fertile and creative musical culture during the 20th century, did not have a single orchestral work that could satisfy the need for collective emotional experience that a seriously traumatized public maintained in those jarring days after the attacks,” Mr. Adams wrote in his memoirs, “Hallelujah Junction.”

“Shorter, more intimate works we had — Ives’ ‘Unanswered Question,’Copland’s ‘Quiet City,’ the Barber ‘Adagio.’But we could not contribute anything on the level of a grand public statement of communally shared hope and idealism such as Beethoven or Mahler would satisfy.”

“Adams was disappointed with it,” said John Rockwell, a culture critic who formerly wrote about music and dance for The New York Times. “He had a mission to create something that was contemporary.”

Not as easy as it sounded. After decades of experimental music, many listeners had been turned off, and few looked to living classical composers for consolation. On the contrary, in popular media, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when artists would respond.

Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album “The Rising” was joined in recalling the day by films such as “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” and novels such as Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and Anne Nelson’s play “The Guys.” Whether any of these will be seen as definite statements on the tragedy of loss through conflict in the way Picasso’s “Guernica,” Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, or even Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” have, has yet to be determined.

But Mr. Adams’ “Transmigration” is already showing itself to be a potentially lasting monument to the victims and a general space of reflection and solace for any tragedy.

“The piece is such a wonderful response,” said Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at the American Music Center in New York.

Others agree. In 2003, “Transmigration” won the Pulitzer Prize in music. Since its premiere in 2002 it has had about 30 performances around the world, an astonishing number when most works rarely get heard beyond their first performances. While the success of “Transmigration” can surely somewhat be tied to Mr. Adams’ position as a leading American composer, it’s clear that it has legs all its own. Acclaimed composers such as Joseph Schwantner, Richard Danielpour and Michael Gordon have written substantive opuses on 9/11, but none that have had the popularity of Mr. Adams’ composition.

“It is not forced,”said Mr. Oteri of “Transmigration.” “You are not being pandered to.” That was crucial to its success. “There was squeamishness about immediately capitalizing on [9/11],”said Mr. Rockwell. As late as 2006, trailers for “United 93” garnered cries of “too soon!” and Mr. Adams himself first thought that “you couldn’t do this unless it was in the worst possible taste.”

But he composed a tactful, quiet piece — detached rather than the in-your-face nature of some other responses.

This detachment allows others to add their emotion, said Mr. Oteri. “He calls it a memory space, a place you can be alone with your emotions.” A chorus and children’s choir sing snippets of text, from missing-person notices found on the impromptu memorials near the World Trade Center to phrases culled from news stories. But the progression is non-narrative, not a statement of morality like Schiller’s pantheistic “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Musically, Mr. Adams accomplishes the mood not only by simply writing pianissimo (very quiet). He also introduces a series of digital audio tracks that surrounds the audience while the orchestra plays and the choruses sing. Some capture a typical New York cityscape, others read off names of victims of the attack, while still others are more ambiguous — a siren in the distance and running footsteps.

“We all know what is being said, we all know what it is about,”said Mr. Adams. “I don’t need to amplify it. If anything, I went in the other direction.”

But the quiet audio tracks made a lot of noise in traditional classical circles. Though the technology has been available for years, the popularity of “Transmigration” raised its awareness and furthered its acceptance in the notoriously conservative orchestral world. He also has a portion of the orchestra play in quarter tones.

Curiously, these newer techniques may explain why “Transmigration” has become popular. Mr. Adams didn’t look to compete with the masterpieces of the past but to say something in media (such as sampling and surround sound audio) we are more used to today.

“The emotional kick is the juxtaposition of the orchestra and the sound collage,”said Mr. Rockwell. “You couldn’t have done that 50 years ago and had it considered classical music. His acoustic, amplified acoustic and electronic blend adds a contemporary element to him.”

The future will surely bear many more responses to 9/11 in classical music and beyond. “Major works take years to gestate,” said Mr. Rockwell. “The Napoleonic era’s greatest artistic statement was Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and that didn’t come out until 50 years later.”

But now, new music is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all of arts and entertainment — and its own past — in creating a significant new memorial for those who perished in the attacks.

Andrew Druckenbrod
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette