The Reach

I’m finally back in the chorus I hated to leave when I took my previous job, and the first challenge (aside from figuring out how to be a second soprano instead of a first) is a gut-wrenching piece called On the Transmigration of Souls. 

Transmigration is, for all intents and purposes, a 25-minute meditation on 9/11 in New York City. The New York Philharmonic asked John Adams (not that John Adams) to compose the piece. It involves a large orchestra, a mixed chorus, a children’s chorus, and a taped soundtrack of city noises and sirens and footsteps, and the voices of a young boy and a couple of adults saying things like “Missing” and reading snippets of the descriptions and names written on the fliers people put up all over New York City after 9/11. It’s dissonant and discordant, the time signature changes all over the place, it’s got doublets and triplets in weird spots. It’s oddly syncopated and counting the rhythm seems impossible. It’s full of chaos and disorientation and raw reactivity. It’s not hard to see why.

“People ask me what it is,” Adams told a radio host in 2008. “‘Is it a requiem?’ No. ‘Is it an oratorio?’ No. ‘Is it a choral symphony?’ No.

“I came up with the word ‘memory space,'” he went on. “Occasionally, when I’m in Europe, I’ll go into those great gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame or Chartres in France. And you go into this vast religious space, and people are very quiet. And you realize you’re in the presence of not only the living people that are there, but the ghosts, the souls of all the people that have been there in the past—this kind of spiritual memory space. And I wanted to create a musical analogy of that.”

He describes a particular passage of the piece where I think the most chaos and upheaval happens. He calls it

“a massive surge, a kind of tsunami of brass and strings that peaks with the chorus just literally shouting over and over again, ‘Light! Light! Light! Light!’ It’s not joyous. It’s almost a panic.

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying. I just know that when the event happened it was so shocking that we don’t know what our emotions were. But there’s always this desire to transcend horror and look for something comforting, and I think that’s the sense that you get at this enormous orchestral and choral climax of the piece.”

Until I found this interview, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be trying to evoke at that point in the piece. It seemed frantic to me, not at all comforting or calming like we’d like to believe is the case when a departed soul finds light. I wondered: did Adams see the passing of souls as something less than peaceful? That made sense, particularly coming out of the event that caused it—like the souls of 9/11’s victims were clamoring to find somewhere else to go, fast, because where they were was no place for a soul. Maybe moving on to another energy is kind of frenzied. 

But with this explanation from Adams in his own voice, I started to understand what the piece really seems to say in those measures. Maybe what we’re hearing there isn’t the souls of the lost. Maybe it’s the souls of the living, struggling to find something—anything—to give themselves some kind of solace. Like the bad-in-emergencies parent when a child seems seriously hurt, madly saying over and over, “It’s okay! It’s okay! It’s okay!” not because it is, but because they want it to be.

“Light! Light! Light! Light! Day! Sky! Light! Day! Sky! Light!”

Please please please let this hellish anguish end! Please let him find light! Please let me find light! Please let it make some kind of sense! Please, if you can’t save him, save me… or let me go.

  I’m reaching with the last strength I have – please let there be something to reach for! 

It’s telling, to me, that this part comes after that tsunami of brass and strings Adams describes, which comes right after what I find to be the most emotionally difficult passage: a place where the lyrics quote a widow telling someone, “I wanted to dig him out… I wanted to dig him out… I know just where he is… I know just where he is… I KNOW JUST WHERE HE IS.” We’re yelling it, all 120 voices, yelling those words on dissonant pitches between awkward breaks like choked sobs. It makes me cry every time, but now it also makes me feel something else: desperation. It makes me imagine the feeling that widow must have had for however long it took to find her husband’s remains in that pile, or however long it took her to accept that they never would… that breaking-point howl when she teetered on the edge of grief-stricken insanity, just reaching for whatever she could find that once was him. I know just where he is! Let me get him! You won’t find him, you’re taking too long, let me find him, I need to know he’s found, I know just where he is… I need to find him! I’m the only one who knows where he is!

It’s after that howl that the cacophony erupts, clashing and banging and fighting for every breath and shrieking for light and sky and day.

And then it’s strangely quiet again.

The names of the missing are only barely heard.

But now, it’s in memoriam.

Now on my bookshelf: The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

9 thoughts on “The Reach

  1. I enjoy it so much when you post about performing. As much as I love music, I am a listener, so your perspective is insight to me. I hadn’t heard of On the Transmigration of Souls or John Adams, and if I’d found a description most places, I’d probably have passed it by. Ponderous title. 9/11. Post-minimalist (I did some reading about the piece after I read yours). My blogging friends get extra credit when it comes to following their links. Your link didn’t work (something like “link temporarily unavailable.” Maybe you generated so much traffic you brought down the server). The next one I tried was an excerpt with photos … I hung on ’til the first view of someone falling-falling-falling from the Tower. More than I could take, so I found another link and listened to the first ten minutes or so. Based on your description, I thought I’d hate it but I found it listenable, at least as far as I got, in spite of the gut-wrenching subject matter. I plan on going back to hear the rest, since I want to hear the passages you describe. 9/11, more than any event in my life time, darkened my world-view, made me hard and more of a political hawk than I’d ever been. The walk away from that place has been arduous and slow so I rarely go back to look at the images or sounds of that day. I was surprised to see on Amazon how many people were angry that Adams would “make money” based on the 9/11 tragedy. So far, the piece seems entirely appropriate to the subject, though I can’t imagine listening to it often … oe having to repeatedly rehearse it. On the other hand, I’d guess it’s incredibly cathartic, not just of 9/11 grief but any stray unprocessed stuff that’s been hanging on. Thanks for this post and leading me to something I’d never have heard. Eloquently and personally described.

  2. Thank you, Bud. I think you’ll hear more from me about performing now that I’m back with the choir. I’m sorry the link (blessedly devoid of any images at all) didn’t work. It works for me, but if that problem continues, here’s the direct URL:

    Also worth a listen/viewing are two parts to the interview I quote above:


    I believe it’s in the first one where he explains that he really didn’t want to write the piece because he felt that the nation had gorged itself on 9/11 and turned it into something less than sacred. The notion of people being angry at artists for “capitalizing” on a collective experience is a silly one. John Adams is a post-minimalist classical music composer. How much money do they think he could make off a piece like this? Nonsense. Art is needed in the world. Musical “memory spaces,” sculpture, photography, paintings, indeed, writings… these are all essential. They are memorials in every bit the same way as the new Freedom Tower and the footprints of the Twin Towers inscribed with names. I’m reading “The Monuments Men” right now – the tale, as you might be aware, of the Allied armed forces who retrieved so much culturally significant art and artifact material from Europe immediately after WWII. What would the world have done without them preserving the memories and culture? Similarly, we need artists to preserve these memories and the fact that this occasion became part of our culture. As you point out, it changed a lot of people’s minds (for better or for worse is up to still-unfolding history to decide). Having read my protected post about what I used to do for a living, I’m sure you can understand that it made a deep impact on me as well, and that there are things I saw that most people didn’t. I relive that when I work on this piece.

    In any event, you might be interested to explore more of Adams’ work. He’s written a lot of music based on historically significant events – Nixon’s visit to China, for example.

    • Of course I am.
      Also possibly of interest to you: “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others” by Stacy Horn. She wrote it about singing in a choir. It’s very approachable and discusses pieces as well as what it feels like to sing with a group. I think you’d like it.

  3. I seem to remember one of Sorren Kirkengard’s works we sung in (college) Choral Union could be described as potentially “gut-wrenching”. His “Creation”, perhaps (the exact title escapes me….I probably have the music and lyrics home)?????

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