On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams as a “Memory Space” in Music Musicologist Alyona Khotyun's speech at the Fresh Science International Student Scientific and Practical Conference organized by the Octopus Student Scientific Society (2021). Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

John Adams. Photo by Vern Evans

The creator of the concept of “memory space” is the French historian Pierre Nora. In his Les Lieux de mémoire, he defines «memory spaces» as spiritual and material symbolic objects that become part of the national memory of a society. “Memory spaces” can be events, people, books, songs, and other objects that represent the historical memory of humanity and are not to be interpreted in a narrow, geographical sense. They are aimed at preserving the collective memory of a society by associating this collective memory with specific events. “Memory spaces” in the present-day influence behavioral rules and moral principles in modern societies.

What does the American composer John Adams’s work, On the Transmigration of Souls, have to do with “memory spaces”? Adams referred to “memory spaces” in relation to his work:

“I’d probably call the piece a “memory space”. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions”.

Several questions relate to this comment. For example, how metaphorical are “memory spaces” in relation to the work On the Transmigration of Souls? Should listeners be mentally transported to a specific place of tragedy, e.g. the World Trade Center towers which were attacked on September 11, 2001? Or perhaps listeners should create virtual musical spaces using their own imaginations? If so, can we describe these created spaces as spatial structures?

Memorial genre in European music

Before answering these questions, let’s look at the history of the memorial genre in European classical music. In every era, composers wrote music dedicated to various historical tragedies. Therefore, different periods can be considered the starting points of the memorial genre’s origin. Let’s start with works that appeared during the French Revolution. During this time, music was used as a tool for educating the nation. Striking examples are the works of Luigi Cherubini and Francois-Joseph Gossek. They wrote hymns, marches, and other pieces for solemn mourning ceremonies. In the nineteenth century, this tradition was continued by Hector Berlioz who, in 1840, wrote the The Funeral and Triumphal Symphony and dedicated it to the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830. Like the works of his predecessors, the music of Berlioz was an integral part of mass events and ritual ceremonies.

In English music, the tradition of addressing a collective audience began earlier than in continental Europe. Public concerts were held in England in the 1770s by Johann Christian Bach. Even earlier, the oratorios of George Frederic Handel addressed mass audiences. Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem continued the tradition of memorial works.

The memorial genre in American music is in the Orchestral Set No. 2 by Charles Ives. Its third movement, From Hanover Square North, is dedicated to the memory of those who died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

Although we are not used to associating Arnold Schoenberg with American music, the cantata Survivor of Warsaw was written and first performed in 1947 in the United States. An additional work by Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question, has nothing to do with the memorial genre but had a very significant impact on the work of John Adams. This will be discussed below.

On the Transmigration of Souls

A certain set of musical and extra-musical means creates the feeling of a wide space in On the Transmigration of Souls. The non-musical means include recordings of different people reading the names of dead people and announcements by relatives of those that are missing. Listeners perceive these recordings as a sounded memorial plaque, especially since they are together with recordings of city noise.

Steve Reich pioneered the use of environmental sounds with samples of station announcements that were used in his Different Trains, an autobiographical work that is dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims.

He composed the string quartet WTC 9/11 in 2009-2010 and dedicated it to the memory of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack victims. In this work, the composer returned to the technique of combining musical sounds with non-musical sounds. Reich used audio recordings of NORAD air traffic controllers and fragments of interviews with eyewitnesses of the tragedy that were conducted by the author in 2010.

John Adams took text in his On the Transmigration of Souls from notices posted by families of September 11, 2001 terrorist attack victims. He did not want to use a poetic text, as he considered it inappropriate, commenting:

“What I discovered about the language of these messages was that it was invariably of the most simple and direct kind. No one stunned by the shock of a sudden loss like this has the time or inclination to speak or write with eloquent or flowery language. Rather, one speaks in the plainest words imaginable. When we say “Words fail” in situations like this, we mean it”.

Spoken audio recordings are used as historical artifacts that help to create the right atmosphere. They also have a purely musical function by creating a kind of extra-musical refrain in a musical composition.

The peculiarities of the orchestra’s role are the second element that helps to build a sense of space in On the Transmigration of Souls. The composition has a through-composed form with a frame which can be divided into nine sections. The main role in almost every section is played by the choir and audio recordings, with the orchestra used as a background. The role of the groups of instruments resonates with the work The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, which we mentioned earlier, for example by a trumpet solo that is nearly identical to one from Ives’s work. Both compositions symbolize a question that is addressed to the universe but remains unanswered. John Adams commented:

“9/11 and the loss of those people and the loss of any people… from a sudden act of violence is an unanswered question”.

Unlike Charles Ives, whose trumpet solo was contrasted with string instruments throughout the work, John Adams’s trumpet solo is played only once in the second movement. The composer then focuses on brass which play solos in dramatic orchestral episodes. They are interpreted by John Adams as harbingers of an imminent catastrophe.

The role of string instruments, as a background and an unshakable universe that knows all answers to questions, in John Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls also resonates with The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. John Adams actualizes the sound of string and woodwind instruments, creating a continuous and fluid sound of sustained chords. But, unlike Charles Ives, John Adams does not use strings as a constant background; in some sections of the form, they are replaced by the chorus. Thus, they alternate with each other. This can be compared to the cinematic effect of alternating close-up and distant shots.

John Adams’s string instruments background also creates an acoustic sensation that is like being in a cathedral or temple. It was important for the composer to achieve this effect:

“My desire in writing this piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. When you walk into the Chartres Cathedral, for example, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot”.

The English historian Frances Yates noted in The Art of Memory that images of memory that affect the human condition in one way or another are imprinted in memory in certain “places,” thus creating an architectural scheme.

This architectural scheme is realized in On the Transmigration of Souls of John Adams. The composer transforms the concept of “memory space” into a set of musical expressive means. These are the continuous sound of the orchestra, against which the choir’s text is heard, audio recordings, and the active sound of a street recording that builds a sense of space. These create a musical virtual space into which the composer gradually immerses listeners, moving them into this space and then gradually taking them out of this space.

About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

Stas Nevmerzhytskyi (ФОП Станіслав Невмержицький), individual proprietor

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