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Commemoration Music: Commemorating 9/11
Photo by Paul Morris

Commemoration Music: Commemorating 9/11

If one were looking for an official “monument” among musical responses to 9/11, one might expect to find it in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic early in 2002, it was written to be performed at a concert scheduled for September 18 that year, very close to the first anniversary of the attacks. The timing was a coincidence: the concert had already been planned with an original program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Yet on realizing the date, the orchestra wrote to Adams to request a commemorative piece to replace the Stravinsky. (The fact that September 2002 also marked the official beginning of Lorin Maazel’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director only added to the significance of the occasion.) The orchestra had already found a public role for itself in the wake of the attacks, offering consolation to the people of New York in a remarkable performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on September 22, 2001, that replaced the scheduled gala opening of the 2001-02 season with a benefit concert for the families of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and in the actions of individual members, who had given ad hoc performances to mourners at the Ground Zero site.

Yet for all this, Adams’s piece is far from a typical monument. It may have garnered all the prizes available to it from the American musical establishment—including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and (in its recording by Maazel, the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—but it sets itself apart from the declamatory, official statement. Instead, On the Transmigration of Souls turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism, national redemption, or even vengeance. The attacks themselves—although present in many other examples of 9/11 music—are conspicuous by their absence; the closest allusion is the text “I see water and buildings,” the last words of one of the attendants on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.

The piece turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism.

The work’s construction is well documented but worth reviewing. As well as the orchestra, Adams uses a chorus and a pre-recorded soundtrack. The text, which is divided between the singing chorus and spoken recordings on the soundtrack (made by Adams’s friends and family), is compiled from the handwritten missing persons signs that sprang up in huge quantities around Ground Zero in the days after the attacks (photos of which were taken by the New York Philharmonic’s archivist, Barbara Haws), and the short “Portraits in Grief” obituaries that the New York Times ran every day for more than a year after, each one a miniature of someone who had died in the towers. The soundtrack contains a further layer: recordings of New York, made by Adams in the early hours of the morning walking round the city. This is played back through speakers placed around the audience, mixed with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an immersive musical experience that surrounds its listeners rather than simply broadcasts to them from the stage.

The tone of Adams’s work—contemplative, non-dramatic, focused on absence rather than presence—prefigures Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence memorial park, opened on the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2011, two vast square pools with surrounding waterfalls, sunk 30 feet into the footprint of the original towers. It also echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (1982), one of the most successful of all contemporary memorials. Cut into the ground, giving it a minimal vertical profile, Lin’s memorial comprises two long wedges of black granite (each around 250-feet in length), which meet at their widest edge at an angle of about 120º. The black walls are highly polished and reflect the image of their viewers. They are inscribed with the names of the 58,253 US veterans killed in the war, arranged in chronological sequence.

The immersive style of Adams’s piece also relates to Lin’s memorial. Much like Lin’s mirror-like granite, Adams’s field-recorded, spatially distributed soundscape folds the listener into the work. Spatiality radically subjectivizes music, since (unlike the flatter, theoretically “even” projection from the stage) everybody’s experience will genuinely be different depending on their seating position. There is no “ideal” position from which to hear, and therefore no projected ideology of right or wrong, definitive or flawed. (It’s worth noting, however, that in practice this aspect of the piece initially troubled Adams: of the work’s premiere he writes that “some listeners found themselves uncomfortably close to a loudspeaker while others, being too far away from the nearest one, barely could make out what was coming from them.”[1])

Likewise, there is no “right” way to engage with Lin’s memorial. Too large to take in at once, it must be viewed in a combination of detailed attention and generalized scanning. To witness the whole thing is to take part in an active experience that requires at minimum a walk along its 500-foot length. Despite the inclusion of a 60-foot flagpole at the memorial’s entrance and Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture Three Fighting Men (both mandatory additions not included in Lin’s original design), Lin’s memorial does not privilege one reading over another: part of its success lies in the fact that it can be read as both an indictment of war and a tribute to its fallen heroes.

The use of names is important in both contexts. As Erika Doss suggests, within a memorial context, naming first and foremost creates a sense of social unity: “to be named is to be acknowledged.”[2] Lists of names are a prominent feature of contemporary memorial art, and great attention is paid to matters of sequence and inclusion or exclusion. (Should attackers be listed among the dead, for example? They aren’t in On the Transmigration of Souls.) Inclusion of a name can personalize a work of memorial and deepen its affective power. But names also enable lists, which provide a neutral ordering logic that can counter the “shattering disorder” of atrocity and trauma and that claims those names as a unified body. Adams steps gingerly between these poles. His soundtracked text, softly looping and layering names and appellations (“My sister,” “My brother”) echoes minimalism’s history, from the counting patterns of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to the looping speech of Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, and My Name Is. It also recalls the recitation of names that takes place on occasions such as the anniversary of 9/11. But Adams’s music is not completely passive: it responds to those names, giving them individual identity through changes in harmony and orchestration, so that they are not subsumed into an undifferentiated mass.

It is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated.

The idea of the mass remains part of the aesthetic of Adams’s work, however, just as it is part of Lin’s. He has described how his initial difficulty in beginning the piece was overcome after watching amateur footage of the New York attack and seeing the clouds of paper falling from the top of the towers: “an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth. The thought of so many lives lost in an instant—thousands—and also the thought of all these documents and memos and letters, faxes, spreadsheets and God knows what, all human record of one kind or another—all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.”[3] This is almost an image of the sublime, in which the sheer number of documents and the mass of data they contain overwhelms and, in turn, becomes a means to absorb and come to terms with the horror of that day. This sensation is reflected in Transmigration’s use of document masses—the missing persons signs, the Portraits of Grief obituaries, the list of names—and its orchestration, “refracted and rendered into particulate matter.”[4]

Adams’s combination of soft orchestration, gentle harmonic palette, slow tempo, and steady intonation of phrases—“We will miss you … We all love you”—can verge on the sentimental: the mass can become too personalized. And the composer himself has expressed misgivings about the success of the work’s surround-sound element, something that may have been better achieved through more radical means. Nevertheless, it is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated. Its greatest success lies in its adaptation of minimalist tropes of immersion, massification, documentation, looping, and repetition to create a neutral space that can record without moralizing. My next posts will prise open the function and limits of minimalism to commemorative music by comparing two contrasting but closely related examples.



1. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), p. 266.


2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010), p. 150.


3. New York Philharmonic, “Interview with John Adams,” available at https://www.earbox.com/on-the-transmigration-of-souls/ (originally posted to New York Philharmonic website, 2002).


4. Adams, Hallelujah Junction, p. 266.

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