The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music commentary: John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” fails to transcend the occasion of 9/11 terrorist attacks and stand alone as music — as commemorative music usually does.

September 20, 2011
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ALERT: THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT FROM 8 TO 10 P.M., WISCONSIN PUBLIC TELEVISION WILL BROADCAST THE OPENING OF LINCOLN CENTER’S NEW SEASON ON PBS’ “LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER.” THE PROGRAM FEATURES SOPRANO DEBORAH VOIGT IN MUSIC OF RICHARD STRAUSS AND RICHARD WAGNER ALONG WITH THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC UNDER ALAN GILBERT PERFORMING MUSIC OF SAMUEL BARBER. FOR MORE INFORMATION AND A VIDEO, VISIT:http://www.pbs.org/programs/live-from-lincoln-center/

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a commentary written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” was commissioned in 2002 for the first anniversary of the 9/11/01 horror.  I obtained the New York Philharmonic‘s Grammy winning-recording of of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work when it almost instantly appeared, and I was quite underwhelmed by it.

Its performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and choirs on Labor Day and then in the opening concert program of the regular season (Sept 16-18) allowed me to give it a second chance, and for it to make a more distinct impression on me.

All credit to John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) for bringing this work to Madison, and for making a contribution to the 10th anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 tragedy.  John Adams is by now, I supposed, the best-known living composer of classical and operatic music, with a reputation now unchallengeable. We have a virtual obligation to listen to what he produces. But if his creativity warrants hearing, it also merits honest judgment.

And what did he give us to judge?

The composition is a mixture of pre-recorded sounds — street noises, readings of victims’ names or poster phrases — with wails and statements by a mixed chorus and a children’s choir, against static chords and shapeless heavings from the orchestra.  It is, by some measures, an evocative sound collage loaded with emotion-laden associations for Americans.

But is it a piece of music?  Well, there is not a single musical idea or identifiable figure among all the notes presented. Nothing to be developed into any shaping. Nothing to be remembered.

The most basic response to this work is simply this: Would you ever want to listen to it other than as part of a commemoration of 9/11  (below)?  Is it something that can stand on its own as a concert piece?  Is it anything more than a sonic collage meant to focus our feelings on a non-musical subject?  If you answer to these questions with “No,” then you have made a devastating judgment.

Part of the issue here is how we make musical commemoration of immensely meaningful events.  If the events are so immense in their meaning and associations, can music really make a commemoration that is valid as music by itself?  Are there events that defy commemoration, events that art cannot really transcend?

Think of the Holocaust.  Has any composer been able to contribute any musical statement that stands as music to be appreciated on its own as music?  Please don’t give me Penderecki, who used Auschwitz to his own opportunistic ends, to peddle his indigestible music through the associative emotions he could stir up.  Have I missed any other musical address to the Holocaust that is music of substance in its own terms?

So here we are with 9/11 (below).  Really, is it going to be possible –especially so soon (a mere decade!)– to compose a piece that measures up the meanings of that event, but yet can transcend its occasion and invite our continued attention as a work of art?  Perhaps no such commemoration of any important event can really be brought off.

To be sure, composers in the Renaissance could do it with their restricted resources: Dufay with his tribute to Brunelleschi’s Dome for the Florence cathedral; Jannequin with his evocation of the Battle of Marignano; Isaac with his elegy on the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici.  Of more recent vintage?  Well, how do you rate musically Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” or Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”?  Remember, too, that Beethoven nullified his originally intended celebration of Napoleon in what became his “Eroica” Symphony. Have I missed any other possibilities?  Maybe Carl Nielsen’s Forth and Fifth Symphonies, in response to World War I, but those are not really “commemorative” works.

Perhaps I have overlooked some real candidates. Valid musical tributes to individuals have been brought off over the centuries.  But, honestly, are there any genuine musical masterworks that historic occasions have generated in the last two or three centuries?  I am hard-pressed to think of any.

Of course, it is easier for composers to celebrate some success than to commemorate some disaster.  How much great music has been written about the sinking of the Titanic or the San Francisco earthquake?

It may just be that music can only do so much to honor events of significant, and especially of horrible implications. Music does best by going about being music.

Public occasions warrant artistic participation.  But let’s keep our heads above the hype.  However much the piece by Adams (below) might concentrate our feelings for a moment about 9/11, it serves no other purpose than that.  It is not a substantive piece of music.  One might even argue that is not a piece of music at all, merely a “sonic event” for associative purposes.

And an expensive one, too — think of the enlarged orchestra, the choral voices, and all that extra electronic circuitry.  No, I can be a better, more patriotic American citizen by seeking and supporting genuine American creativity, not by being befogged by solemn assertions of commemorative message, with our unmusical national anthem piled on top.


Posted in Classical music

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