Andrew Clark on Adams' 9/11 "memory space"

by Victoria Aschheim

Andrew Clark brings praising reviews as background to his new position as director of choral activities at Harvard. The Boston Globe calls his choir work "first rate," Opera News describes it as "cohesive and exciting," the Providence Journal writes of his "beautifully blended" results, and the Worcester Telegraph says his choral conducting achieves performances of "passion, conviction, adrenaline, coherence." In the following e-interview, Clark shares insights on his choral work with On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams '69, AM '72, which will be performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra with the Holden Choirs and the Premier Choir of the Boston Children's Chorus at 8 p.m. Friday April 29 and Saturday April 30, at Sanders Theatre, as part of ARTS FIRST. This Sunday, the Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler writes about 9/11 commemorative works, including a preview of Harvard's forthcoming New England premiere performance of On the Transmigration of Souls.

John Adams '69, AM '72 has said that his desire in writing On the Transmigration of Souls was to achieve in musical terms the feeling one would have upon entering a majestic cathedral -- an otherworldliness, an awareness of the presence of many souls: Although you might be with a group of people, or the cathedral itself is filled...you feel very much alone with your thoughts and find them focused in a most extraordinary and spiritual way. Would you share your thoughts on this work?

The most immediate and striking feature of the work, in my opinion, deals with the composer's ability to completely redefine context and dimensionality from the start. Transmigration begins, as most concerts do, with the performers taking their places on stage, tuning and preparing for the start. As we finish this traditional ritual, the audience hears not music from the stage, but the sounds of the city on the pre-recorded soundtrack enveloped around them, followed by an almost Neo-Medieval effect from the orchestra and chorus -- not unlike the two-part chant style known as organum. Within seconds, Adams has redefined our sense of place: Are we in a concert hall, on a street corner or in a cathedral? Do we focus on the specific names and phrases of the soundtrack or the accompanying wordless colors and sound world of the performers on stage? It immediately engages the audience, jarring us from our expectations and forcing us to confront something unfamiliar and three dimensional. This represents a form of "transmigration," a communion between recorded sounds, live performers and the audience itself.

The piece offers each individual their own opportunity for personal reflection. The chorus rarely serves as foreground material; this presents a new challenge for the Holden Choruses as we work on our complimentary role in creating a "memory space" rather than an specific narrative. There seems to be a dramatic trajectory to the work, but open to each individual's personal elucidation, informed by our own experiences with the events of September 11th, 2001, or other moments of tragedy, loss or impact.

Adams describes the children's choir not as having the usual ethereal role children's voices play in, for instance, the work of Benjamin Britten, and not for their innocent role, but to place them "right there in the thick of things, singing along with the adults and orchestra." How will you work with this interpretation of the role of children's voices in conducting the Boston Children's Chorus in Transmigration?

There's no question that Adams' use of the children's choir breaks new ground for choral-orchestral works. It's hard to believe the members of the Boston Children's Chorus, joining us for this performance, would have been in kindergarten or first grade on 09/11/01. They must travel to the same dark and difficult place that the other performers and audience members experience; in fact, in some respects, their text is even more emotionally-charged with painful imagery and heart-wrenching rhetoric. The Children's Chorus will be singing from the Sanders balcony to further amplify the "surround sound" effect of this work.

Adams states that the work of Charles Ives was his spiritual model in Transmigration -- not wanting to exploit the lost, but wanting to remember the loss and grief of the event, the movement of the soul from one state to another. How will you strive to create not a "requiem" or a "memorial" but a "memory space"?

As I mentioned, the absence of a traditional libretto, either liturgical, poetic, or dramatic, sets this work apart. It's unclear whether our experience and association with this piece will ever move past 9/11. Certainly, Adams has stated that he sees this work going beyond the memory of the events of that fateful day. I personally feel that it may always be linked to 9/11, unlike Britten's War Requiem, for example, that has now transcended World War II. Only time will tell.

Unlike a "requiem" where we not only grieve and mourn, but hope to find some solace and comfort for ourselves and those departed, Transmigration of Souls does not serve as an artistic anesthetic or an opportunity to "come to terms" with loss. It does force us to confront our wounds, to recognize loss as a part of the human condition, rather than a memorialization of a single person or a group of people. It's also important to recognize that the composer had no intention of taking sides, of implicating the perpetrators or promoting anything nationalistic or patriotic.

Adams reflects on the simple and direct message of the 9/11 missing persons signs (photos of which were taken by Barbara Haws, the New York Philhamonic archivist): "When we say 'words fail' in situations like this, we mean it," thus one of the greatest challenges of Souls was finding a way to set the "humblest of expressions like, 'He was the apple of my father's eye.'" Would you reflect on the impact of the text of Transmigration?

Adams does a masterful job of setting the text: its chronology and order, the choices of repetition, his division of the phrases between the pre-recorded sounds and the two choruses, and when the words should be clear and direct or a part of the fabric and perhaps more difficult to comprehend. Each phrase, from a different author no doubt, affords the opportunity for a certain exegesis in the moment, just as the accumulation of the whole touches us in a powerful way.

From the vantage point of audience reception of Transmigration, how do you view the performance experience of the work, and how has our reception evolved from 2002/2003 to 2011? Adams rejects the word "healing" as an artistic mission for the work, preferring the words "serenity" and "gravitas" as the artistic end result of the composition.

The majority of performers in our concert were under the age of 10 on 09/11/01. It's hard to know how they have processed these events or if they've ever had to even confront them emotionally. We certainly have performers whose lives were tragically impacted that day. Several of our students have expressed their misgivings about performing a work based on 9/11 due to their abhorrence of the political response by the United States and the military operations, war and lives lost as a result. We're doing our best to refrain from anything exploitative.

Our students have lived the majority of their life with America involved in violent conflict. In 2002/3, there was still a hole in the ground at the crash site in Western Pennsylvania, we were all still in shock, picking up the pieces, and not sure how to move forward. Transmigration may indeed be more difficult to receive today in light of all that's happened in the last decade. At the same time, we hope that this might be one of many issues to grapple with as a result of presenting this work.

Art is not always meant to soothe or transport us to a place of serenity, beauty, and wonder. It certainly does that for all of us in countless instances, and in many moments it seems like Adams offers us a safe place of contemplation. While the arts reflect the very best of humanity's hopes and character, (and no greater example can be offered musically than the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven), the arts also exist to confront and deal with the darker and often painful aspects of the human experience, including loss -- something we all share. On the Transmigration of Souls serves not to wound or assuage, but rather to reflect, to remember, to honor and savor the simplest and beautiful characteristics featured in various lines of text: "the apple of my father's eye," "she had a voice like an angel," "girls never talked to me, when he was around" and others. In dealing with my own grief and loss, the seemingly mundane memories like these capture the essence of the departed that simultaneously hurt and heal; these memories become palpable and these people in some mystical way become present. My mother has been dead for nearly 12 years, and yet I seem to "meet" her in the most unexpected places and memories. There's a reason the piece is titled Transmigration, rather than Memory of souls -- Adams produces a sense of both immediacy and timelessness that "transmigrates" memories and imagery of those departed into our consciousness, while we consider those left behind and grieving. And yet Adams created an experience the does not satisfy our basic human instinct to find meaning out of loss. Perhaps that's the work's genius and what makes it so fraught with vulnerability.