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Communing with the dead through song [Commentary]

That blue-sky September day 13 years ago was so sorrowful, so beyond the reach of words, we name it only with a number: 9/11. Some may recall that out of the grief-stunned silence of those first following days, someone suggested broadcasting Mozart's Requiem again and again around the world. The beauty and discipline of the music went out over the wide-open air like a prayer in the hope that our souls could be held steady amid the aftershocks of the unspeakable assaults we had witnessed that morning.

When a few months later, in January 2002, the New York Philharmonic asked John Adams to create "a work to commemorate the lives lost" on Sept. 11, 2001 — 3,342 — for its next season's opening, he reportedly said "'yes' without any hesitation" even though it allowed him a mere six months to fulfill the commission. "I knew … I very much wanted to do this piece — in fact I needed to do it," Mr. Adams told members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "I was probably no different from most Americans in not knowing how to cope with the enormous complexities suddenly thrust upon us."

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He called his work "On the Transmigration of Souls" and explained that transmigration means "the transition from one state of being to another." He continued, "And I don't just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those who stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then they themselves come away from that experience transformed."

This is something like W. H. Auden's saying: "Through art, we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible."

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Marin Alsop and the BSO gave us a triumphant evening of music and communion in the June program featuring the twin-bill "On the Transmigration of Souls" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Here was music so sacred the audience was held in a solemn, thoughtful stillness throughout the evening, lifted up by the meditative pace that resolved into the radiant joy and vital spirit that permeates these musical texts.

First, there was the "Transmigration" composed of the softly repetitive under sound, in the minimalist style, of previously recorded voices speaking from another time, another place. The brief words and phrases of the modulated voices were taken directly from the pages of The New York Times and other public postings in the days after the collapse of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon and the loss of Flight 93. Recurring words and phrases — missing, shalom, remember, I loved him from the start — were hidden just beneath the voices of the choral groups and orchestra singing to us in the here and now. This connectedness between the temporal and the everlasting fulfilled the deeply serious modes of John Adams' intention. He wanted this "sound collage" to bring us to a state of being that embraced both "gravitas and serenity."

And then there was the mighty Beethoven. The Ninth Symphony sustained but did not overwhelm the aesthetic and spiritual power of the "Transmigration." Rather, it continued the elevation of spirit in an ever-ascending way through the first movements until we reach the choral mountain top of the roaring finale that we know as "The Ode to Joy."

The texts, though brief in both compositions, required the combined voices of Tom Hall's Baltimore Choral Arts Society Symphonic Chorus, Peabody Children's Chorus and several soloists. The harmony of those 200 voices, and the harmony of the program contributed to a most rare and wonderful experience that could free us of our brokenness and teach us again "How to Live. What to Do." as Wallace Stevens suggests in his poem of that title, if we only hear that "heroic sound/Joyous and jubilant and sure."

As the 3th anniversary of that devastating day nears, I look back on that summer night last June, when we were moved to once again feel the sanctity of life and the spiritual bond of community, and I am grateful for the saving power of music, art and poetry.

Jo Trueschler is professor emerita of English at Notre Dame of Maryland University. Her email is jtrueschler@comcast.net.

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