E Pluribus Unum. Mostly.

Last month I attended a performance of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) by the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra (NUSO), joined by the University Chorale, the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and a children’s chorus called Anima Singers, conducted by the sublime-as-usual Donald Nally.

In a nutshell, the performance was great. It was one of those concerts where I have almost nothing to say about the way the works were performed, as often happens to me when I witness Dr. Nally’s conducting. The different elements of the music were all clear and well articulated, you could follow the logic of the score and marvel at the tuning and careful layering of this mass of instruments and singers, not to mention the man’s (still on Dr. Nally) deep passion for life that communicates through every piece I’ve ever watched him lead. At two or three points in the piece, I found Adams’ writing, and the energy of the performers so powerful that I frankly had goosebumps. I’m particularly thinking, in this recording, of [9’45-10’10], [11’10-11’50], [~16′], [17′-19’30], and the ending. The passage from [17′-19’30] in particular is so powerful and harrowing that I think it makes the entire piece.


While I had these few moments of real, visceral engagement with the music, I actually left the hall with a bitter taste in my mouth. I struggled with my reaction afterwards, trying to articulate what about the piece so deeply annoyed me.

The performance took place precisely a week before the attacks on Paris of November 13. A week later, at the exact time of the performance, the gunmen massacring people at the Bataclan would be killed as French police raided the theater after hours of siege. I would be sitting, helpless, in my Chicago apartment, listening in horror to France Info’s all-night coverage of the events, with a nauseating sensation of history’s whirlwind blowing all around me, if you will forgive my cheesy prose. Right then, and especially during the days that followed, the Adams piece lingered in the back of my mind, as I watched people the world over fall over themselves in expressions of selective solidarity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing emotional reactions, I think they’re very important, but while I’m not going to dwell here on why I wasn’t impressed with people’s humanity that seemed to be born that Friday night, I will say that my criticisms of much of the Western popular reaction to the most recent attacks closely mirrors what I perceive to be On the Transmigration of Souls’ fundamental shortcomings.


The piece was written a few months after the horrible attacks on New York, in a very short span of time, as Adams discussed in an interview initially posted on the New York Philharmonic website. He selected different types of texts: a short list of names (short, sadly, in proportion to the number of people who have died in the attacks), which was read by people of different ages, with these recordings mixed with city sounds. There were also texts taken from missing-persons signs posted around Ground Zero. These texts were sung by the choir, often extremely clearly, with the choir homophonically (or monophonically) enunciating the words.

And that’s where my problems with the piece began.

As a composer, I can understand the practical limitations in choosing the texts (and the names). You can’t use all of them, you can’t even use half of them, realistically, so you need to select some, and you’ll obviously choose the ones that speak to you the most. Or should you? Can you generalize about such a decision, in the name of artistic autonomy?

Have you ever seen this video at U.S. airports welcoming foreigners to the country? It has every single type of person in it, white, black, Asian, native-American, women, men, old, young, etc. Every single type of person you can imagine is in this video, and I remember watching it while waiting in the long immigration queue and laughing a little to myself at how simultaneously cute and somewhat naïve it is. (That’s to put it nicely, another way to put it is that it’s deceiving, misleading…) But to be honest, there’s no other way to do it. You have to show everyone when making any kind of collective statement, even if the reality isn’t as perfect as the goal, and even if the reality isn’t at all working towards the stated goal… As cliché as it is, there’s no real way around it. Not on an airport screen, anyway.

John Adams did not use a single Arab name in his list, and to me, that’s irresponsible. Innocent Arabs died in the attacks, and although in 2002, the hundreds of thousands that would soon die as a consequence of 9/11 were still alive, they were very much not well, and were an integral part of the overall equation that led to the terrorist events, not just a group that produced the criminals who carried out the attacks. The oppression of Arabs, the discrimination against them, but more subtly, their removal from the political, cultural, and economic equations, both in the Middle East (through the West installing dictators of their choice) and in the United States (the example of this piece will do), is a big part of the climate that produced (no, produces) this kind of terrorism. Picture yourself an Arab living in the United States at the time of the attacks. You’ve heard it countless times in the media by people who have said it better than I could: they were mortified,  not only that their country was attacked, that innocent lives were lost, but that this was done in the name of their religion (if they’re Muslim), and these people have been looked at condescendingly and suspiciously by the rest of the country – and much of the world – ever since.

I think that not mentioning a single Arab name sends an involuntary message towards Arab-Americans, one of exclusion, of a shunning of sort, and it’s precisely the kind of neglect that pushes confused young minds towards fundamentalism, making them prone to being manipulated in the first place, by telling them that no, you’re not secondary, you’re not less important, you’re actually not included altogether, you’re outside the equation, you don’t matter.

OK, but John Adams was writing a personal piece. Why does he have to take all of that into account in the first place? While I personally questioned why he should include the text “Shalom” in the small list of selected texts (why not “Salam”, or something in Spanish, why this single inclusion of a non-English text, in the official language of a country in whose name more harm was done to innocent Arab civilians than most others?), who knows what personal associations a person has with certain cultures and materials? At the end of the day, this is a work by a single individual, entitled to choose a text that spoke to him personally.

But what about the context? Picture the scene: an official concert to mark the one-year memorial for that horrific day, a massive orchestra (the New York Philharmonic, no less) with double harps and keyboard instruments, a huge choir in the back (at least 90 people), and a children’s choir to top it all off, speakers scattered around the stage, and a presidential name if there ever was one plastered on the front page of your program notes: John Adams. It sure doesn’t feel like a personal piece or occasion. Regardless of how the composer chose to approach the piece for himself, how not-specifically-about-9/11 he wanted this to be, it’s just not going to be perceived as an intimate reaction to an event. It can’t claim to be naïve, it’s going to be scrutinized by the collective, and should assume the consequences of this attention. If I wanted to write an intimate piece that reflected on something that produced trauma in me, I would have written a piano piece, a chamber piece, a song, or an orchestral piece to be played on a different day, something much less public and massive. Choosing to have a personal reaction by using these forces and this occasion, on an official stage if there ever was one, is contradictory.

As you might be aware, or can guess from my last name, I am Lebanese, and yes, of course, part of why I focus on Arabs not getting mentioned is out of some form of self-preservation. Is it unrealistic to expect an Arab name to be thrown into that list, considering so few Arabs actually died? Perhaps. Is it a bit idealistic of me to expect such a gesture? Yes. But it does not take away from the following two points.

First, there’s the question: is it possible to write such a piece apolitically? My answer is, obviously, no, because regardless what position you take, the political dimension is juxtaposed onto your choices, especially in such a public context and occasion, so unless you’re politically astute and aware, stay away.

And second, was it possible to use art in this case for more than self-involved ambition so typical of professional artists? (comparing your work to architectural gems of the history of humanity when we’re talking about over 3,000 families destroyed, who will likely be tuning in to this concert, really?)  Yes, we all sometimes find inappropriate sources of inspiration, the way a scientist might see in a death opportunity to further research, we sometimes feel an urge to create something out of destruction, out of despair, not strictly for healing purposes. But we keep it to ourselves, at the very least in the program notes. (I personally found that extremely crass, to be honest.) But to answer my question: yes, it was possible to use art in this case in a way to promote inclusion, to bring people together, and then even to provoke them, if you want (some might say many will be provoked simply by having an Arab name included, and perhaps they should be). Or nurture them, console them, motivate them, I don’t know. But break the cycle that divides us, that oppresses us, and that feeds itself.

Am I looking at all of this with hindsight? Yes, perhaps many people in the West are nowadays much more aware of these things than they were ten years ago, but trust me: Arabs have been aware of it all along. And what’s more: if you’re not politically aware, (or worse, if you would have been one of these people in a racist picture from the 40s, just because “it was a different time”) don’t get involved in such politically charged situations. I’m not going to refrain from critiquing this work from a political angle simply because an artist might claim to be apolitical or naïve. The political angle is one of the ways art has relevance in our society beyond its traditional “clientèle”, and I refuse to accept that an artist can remove themselves from the political dimension of an event such as this one.

But moving on to my final point, Adams’ treatment of the text not only sends what I consider to be irresponsible political messages, it also goes against his own intent, what he was going after in the piece, as stated in the interview:

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.

If the goal is to communicate the massive number of souls that passed through, I can imagine the messages and names being layered; having the choir speak multiple texts simultaneously, giving us, the listeners, the impression that we’re only touching the surface of this world of loss and pain. That the stories are countless, that we’re staring at the tip of this giant iceberg. That, for me, would convey this hidden multitude. Instead, Adams sets the text one sentence at a time, enunciated extremely clearly by the choir, not to mention the cold, robotic manner of singing (a debatable argument, when it comes to aesthetics, I’ll concede).

To reiterate: while I don’t find the manner of singing the texts a suitable rendition to the extreme emotional content found in them (an issue Adams addresses in the interview I mentioned above), one could argue that it’s a matter of taste, and I will concede that. But leaving thousands of stories out, only to focus on a handful, one at a time, has strong ideological implications that go beyond taste.

If the point was to focus on individual stories, I think turning our attention to a single one for the entire piece, treating it genuinely for the tragedy that it is, and using it as a symbol of our common mourning, would have been a much more effective way to go. It’s essentially one of those rare situations where I allow myself to be dualistic: it’s either one story, used as representative of so many others, or it’s many stories, treated as a block, a screen, that we know hides countless others. By setting the text (the few selected by Adams, and even the names as they are, with no additions) in a less clear manner, by exposing us listeners to three or four lines of text at once, the effect would have been achieved, and we would have found ourselves “in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, [sensing] their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot.” Instead, we found ourselves listening to a succession of robotic renditions of heart-wrenching last words (listen to [4’00], the horrible [8’10-8’30], with the flight attendant’s last words, [12’45 to 13’20] and sadly a lot more). Granted, it was chilling, but for the wrong reasons.

The beautifully crafted small moments that moved me when I first heard the piece are so far gone for me at this point, and what could have been a visceral, deep work of art that I would turn to at a time like these past two weeks, beyond its initial context, withers into an admittedly small, but sad example of why we are where we are today, fourteen years later. Today, I can’t help but feel the same when I go on Facebook, for example, and read one of many posts, genuinely intended to be a beautiful sentiment of solidarity and compassion. I believe that most people approach writing these messages sincerely and selflessly; however, when viewed from the Arab perspective, ever-absent from the collective Western mindset, these messages instead blindly reiterate the same credo: exclusion.



One thought on “E Pluribus Unum. Mostly.

  1. Fred Everett Maus says:

    This is a good essay, thank you for writing it. I notice, too, that in drawing his inspiration from Chartres and other cathedrals, Adams turned to monuments of the Catholic church at the time of the Crusades; those churches are not emblems of universality and inclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

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