John Adams, 56, is arguably the world's greatest living composer. His works include the operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China and the oratorio El Niño. On the Transmigration of Souls - the piece he composed in response to 9/11 - receives its European premiere at the Proms next Sunday
How would you describe On the Transmigration of Souls?
It's a piece that is not easy to describe. If I'm pressed to characterise it, I call it a "memory space". In composing it I wanted to achieve a kind of musical analogue of what it feels like to enter one of those very old cathedrals or similar sacred spaces where you are utterly alone with your thoughts. Although Souls is largely a quiet, meditative 25 minutes of music with texts that are very often painful to contemplate, I don't consider it an elegy. The piece is not about those who died, but rather about those who were left behind, the family members, lovers, friends and their humbly expressed thoughts and emotions. It's their "souls" I'm referring to - not those of the departed - they are the ones who've experienced the "transmigration" through enduring terrible loss and grief.
The work features voices reading out the names of some of the dead as well as the words of one of the flight attendants who died. What response to this have you had from relatives?
I compiled the text from three main sources: from short messages that were written on home-made missing-person signs that friends and family members posted in the area around Ground Zero; from brief recollections of the victims that were published every day for a year in the New York Times; and from a random list of the names of the victims. I asked my own family - my son, my daughter and my wife - plus other people I was very close to to read these texts into a tape recorder, and I incorportated their voices with New York city sounds I recorded late at night. In addition, the chorus and the children's choir sing these fragments. It was a tremendous challenge to use these texts in a way that did not drift into bathos or sentimentality. By the time I was composing the piece, "September 11" had become a kind of national media bath, and Americans were finding themselves inundated with images and reminders. It was as if our sensibilities had been exploited and there was no more genuine emotion left. I wanted to get back to the most intimate and real emotions that an event like this can provoke. I was very nervous on opening night because I knew how deep the feelings of New Yorkers were about the tragedy. But the response to Souls was very warm, and over the course of the four performances quite a few family members of the victims sought me out to express their appreciation of the piece. I was very touched by their sincerity, as it's not a simple piece, and many of these people were quite clearly not regular followers of classical music.
Soon after 9/11 you were branded "anti-American" and "anti-bourgeois" in the New York Times. Then you received the commission for Transmigration. How did these conflicting things make you feel?
Well, it wasn't me exactly, but rather all of Europe (!) which was branded as such in that particular article. And my opera The Death of Klinghoffer was criticised for "romanticising terrorism". During the months following 11 September, most music critics found themselves at a loss to write anything meaningful because the only thing editors wanted to publish was articles about terrorism. So Klinghoffer, an opera about a terrorist incident in the Middle East, was resurrected as a kind of acid test for what some writers felt was typically naïve and romantic artistic behavior. That particularly toxic NY Times article, which had the eerily Orwellian title of "Music and the Case for Control", went on to suggest that Klinghoffer was so dangerous it ought to be forever banned by opera houses.
You have been described as many things - including minimalist, post-minimalist, modernist and post-modernist - are any of these labels accurate or do you prefer to ignore them all?
I think we are in a post-style period in contemporary classical music. Young composers are not sweating over issues of style and worrying about being "avant garde". And thank God for that! The world is such a rich place and so full of fertile possibilities. I think the availability of so much recorded music has emphasised the fact that "purity" and "rigour" are just not very interesting goals at the moment. How absolutely dreary were the old days of 12-tone theory and serialist ideology! It was a bleak period in the history of music.
Which book would you take with you if you had to spend a week on your own?
Lately I have been re-reading Don Quijote, only this time in Spanish. It's a lot of work, and I may never finish it, but for me Cervantes embodies my ideal of what it means to be a great artist. There is in his work great compassion, endless invention and, most of all, the humour and humility of life seen without pretentiousness or inflation. That is what, in my wildest dreams, I might hope people would say of my own work. I could be happy with just that book for a very long time.
Prom 13, including 'On the Transmigration of Souls': Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212), 27 JulyReuse content