On "Adiemus" and the world's music

Karl Jenkins' "Adiemus" is apparently the most-performed piece of music in the world. A sweeping classical epic with vocals written in a mysterious imaginary language, it was composed for Delta Airlines, which wanted to copy British Airways' classic "Aria on Air" ad (itself by the spookily brilliant pairing of Malcolm McLaren and Yanni.)

From there, though, it became a five-album phenomenon, a pillar of exotic yet palatable World Music, where countless influences are smooshed together on the threshold of appropriation and exchange. As Brian Barone writes in his excellent Aural History of "Adiemus":

So-called "world music" — never mind the dubious connotations of "ethnic" music — has been a fraught category. The label was apparently concocted at the Empress of Russia pub in London during meeting of British music-industry types in 1987. And rather than signifying "every kind of music," as a literal reading might suggest, in practice it typically means "what (especially white, bourgeois) Europeans and Americans take to be exotic." … In the case of "Adiemus," as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor observes in his discussion of the song in his 2007 book Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, the attempt seems to be "to make a kind of timeless, placeless, unidentifiable sound that can stand in as the music of the world, or better perhaps, any music of the world."

There's something about the moment in Adiemus where it leaps from fake Latin to fake African. Once you spot it, it becomes a "tell" that belies the craft—cynicism, even?—behind the visionary presentation.

"The advertising agency liked the lead vocal but wanted much more of an 'African/child-like' approach

African slash child-like indeed!

There's subtler magic afoot, too: the world the composer depicts and the one consumers see are so very different, and the devil works in the distance between them. "Adiemus" is what happens when Americans realize only the British can keep a straight face when depicting economy class as utopia.

Whenever I hear "Adiemus" I wonder how the world would be different if J.K. Rowling, way back in the early 1990s, had given herself broader horizons for the Harry Potter magic talk. She'd be getting a lot of shit for it now, but I'm not sure the shit would be deserved, all things considered.