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Composed: 2003
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 bass clarinets, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (almglocken, brake drums, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, gongs, marimba, triangles, vibraphone), 2 harps, piano, 2 keyboard samplers, strings, and solo electric violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 24, 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with soloist Tracy Silverman (world premiere)

For pieces that celebrate and embody the California spirit, one would be hard-pressed to find a truer example than John Adams’ ode to the sights and sounds of the state. From conception to genesis to realization, The Dharma at Big Sur is imbued with the intoxicating essence of the West Coast and its denizens. In 2002, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen approached Adams and asked him to write a piece for the inaugural gala of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was to be the LA Phil’s new home. Upon seeing artist’s renditions and scale models of the then-unfinished building, Adams was struck by the “sweeping, silver-toned clouds and sails of its exterior and…its warm and inviting public spaces.” In the program notes for the premiere performance, Adams expressed his desire to “reflect the experience of those who, like me, were not born here and for whom the arrival on this side of the continent had both a spiritual and physical impact.”

Adams’ original intention was to incorporate a spoken part for narrator in the piece; while searching for California-based texts (which included the accounts of Spanish missionaries), he discovered Jack Kerouac’s novel, Big Sur. While the author’s text bore the closest resemblance to Adams’ own feelings, the composer wrote, “I realized that what I had to ‘say’ was something that could only be expressed in music.” Enter the violinist, Tracy Silverman. In 2002, Adams heard Silverman play in a jazz club in Oakland, CA, and wrote about his reaction in notes published on his website: “When I heard Tracy play I was reminded that in almost all cultures other than the European classical one, the real meaning of the music is in between the notes. The slide, the portamento, the ‘blue note’ – all are essential to the emotional expression, whether it’s a great Indian master improvising on a raga, or Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Hodges bending a blue note right to the floor.” Adams composed his piece specifically to feature Silverman’s unique style of playing, writing later in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, that “Tracy’s manner of playing was a fusion of styles that showed his deep knowledge of a variety of musical traditions, ranging from North Indian sarangi playing to that of jazz and rock artists like Stéphane Grappelli, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane, and even to Appalachian fiddling.” After several collaborative meetings with Silverman, during which he would improvise short riffs on Adams’ compositional ideas, Adams wrote a part that evokes the feeling of free improvisation while the utmost detail is paid to both solo and instrumental parts, all written out in precise notation. While this may seem counterintuitive, part of Adams’ motive for this very structured writing was to achieve the compositional arrangement that he had observed in the works of Lou Harrison.

Harrison’s use of “just” intonation – a system of tuning that is based solely on the ratios of pitches instead of the traditional Western system, which is based on the equal division of an octave – was a chief inspiration for the first part of Dharma, titled “A New Day.” In the original version of the movement, which is dedicated to Harrison, both soloist and orchestra are instructed to play in “just intonation”; however, because of the inherent nuances of individual brass and string instruments, achieving a perfectly “just” system of tuning proved impossible; in subsequent performances, the parts were revised so that most of the orchestra played in a standard system, while some of the brass, samplers, harps, and pianos remained in “just” tuning. The result is a compromise of timbres that still allows for the shimmering resonances of the original version. In “A New Day,” the solo violin floats freely above the drone of the orchestra in a lyrical meditation which dances in and around the key of B major (Adams’ choice of key, which echoes Harrison’s Concerto in Slendro, is another tribute to that composer).

In the second movement, “Sri Moonshine,” another titan of the renegade West-Coast sound is venerated. As described in Hallelujah Junction, the form of The Dharma at Big Sur “loosely mirrors the Indian raga models, beginning with a long, dreamlike opening, similar to the alap…followed by a lightly rhythmized jor section that gradually expands into a final, pulse-throbbing virtuosic jhala.” In his website notes, Adams identifies the “guardian deity” of “Sri Moonshine” as “Terry Riley, not only the composer of in C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, but also a master of Indian raga singing.” During this movement, the violin’s voice becomes increasingly melismatic, drawing soaring lines and calling plaintively over a churning orchestral sound. “The easygoing roll of the rhythm gives way to a more insistent throb producing a dance-like effect like a giant, pulsing gamelan. The solo violin flies high and swoops down like a seagull moving in a windstorm. The brass instruments, so quiet and reserved at the beginning of the piece, now fill the acoustic space with great surging walls of resonance. Low tuned gongs mark the inner structure of the music as it vibrates over and over on one enormous, ecstatic expression of ‘just B’.”

In Adams’ words, The Dharma at Big Sur expresses the “so-called ‘shock of recognition,’ when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass.... For a newcomer, the first exposure produces a visceral effect of great emotional complexity.” He “wanted to compose a piece that embodied the feeling of being on the West Coast – literally standing on a precipice overlooking the geographic shelf with the ocean extending far out into the horizon, just as I had done 32 years before on my arrival at the Pacific’s edge.”

Percussionist Deanna Hudgins is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.