The Dharma at Big Sur - John Adams

A dramatic, atmospheric piece in the context of the Buddhist idea of "the Dharma". Its a rich confluence of musical styles with a solo part on the electric violin. Intricate writing builds over two movements to a grand climax derived from the idea of approaching the Big Sur (below) - the edge of a continent

There are two recordings, both available on Spotify

Los Angeles Philharmonic/John Adams (live recording of the Premiere)


BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Adams

Movement I - New Day

The music opens not unlike Das Rheingold - full of expansive prospects and unusual sounds. An exotic feel to the sound here - sets the backdrop for the piece. Adams' extraordinary attention to the harmonic aspects were so taxing for the orchestra when first formulated he had to re-write and limit the playing with temperaments and the like to a few specially prepared instruments. In years to come we may hear this as Adams intended but for now the sound is inviting and curious.

The electric violin, with its limitless possibilities, enters and we are in an uncertain world - its hard to put a foot down, metaphorically speaking, on the soft earth. In terms of any programmatic aspects we are seemingly approaching the Big Sur - the end of a continent with huge precipices marking the distinct between ground and water with vast emphasis but on the other hand doing so with no pictorialism and no solid playing back of Romantic musical devices. This is not the rocks and sea of Bax's Tintagel, but something much more based around that exhilaration, fear and trepidation on a cliff edge.

Adams in his writing on this piece emphasises a number of influences at work from Indian music to jazz and the uncertainty of the area between the notes and the precocious moments of beauty when sliding between them. The electric violin (six strings, solid instrument controlled by a mixing desk in the auditorium) is just the instrument for this compromised world of both physical and spiritual possibilities. The level of attack used by both violinists in the recordings (Tracy Silverman and Leila Josefowicz) - is subtle and by turns rhapsodic and improvisatory. I'm taken in this opening with the emerging quality of large landscapes - realised in a different way to any other composer I know. There is in the background just hint of another California "landscape" in the haunting sonorities of the low register I sense a bit of a debt to Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes I - a work capturing the befuddling quality of foggy landscapes.

Against these shifting harmonies - many spiced up - we have the long dreamy line of the violin. Repeated auditions have still to see me settle on the on or the other as the narrative line in this first section. But this opens space each time my attention flits from one to the other. After nearly 8 or so minutes, the violin drops out and the orchestral strings echo the style of the soloist but en masse they have a more eastern quality than the jazz inspired virtuosic style of the solo electric fiddle. It's a pivotal moment of tension: not drama in a Beethovenian sense, but doubling the quality of anxiety - too many options amongst equal and myriad possibilities.

Here - in the same way the end of the continent conjures, as Adams puts it, a "shock of recognition", the Keroacian vision of a moment on the journey and a rejection of the certainties of Western musical convention - Adams creates a space in which many more possibilities are open to us. Its not a moment for a decision, but a time for the contemplation of a decision - a very different thing.

The violin returns and the rhapsody becomes more agile, lithe and alert - I'm suddenly put in mind of bird song (melodic but without musical boundaries). The ringing staccato orchestration builds with percussion and keyboards pinpointing the diverting sound options with descending scales as the soloists weaves upwards, like the lark. The obstinate builds, the shorter notes drive the music to a great climax where the orchestral strings take over, Thicker bass reminds us that heavy swell beyond the land of the continent and the whole moment suddenly dissolves into a Part-like tintinnabulation. This section does nothing but reemphasise the gulf between the choices we have. But the physical certainty of the Big Sur does nothing to help us - save our awe at the great choices before us.

On one hand earth, sea and sky show the simplicity of one path, and the Dhamma of Buddha, the anti-conventionalism of Karouac and uncertain prospect of departure from the West Coast - all only go to confound decision making.

The second part, Sri Moonshine, immediately impresses with its energy. It kicks off with an extension of the the preceding sparkling backdrop but with vigour and vitality. Climbing to high laying registers and steely sonorities. The interjections from the violin lengthen and there follows a passage of rhythmical dynamism punching away at the high held shimmering chords from horns and strings then full orchestra. Its a kind of ecstatic journey now but much more propulsive and heady, working its way, in the middle of the movement to something slower and more ethereal. The low effects here both for soloist and orchestra are not forbidding but they are ready to go forward.

The last five minutes of the piece lose all the uncertainty of its earlier progress. It is onward and upward literally. Its a heady movement for the soloist - strong orchestral support points the way in a massive brass and percussion introduction to a coda (of sorts). The violin exhorts, asks questions and resorts to figurative teasing to build a dazzling progress to resolution. This is more typical of raga our more widely understood musical traditions. The ostinato pushes forward - it has a massive sensual buzz. The soloist fans these fires, stoking the climatic elevation. The strange currents of before now become our bedrock the soloists gyrates and cavorts slipping from one phrase to the. Percussion bring it all the way to the 21st Century in a Salome like dance of sensual overload. Its dazzling and provocative and ultimately a journey taken to a higher level beyond those seas and rocky shores of the Big Sur. To this end and many others we must take the "Dhamma" of the title very seriously, Adams follows Kerouac and Lou Harrison and Terry Riley (the dedicatees of each movement) into a world of East meeting West.

This music was commissioned by the Los Angeles philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor, Esa Pekka Salonen for the opening of the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Hall, the LAPO's concert hall and was premiered in 2003. It has been recorded once, by Adams the BBC Symphony orchestra and Terry Silverman, and DG released a recording from the premiered at the opening of the hall with Adams conducting the LAPO and Leila Josefowicz on electric violin. In an eloquent sleeve note Adams describes the influences and the process of making this piece. I haven't seen the score but one imagines it to be hideously complex for conductor and players alike.

The qualities of the two readings we have are probably worth a small mention but this big little piece (about 25m duration) needs more attention. Adam's first reading - from the premiere and mostly live (probably) has a dashing soloist who is a little more literal with the notes than Silverman - though that's perhaps understandable in the live context. The orchestra offers a subtle response to the score and is spot-on as far as one can tell without a score. The direction of the music is never uncertain and it has a certain frisson of sunshine bursting through cloud at the end. The composer is more detailed in his realisation of the score - recorded in a studio following a BBC Proms performance. I feel his reading is slightly slower and his soloist has greater nuance in his playing given less driving it forward. At the end of the piece Adams raises the roof several feet higher than the earlier version - and on balance i like that better. Adams reveals as the power of arrival (if indeed that is the right word).

It is perhaps no accident that I think at the end of this piece not of 21st Century anxieties,or 20th century angst but 19th Century ecstasy. This piece has a touch of Wagner beneath the sullen swell, but for me yields an ecstatic release in its progress. Adams doesn't steal away from that and the euphoria is probably well informed by the sensuous approach to the end of the continent and all that conjures up and the inner life of the pursuit of the Dhamma. It feels like a whole piece and the movements through distinct are not defined. Had Adams wrote it following the musical equivalent of Keroauc's entreaty to "remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition" then I think the result would have been less effective. By securing it firmly in three realms of the Western musical sonorities opened to new sounds and timbres, the Eastern expressive idiom and the free-form of jazz techniques - he secures a detailed and essentially repeatable voyage of discovery on his themes.

We will each get something different from it - as we do with other ecstatic responses in "free form" such as Debussy's La Mer. But it would be wrong to dwell on structures, expressive means and musical analysis concerning this work. It is about release and that huge moment when familiar ground ends at the edge of a continent. It sparkles and shines and cajoles and eventually intoxicates and like much that its best in music, leaves us surprised and yet familiar at one and the same time.


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