The Kennedy Center

The Dharma at Big Sur

About the Work

John Adams Composer: John Adams
© Thomas May

The Dharma at Big Sur

A decisive turning point in John Adams's early career was his decision to forsake the East Coast, where he had been raised and educated, and head West. He did so in 1971, shortly after finishing studies at Harvard. His first experience of the Pacific coast—its dramatic cliff heights and thundering surf so unlike what he recalls as the "generically picturesque coves and harbors" of his New England childhood—proved to be an epiphany, imprinting the composer with a sense of new beginnings.

Written over three decades later, The Dharma at Big Sur attempts to give musical voice to that memory. Adams refers to the score as "a dreamlike vision of the coastline, as homage to this moment of arrival." Metaphorical landscapes feature prominently in Adams's compositions, but a commission for a new work to inaugurate the Disney Hall concert center in Los Angeles in 2003 prompted the composer to seek "an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast."

Adams found that the writings of Jack Kerouac most closely captured the ineffable mixture of emotions he treasured from that experience. somehow approximating "my own sense of liberation and excitement, an ecstasy that is nevertheless tinged with that melancholy expressed in the first of Buddha's Four Noble Truths: 'All life is sorrowful.'" Kerouac is one of an intriguing mix of artistic guiding spirits who helped inspire The Dharma at Big Sur.

Adams initially thought of an orchestral work that would include an actor reading from Kerouac's work but arrived at the idea of a radically reconsidered violin concerto when he encountered Tracy Silverman playing electric violin at an Oakland jazz club. The Juilliard-trained Silverman had turned away from the classical repertory to evolve an idiosyncratic style fusing aspects of Indian raga, Stefan Grapelli, Jimi Hendrix, and even Appalachian bluegrass—all played with flair on a custom-built six-string amplified violin. The instrument's extended range inspired Adams to write lines for the soloist that plunge down to a cello-like zone and then soar aloft, as he puts it, "like a seagull moving in a windstorm." Since Dharma's premiere, Leila Josefowicz has likewise emerged as a passionate advocate of the work, having made the earlier Violin Concerto of 1993 (for acoustic violin), Adams remarks, into her "signature piece."

Although The Dharma at Big Sur took shape as a concerto for electric violin, Kerouac remains present both in the title—a conflation of his books The Dharma Bums and Big Sur—and in the seemingly improvisatory flow of the violin writing. Indeed, the music comes full circle in the sense that it evokes, on one level, the improvised quality of Kerouac's prose, which was itself sparked by jazz playing the writer heard in clubs. Adams points out that he aimed to "make music for the soloist that sounded as rhapsodic and spontaneous as possible, as if the melodies were being invented on the spot." The paradox is that this required tremendously precise, fine-tuned planning, "because I wanted to compose every detail with minute attention to the phrasings and to the way that the soloist fit into the orchestral tapestry."

Along with Kerouac and Silverman, other inspirations behind Dharma include fellow maverick California composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Both, like Kerouac, turned their gaze toward Asian culture. Much as Harrison and Riley drew on models from Indonesia and India, respectively, Adams paid close attention to how music is made in non-Western cultures—for example, to the playing of Kayan Kalhor, an Iranian virtuoso of the kamancheh (bowed spike-fiddle). Architect Frank Gehry's billowing design for Disney Hall provided yet another stimulus for the composer, whose own music is characterized by a distinctly innovative grasp of formal structure. (Adams actually collaborated with Gehry on a dance piece twenty years earlier.)

The first of Dharma's two parts ("A New Day") is a slow, meditative movement dedicated to Lou Harrison. Against an orchestral drone established at the outset, the violin rhapsodizes, seemingly unshackled by meter. In composing Dharma, Adams decided to depart from the familiar Western tuning convention of equal temperament, with its artificial division of the scale into evenly spaced pitches, in favor of "just intonation," i.e., tuning based on different interval patterns separating the notes of a scale. Although his original plan of using "just" tuning for the entire ensemble proved impracticable, the soloist brings out its intended effect, which is to locate the expressive dimension that exists "between the notes" (notes that Western classical music so rigorously separates). The music unfolds in modal and "just-tuned" variations of B major.

Adams has also carefully calibrated the ensemble to suggest a Javanese gamelan, with lots of sparkling, tuned percussion, while woodwinds (except for bass clarinet) are omitted, since they would add an undesired harmonic blend. Bell-like resonances emerge toward the end of "A New Day," resolving into a more clearly defined pulsation for "Sri Moonshine." This second part, dedicated to Terry Riley, veers into the world of classical Indian raga as the soloist takes wing in jazzy, rhythmically shaped lines. Adams exploits the expanded range of the electric violin, allowing it to rise from the depths and soar "like a seagull moving in a windstorm." Gongs and brass overlap in waves, and the music builds a feeling of immense space beyond the horizon. Its vibrations come to rest—to use the composer's transcendent pun—"on one enormous, ecstatic expression of 'just B'."