composer john adams and the dharma at big sur -- 4/20/18

Today's selection -- from Hallelujah Junction by John Adams. In 2003, composer John Adams composed the magnificent piece Dharma at Big Sur. Though it is now widely loved and often described as quiet, spacious, soaring and open, Adams considered the premiere of this piece to be a failure. The piece has two movements, A New Day and Sri Moonshine, composed as tributes to composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, respectively:

"I paid homage to Lou Harrison and to another indigenous California composer, Terry Riley, in a piece called The Dharma at Big Sur, which I com­posed to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. The debut of that hall, designed by Frank Gehry, promised to be a sig­nal event in the history of West Coast culture. Gehry was already world-famous, most recently for the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. Disney Hall, with its sweeping stainless-steel curved sails on the outside and its warm and inviting Douglas fir interior, was to become the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After a visit to Frank's Santa Monica studio where I was able to see a large model of the planned hall, I had become convinced that over time Disney Hall would be for Los Angeles what the Eiffel Tower was for Paris and the Sydney Opera House was for that city. Together with Richard Meier's recently completed Getty Center perched on a cliff overlooking the west end of the city, the new downtown orchestra hall was without doubt going to attract international attention to a city that for so long had suffered the disdain of East Coast and European tastemakers who persisted in ignoring its significant artistic achievement in favor of mocking associations with Hollywood, Mickey Mouse, swimming pools, and surfboards.

John Adams -- Dharma at Big Sur Pt.1: A New Day

"I 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 to the horizon, just as I had done thirty-two years before on my arrival at the Pacific's edge. A year earlier I had been in an Oakland jazz club, listening to an ensem­ble that included Tracy Silverman, a free-spirited Juilliard-trained vio­linist who did improvisations on a custom-made six-string electric violin. Tracy's manner of playing was a fusion of styles that showed his deep knowledge of a variety or musical traditions, ranging from North Indian sarangi playing to that of jazz and rock artists like Stefan Grap­pelli, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane, and even to Appalachian fid­dling. The instrument itself was small, a solid piece like an electric guitar with no hollow resonating space. The two extra strings took the tessitura down into the deep cello range, and Tracy had perfected a wonderfully gritty manner of attacking these strings with a small, student-size violin bow, drawing forth an explosive stutter or upper partials that gave sparkle and uncanny expression to the sound. The instrument, because it shared the same amplified properties with the electric guitar, could sustain long, bending portamenti, allowing slides between notes that mimicked a great jazz vocalist, a Hebrew cantor, or a Qawwali mystic singer. I was enchanted by this instrument and by Tracy's manner with it. I determined to compose my California coastal­trance piece for him. I named it The Dhanna at Big Sur, a title that could easily have been invented by Jack Kerouac. In fact, Kerouac's elegiac California novel, Big Sur, was certainly in my mind as I com­posed the piece.

"At about the same time that I began work on the piece, I happened to conduct a concert in New York that included Lou Harrison's little concerto for violin and chamber ensemble, Concerto in Slendro. This charming piece in just intonation for solo violin and an accompani­ment that includes tack pianos, celesta, upside-down trash cans, wash­tubs, and large ranch triangles is built on two Indonesian scales. Each scale has five tones, with the tuning adjusted so that the seconds are wide and the thirds are small. It is impossible to find a celesta that is tuned in such a manner, so I made a version that could be played on a keyboard sampler, retuning the samples to match Harrison's require­ments. The intonation, all in the key of B, charmed me greatly, so much so that when 1 began work on my own concerto, I based it on a similar just-intonation scale on 8, although I expanded my scale to seven pitches.

John Adams -- Dharma at Big Sur Part 2: Sri Moonshine

"I wrote for an orchestra with a large string section, a full brass complement, two bass clarinets, harps, piano, percussion, and two keyboard samplers. The tuning specifications of this large ensemble were laboriously worked out, to the point where I even indicated every single overtone that each brass instrument would play, all in an attempt to create a perfectly 'just' sonic universe for the piece. For months I had all the instruments in my home studio completely retuned to this B just-intonation tonality. The effect on my retuned synths and sam­plers produced a magical sound world, dreamlike and delicately clan­gorous, unlike anything I'd ever imagined. Tracy came often to my Berkeley studio and improvised on small motivic fragments I'd written for him. Together we made a genuinely collaborative piece with a form that loosely mirrors the Indian raga models, beginning with a long, dreamlike opening, similar to the alap, without pulse and with a feel of unpremeditated improvised lyricism (although everything is precisely written out in the score). This alap opening is followed by a lightly rhythmized jor section that gradually expands into a final, pulse­throbbing virtuosic jhala. The solo part is painstakingly notated, but the intent is to achieve the opposite -- to give an impression of purest spontaneity, as if the solo violin were a seabird, riding the air currents as they shift direction and elevation in a high wind.

"At the very first rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the realities of professional orchestral practice came into immediate conflict with my imagined brave new world of just intonation. Even though I'd consulted with brass players via phone and e-mail about my tuning ideas, the truth was that every individual brass instrument has its own resonant peculiarities. I had made infinitely detailed decisions about intonation, sometimes a matter of no more than a few hun­dredths of a step that could easily be achieved in the controlled envi­ronment of my studio but that was impossible to duplicate in the real world, where the tightly coiled tubing of trumpets, trombones, horns, and tubas produced unpredictable nuances of sharpness and flatness. Even more impossible to attain were the intervallic subtleties I'd asked from the string section. Thirty-two violinists gave thirty-two differing opinions of what a slightly flatted perfect fifth ought to be. The result was a chaotic first rehearsal under circumstances that were already tense due to the huge pressures surrounding the opening night of the new hall. The premiere of The Dharma at Big Sur was not a success. On the night of the first performance the tuning issues still remained un­resolved, and the proper amplification of the violin, so essential to achieving an attractive sound in a large public space, had never been adequately sound-checked. Listeners who knew my music were kind enough to give me the benefit of the doubt, but I was distraught, driven into a state of shock by the grating unbalanced sound emerging from Tracy's amplifier and by the unfocused, confusing intonation of the orchestra. In an opening week of otherwise triumphant musical performances, many of which revealed the new hall to be an acoustical marvel, The Dharma at Big Sur was a sonic bomb, a victim of its own technical difficulties, and an embarrassment for its composer, who had aimed high for something far out of the ordinary but had run aground through the incorporation of two unpredictable elements -- tuning and amplification -- into the realities of conventional orchestral practice.

"Nonetheless I loved the piece, and I eventually found a compro­mise, a kind of hybrid tuning that produced for me a tremendously satisfying impression in live performance. The fixed instruments -- ­piano, samplers, and harps -- could be retuned into just intonation, the brass and strings, however, remain in their normal intonation. Intona­tion purists -- and they are legion and messianic -- might be bothered by the compromise, but the mix of 'tempered' and 'just' resulted in an expressive world that had its own unique beauty."



John Adams


Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life




Copyright 2008 by John Adams


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