Length: 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 bass clarinets, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 harps, 2 keyboard samplers, pre-recorded tape, computer-controlled sound system, percussion, timpani, strings, and solo electric violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 24, 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with soloist Tracy Silverman (world premiere)
In his comments at the work's premiere, Adams said that he "wanted 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 a physical impact." He found that Jack Kerouac's Big Sur fit the bill both in its setting and in its encapsulation of the desire to uncover the self by exposing it to something bigger, something vast. It's the desire that draws so many people in search of new vistas, physical and spiritual, and in particular to Big Sur, that treasured place where we seek to resolve the conflicting yearnings for solitude and the fulfillment of our desires. In the struggle with personal demons Kerouac describes in Big Sur, as in the Eastern spiritual ideas behind much of the music that informed Dharma, it is desire that we seek to overcome.
Adams takes his musical cues for The Dharma at Big Sur from three quite specific places. The first is Lou Harrison, the Buddha of West Coast experimental/art/concert music. Another transplant to the Bay Area, Harrison spent a great deal of his life's work exploring the spiritual and musical traditions of the Far East. He held a special fondness for the Indonesian gamelan and for just intonation - a tuning system based on frequency ratios, rather than on equal divisions of the octave, as they are, for example, on a piano. In other words, in just intonation a single pitch is tuned relative to some other pitch; all As are not created equal. The complexities of using just intonation are easily managed in small ensembles, for which Harrison wrote; Adams created a new challenge for himself in bringing the system to the orchestral milieu.
Another "guardian angel" of this work is Terry Riley, the father of minimalism, whose prolific output combines Asian melodic ideas and the improvisatory piquancy of jazz steeped in meditative whimsy. The second section of Dharma, named after Riley's Moonshine Ranch in the Sierra foothills, is informed by Riley's curiosity and placidity of spirit, heard in the fierce exuberance that supports the electric violin's quixotic excursions.
The tradition of string playing from India, Iran, and Afghanistan and American traditions of jazz and plugged-in pop-culture virtuosos are other prominent influences in the work, and this is where the rhythmic element comes in. While it sounds improvised, this work, like the metric forms of India and the Middle East and like Kerouac's writing, is not improvised but improvisatory, carefully crafted to create the illusion of making things up as you go along, when in fact the creator is well aware of the path that lies ahead.
The Dharma at Big Sur starts with a barely perceptible sitar-like drone that glides along for two and a half minutes before the violin enters. Its free-sounding rhythms, fragmentary statements that build one atop the other with long breaths in between, and the pointed attacks are all in the style of an Indian raga. But this is no ordinary raga: High-register piano, mild electronic effects run through the violin, and a generally high, light, tremolo-like orchestral "drone" are like light over the ocean at sunset, just before the fog rolls back in, and you hear this scene from the point of view of cliffs high above.
The unchanging pulsating of the orchestra - reminiscent of the strings' role in The Unanswered Question - helps to build tension as the violin part grows in intensity. The lyric crescendo tumbles into the second section, "Sri Moonshine," where we find more movement, frequent drops in pitch in order to rise up again, and a slow and steady increase in tempo and rhythmic density.
As a whole, the work is everything we think of when we hear the words "California" and "Big Sur." It is sunlit saltwater, crashing waves, high cliffs, and earthquakes. It is the elusive quest for what we desire that makes us jam down PCH in a convertible, and sit in a standstill on the 101. And that's the point: It's everything - all-encompassing, all-welcoming. And it's all good.
- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.