Revisiting John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur

Adams wrote of the work:

When I was asked by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, to compose a special piece for the opening, I immediately began searching my mind for an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast—as I am, and as are so many who’ve made the journey here, both physically and spiritually.

I wanted to express the moment, the so-called “shock of recognition”, when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass. . . .

The Dharma at Big Sur is in two parts, each dedicated to a West Coast composer who had been both a friend and an inspiration to me, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. The first part, “A New Day”, is a long rhapsodic reverie for the solo violin, an “endless melody” that soars above the stillness of an orchestral drone with its quietly pulsating gongs and harps and distant brass chords. . . .

After a delicately cacaphonous shower of tintinnabulations from the harps, piano, samplers and tuned cowbells, the tempo takes on a defined pulse, not unlike the jod, or medium tempo, section of a classical raga. The solo violin juggles a jazz-infused melody that gradually expands in scope and tessitura. This is “Sri Moonshine”, a tip of the hat to Terry Riley, not only the composer of In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, but also a master of Indian raga singing. [cite]

Part 1, A New Day

Part 2, Sri Moonshine

The source for the image at the head of the post is here.

8 thoughts on “Revisiting John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur

  1. nycbeartop

    What a wonderful spring surprise. My husband reminded me that John Adams was going to do an opera for the Juilliard School but it fell through

  2. George Mattingly

    Were we still in the vinyl era, I would have turned the grooves of several copies of the Dharma at Big Sur LP completely white with repeated plays. Thanks for bringing it back to the surface of my day this 14th month of the pandemic, and for finding this quote from the composer, to remind me of those things we continue to live for.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      You speak the truth, and eloquently. It’s just how I felt when I dug it out of a pile of CDs and played it again . . . and again . . . and again. Timeless, exhilarating, every superlative applies.

  3. David Nice

    Didn’t much enjoy it at the Proms, but then realised how perfect it was to accompany driving up to the Lake District in brilliant sunshine.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Ah, the Lake District in the brilliant sunshine, what a glorious thought. Yes, this is definitely music for the open road. I was reminded of that when I pulled out the CD when setting out to drive through the countryside up here. The perfect accompaniment!

      1. David Nice

        Unfortunately brilliant sunshine is not the keynote of the Lake District – a friend made a Freudian slip when he called it the Rain District…I may have mentioned this to you before, but I’ll never forget driving through eucalyptus forests on a journey from Brisbane to Sydney with Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ playing on Australia’s excellent Classic FM channel.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Ah, yes, how well I remember a walk we took up the mountains, with every kind of weather coming at us along the way. We were ready for it, as best as we could be, though once when we sat to catch our breath, a woman at least 20 years older than we were (we were in our 40s at the time, I think) strode past us in her pleated skirt and sensible shoes as blithely as if she were taking a stroll in the park. I love your Different Trains Australian journey! We must try that one day.

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