The Dharma at Big Sur

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The Dharma at Big Sur is a composition for solo electric violin and orchestra by the American composer John Adams. The piece calls for some instruments (harps, piano, samplers) to use just intonation, a tuning system in which intervals sound pure, rather than equal temperament, the common Western tuning system in which all intervals except the octave are slightly impure. The piece was composed in 2003 for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The electric violin solo was performed by Tracy Silverman.[citation needed]

The piece is divided into two movements, titled A New Day and Sri Moonshine, which are intended as homages to Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, respectively.[1] It is scored for 2 bass clarinets, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, contrabass trombone, tuba, timpani, 4 percussionists (playing vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells, almglocken, xylophone, 4 small bowl gongs and 10 large tuned gongs, triangle, 2 flower pots, crotales), piano, 2 harps, 2 keyboard samplers, strings, and solo electric violin (6-string instrument with additional low C and F strings). The two harps are tuned in just intonation in B and E, respectively. The piano and the samplers are tuned in B just intonation.[2]

Adams described the process of composing the piece:

"I wanted to express the moment, the so-called “shock of recognition”, when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass. On the Atlantic coast, the air seems to announce it with its salty taste and briny scents. Coming upon the California coast is a different experience altogether. Rather than gently yielding ground to the water the Western shelf drops off violently, often from dizzying heights, as it does at Big Sur, the stretch of coastal precipice midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Here the current pounds and smashes the littoral in a slow, lazy rhythm of terrifying power. For a newcomer the first exposure produces a visceral effect of great emotional complexity."[3]

The 2003 premiere of The Dharma at Big Sur received a strongly positive review from the Los Angeles Times, in which Mark Swed wrote:

'Mozart is lovely in Walt Disney Concert Hall; Stravinsky, sensational. But Disney's design — to say nothing of its heart, soul and sound — is of our town and time, our state and state of mind. It demands the same in music. Friday night, at the second of the three opening galas, it got just that with the premiere of John Adams' irresistible tribute to California, "The Dharma at Big Sur."'[4]

Nonesuch Records recorded The Dharma at Big Sur performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Adams conducting, and featuring Tracy Silverman on electric violin. The recording took place on August 23, 2004, at Abbey Road Studios in London and April 8, 2006, at Skywalker Ranch in San Francisco and was released by Nonesuch, paired with Adams's My Father Knew Charles Ives, in September 2006.[5]

On May 19, 2013, Pieter Wispelwey premiered the cello version of the work at the Canberra International Music Festival.[6][7]


  1. ^ "John Adams - The Dharma at Big Sur". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  2. ^ John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur, orchestral score, Boosey & Hawkes/Hendon, 2007
  3. ^
  4. ^ Christopher Hawthorne. "'Big Sur' erupts with power, force". Archived from the original on March 28, 2006. 
  5. ^ "The Dharma at Big Sur / My Father Knew Charles Ives". Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  6. ^ Canberra International Music Festival. "ISSUU - 2013 CIMF Brochure by Canberra International Music Festival". Issuu. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  7. ^ "Ticketek Australia". Retrieved 14 February 2015. 

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