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I recently discovered a piece of music by composer John Adams called The Dharma At Big Sur. Scored for solo electric violin and orchestra, Adams says he wanted to compose a piece “that embodied the feeling of being on the West Coast–literally standing on a precipice overlooking the geographic sheld with the ocean extending far out to the horizon” (Adams 233-34). In the title of the piece, Adams alludes to Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Big Sur and musically, it doesn’t stray far from the iconoclasm associated with Kerouac’s literary output. In fact, in writing for an orchestra with a large string section, a full brass complement, two bass clarinets, harps, piano, percussion, and two keyboard samplers, Adams also wrote his own tuning specifications in an attempt to create a “just” sonic universe (as opposed to the equal temperament tuning system typical of much of classical music since the mid-eighteenth century).

The form of the piece is different from one found in typical symphonic poems because it is loosely based on the Indian raga model. Three main sections then are the alap, the jor and the jhala. Despite Adams having written everything in the score, the form of the piece allows Adams to create an improvisational feel lacking from most music scored for orchestra.

The piece is in two parts, the first called “A New Day” and the second “Sri Moonshine.” Below are links to each part. Enjoy!

I’ve responded in many ways to this music. Every time I listen to it all the way through, the electric violin pulls me into the air like a sea-bird. There is something so liberating in the sounds that I want to get up and shout a secret to everyone– tell them that they are free and that they can and it’s all in their heads and pain is only a minor setback because even birds fail before learning how to soar.

Intellectually, I’m drawn to the immense beauty and mystery present in the sounds (as I hear them, of course). Beauty and mystery are so intertwined, and allow for a complex range of emotions. I think beauty asks the listener to just sit and be in awe; to wonder and just be amazed at how sounds can come together. It creates space for something inside of you to respond, as if your very bone-marrow vibrates and you understand, but not in words. The mystery of music is that it allows the listener to broaden their perspective–not all is as it sounds at first listen. The more we open our awareness, the more we might see and hear and understand, but in that, the mystery is not solvable. It will never be solved. Rather, the more we broaden our perspective, the more we connect with the sounds. Each sound in music becomes something beautiful and mysterious in that while we try to understand the beauty and mystery of the sounds, it is the sounds themselves that reveal to us the beauty and mystery within ourselves.

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