ADAMS The Dharma at Big Sur; My Father Knew Charles Ives
My father knew Charles Ives. He didn’t really, but neither did John Adams’s – rather his picturesque orchestral triptych acknowledges a spiritual debt to Ives; both composers grew up in New England and both have a healthy magpie attitude to their source material.
Adams begins with the trademark solo trumpet writing he regularly deploys whenever he wants to evoke Ives. In The Wound-Dresser and On the Transmigration of Souls the Ivesian trumpet poses an “Unanswered Question” but here it’s more like a camera slowly panning towards an Ivesian landscape far below. Brass band music marches onwards and the famous “false” last chord of Ives’s Second Symphony flashes by. It’s difficult to say what exactly Adams has created. It falls somewhere between direct quotation and constructivist allusion, like hearing deconstructed “picture postcard” Ives. It’s fun for sure, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra relishes its follies.
Borrowing the experimental composer Lou Harrison’s ideas about non-tempered tuning – as Adams does in his Jack Kerouac-inspired electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur – gives another spin to a familiar Adams sound world. Tracy Silverman’s folksy material in the concerto partly evolved from his own improvisations, and I fear a one-size-fits-all world-music patois is just around the corner. Nevertheless, the opening section is quite beautiful as non-tempered chords sensuously ebb and flow, and Adams integrates Silverman into his developing argument with a strategic sense of purpose. In the cathartic second section harmonic impetus races ahead, as gong-like sounds in the orchestra suggest inner stillness – a trademark Adams hook reborn.