The two works on this album reflect the West Coast and Northeastern sides of John Adams' musical personality. He has fused the two tendencies with uncommon elegance over the years, but here he allows himself the latitude to pay more direct homage to several predecessors who influenced him. The Dharma at Big Sur is a concerto for electric six-string violin and orchestra in two movements. Its most immediately striking aspect is the violin itself, played here by the performer who originated the work, Tracy Silverman. It encompasses the range of a violin plus a cello, and it's capable of extended dynamic range and of tones that range from the traditional melancholy to rock aggression. The work was composed for the opening of the new Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the acoustically strong new downtown home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Adams wrote into it subtle orchestral effects as well, deep layers of sound that emerge only intermittently. Adams dutifully described his piece as an evocation of the mystical, somewhat melancholy awe that the Easterner feels on experiencing Big Sur for the first time, but really there is not much in the music that evokes the oceanside. Instead, Adams draws on the music of California composer Lou Harrison, a major inspiration to all the composers with roots in the minimalist movement and a pioneer in transferring the principles of Asian musical traditions to the Western orchestra. His first movement, "A New Day," is akin to a juiced-up Indian instrumental improvisation, with the orchestra very subtly deployed in order to produce drones, sympathetic vibrations, and a final buildup of intensity. The energetic, jazzy second movement, "Sri Moonshine," is the one with the Indian name, but its consistent textures suggest the work of an American composer, Californian Terry Riley.
The homages paid in the album's other work, My Father Knew Charles Ives, are more explicit. Adams himself refers to the three movements as "three more 'places' in New England," and the Ivesian mix of programmatic suggestion and spiritual transcendence, which also played a key role in Adams' 9/11 work, On the Transmigration of Souls, is on full display here. The final movement, "The Mountain," is a particularly awe-inspiring expression of the philosophy once stated by the country vocal trio the Sons of the Pioneers -- that "Mountains are altars of God" (in a song called "The Place Where I Worship Is the Wide-Open Spaces"). As he does with his West Coast models in The Dharma at Big Sur, Adams extends Ives' language so that the music sounds like something completely his own; here he uses no electronic instruments, but the background is filled with swing jazz and other music Ives did not know during his compositional career. Adams himself leads the BBC Symphony, which responds beautifully to these complex scores that never sound overblown. The recordings are the product of some high-tech tweaking at two studios on the frontiers of sound, Abbey Road and Skywalker, but the end result is magnificent transparency. This is marvelous new music, colorful, spiritual, fun, accessible to anyone, yet full of the lines of connection that hold together and extend a tradition.