The Dharma at Big Sur
On the Transmigration of Souls
Leila Josefowicz (amplified violin)
New London Childrens Choir
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 28 January, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Slonimsky’s Earbox is a watershed, writes John Adams, integrating older minimalist techniques with vibrant orchestral colour, mode-based harmonies and a more contrapuntal style of writing. The catalysts were the last few bars of Stravinsky’s Le Chant du Rossignol and Slonimsky’s exploration of modes.
Slonimsky’s Earbox did not bowl me over. Stravinsky’s orchestral colouring is indeed a marvel, but Adams’s initial orchestral explosion lacked a striking musical palette. The ensuing quieter passages were more interesting. Their more moderate speed and gentle contrapuntal interplay brought quietness and refinement. Then the bear returned, roaring a little hoarsely.
The Dharma at Big Sur was a totally different experience. At the cliffs of Big Sur, “the sea pounds and smashes the littoral in a slow, lazy rhythm of terrifying power”. Kerouac’s poem about Big Sur expresses an “alcoholic dark night of the soul”. Adams refers to his own sense of “liberation and excitement, and ecstasy … tinged with that melancholy”. He quotes the Buddha: “All life is sorrowful.”
Here, then, is a concerto for amplified violin, prompted after hearing Tracy Silverman play at a jazz club in California. The amplification produces a strong, warm sound, suiting the blues notes of Hendrix or ‘half-notes’ in the keening, ululation of an African or Middle Eastern singer of religious music – “an expression of the highest devotion.”
This is what Leila Josefowicz admirably gave us in the concerto’s two parts. ‘A New Day’ sang a continuous melody, simple and proud – possibly a threnody for the fact of life itself, or of living one’s life. The amplified violin had little subtlety or nuance; it made strong, declamatory statements with shimmering, doleful vibrancy. During ‘Sri Moonshine’, turbulence arrives. The seas pound the cliffs and the violin soars like a seagull in high winds, its call penetrating the cacophony of full orchestra quite effortlessly. The violin pealed out in these magnificent moments. Leila Josefowicz gave her all in an impassioned and committed performance.
In On the Transmigration of Souls, John Adams makes a gift to the American people – music fit to commemorate ‘9/11’. This is not a requiem. Fine! Adams’s forte is not loud, a harrowing lament. He gave us though his spirit, his soul. The music expresses transcendent calm. We hear the sun-bright, cloudless stillness of the New York sky on that September day – and, too, the innocent stillness of that ever-present heavenly backdrop. The dust has settled. We hear the still upper air of some vast cathedral. In the days beyond the immediate shock and grief, time is unperturbed yet dreadfully continuing. Those who are still alive are forever scarred.
Counterpoint in this work is timeless, imaginatively varied and miraculously apt. Two great screens demand attention – higher than the orchestra, one on each side. Identically, they show a clear sky. The vision is counterpoint to the music – and there’s nothing so crass as visual images of the ‘twin towers’, nor, in the music, the slightest attempt to replicate the sound of the planes’ impact.
Instead, the screens show words that people left behind, last words spoken the day before, text messages, loving descriptions of the friends and relations who died. This was in dreadful visual counterpoint to the serene orchestral playing and the tranquil sky on each screen. Sometimes, children, or the grown-ups in the adult choir, sing the words on the screen, plangent and pure. A pre-recorded spoken voice gravely reads words out – in counterpoint to the orchestra and choir. Particularly telling was the list of names as the work reached its sublime close.
This is a work about coming to terms with shock, coming to terms with the deaths of the ones we love. Twice, briefly, Adams expresses the gut pain of loss, the tearing wound of being still alive, of living with this horror.
His own words set out his intentions: “Transmigration means the transition from one state of being to another … the change that takes place within the souls of those who stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.” I first read these words the day after the concert. They exactly express the effect this music had upon me.