Like many travelers before him, composer John Adams' felt "a visceral effect of great emotional complexity" on his first encounter with the rugged Pacific Coast. He was seeking a way to express that powerful experience musically when he heard his old friend and mentor, Terry Riley, play at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland, Calif., in 2002. Nashville-based electric violinist Tracy Silverman was in Riley's ensemble, and when Adams heard Silverman's expressive style, something slipped into place in the composer's mind.
"John approached me after the concert, and couple of weeks later, he called to ask whether I'd be the soloist in a new piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic," Silverman says. " Of course, I said 'Sure.' "
Who wouldn't? After all, Adams is among today's best-known American composers. By the early '80s, he'd absorbed the repetitive pulsations of minimalist composers such as Riley and Steve Reich into his own, more dynamic and extroverted, style. The 1987 opera
Nixon in China won Adams the first of his five Grammys, and his many other honors include a Pulitzer Prize.
The chance meeting in Oakland with Silverman eventually led to Adams' electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur. The work owes its Californian theme to Adams' original commission for the 2003 opening of L.A.'s Disney Concert Hall, but literature fans will also note the hybrid of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur and The Dharma Bums, two novels stemming from the beat writer's West Coast years. Adams drew inspiration for the concerto from Kerouac's Buddhist-influenced, prototypical examples of how an Eastern tinge reached U.S. culture via our Pacific shores.
In the ensuing years, Silverman has recorded the piece and performed it all over the world, but he performs the work this weekend with the Nashville Symphony and guest conductor Carlos Kalmar of the Oregon Symphony. Now his Nashville friends get to hear in person what he's been so enthused about. "I love every note of this piece," Silverman says. "The orchestration is breathtaking, and John creates this wonderful pan-Asian-American polyglot of Indian and Persian melodic gestures and [Indonesian] gamelan-inspired percussion. He makes no pretense of being purist about it, but he had all these sounds in his head."
The solo part's spontaneous character reflects Kerouac's jazz-inspired prose style, but don't be fooled — every inflection is written in the score. "John is quite fearless," says Silverman. "He took some huge risks with this piece." If featuring an amplified instrument and a soloist from outside the classical world isn't gutsy enough for you, Adams also specifies unconventional "just" tunings for the soloist and for piano, harps and synthesizers.
Dharma sports a dual dedication to West Coast composers Lou Harrison and the aforementioned Riley, each a pioneering modern practitioner of acoustically pure "just intonation" methods, which Western music gradually abandoned in favor of systems that facilitate changing keys. Not coincidentally, both Harrison and Riley also embraced Asian influences, so some of Dharma's exotic sound comes indirectly through Adams' American predecessors.
"When I first played Dharma, I was very aware of being an outsider in the classical setting, and I felt an obligation to be iconoclastic," Silverman says. "But as I've come to see more of my place in the piece as a whole, I've relaxed that rebellious agenda and allowed myself to disappear as a performer in order to serve the combined sound. And I've found that the solo part is really more iconoclastic than I'd imagined."
"I think part of what attracted John is that I don't try to sound pretty," he muses. "There's a certain rawness in folk music of most cultures that's part of my ideal sound, the gritty quality of Ray Charles or [Malian singer] Salif Keita."
Even before finishing his Julliard training, Silverman had abandoned the quest for the perfect Tchaikovsky concerto and had started on the path to what he now calls "a cross of faux-Indian music, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis" on custom-built six-stringed instruments. Studying the bends and smears of blues and of many non-Western musics gave him a keen sense of the expressive potential existing between the conventional pitches found on a piano — and this awareness is exactly what caught Adams' ear.
Before settling in Nashville, Silverman made his own migration to the San Francisco Bay area, where he was a member of the Turtle Island String Quartet in the mid-90s. He's recorded with pianist Jim Brickman and Indian tabla legend Zakir Hussain, to name just a couple. He premiered his own second electric violin concerto in January, and he's recently been touring with his quartet Eclectica.
Silverman is an avid teacher — he works with students at Belmont, in the Music City Youth Orchestra, and at many schools in Nashville and beyond. "I really love reaching out to kids," he says, "and I'd also like to see the electric violin become less of a freak show."
Anyone curious about what Adams heard at Yoshi's could hit Knoxville's Big Ears Festival next weekend, where Silverman will play with Riley's Group on March 26. And Silverman will take the stage at Blair on April 12 with fellow electric violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain.
This weekend, though, he shares the bill with Brahms and Ginastera, but on his own terms, and playing music he compares to "a lifelong relationship that deepens every morning I wake up with it and every night that I take it with me into my dreams."
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