John Adams Tuning Update

Following up on a previous blog entry, I’ve received two reports of John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur, his new orchestra piece with the LA Phil premiered at the Disney Center, which was to be Adams’s first foray into the alternative system of tuning known as just intonation. According to one third-hand rumor, there wasn’t enough rehearsal time to deal with the tunings, and the piece was played in conventional tuning. However, according to a more official report I received, this wasn’t quite true. Finnish composer Juhani Nuorvala subsequently interviewed Adams in Helsinki for the Finnish music magazine Rondo and e-mailed me the results. Nuorvala is himself a just-intonation composer, which I was excited to hear, both because he’d know what to ask Adams about, and also because in the microtonal world it’s supposed that none of the European microtonalists use just intonation, and I was glad to hear of a counterexample.

According to Nuorvala, there had indeed been little rehearsal time, and many of the musicians couldn’t get what Adams was aiming at. Some of the brass players reportedly said that it was no use trying to get the high overtones Adams wanted, but the harps were retuned. Adams hopes for more rehearsal time at the Proms in London, and perhaps the tunings will work out better there.

And as it so happens, someone also slipped me a recording off the radio of The Dharma at Big Sur (you’ll never learn who, I protect my sources), so I’ve had a chance to judge for myself. I can’t really better Nuorvala’s description: “…it was laid back and pretty, reminding me of Adams’ electronic studio record, Voodoo Zephyr. The tuning didn’t sound as special as I expected, and I was unsure what I was hearing though there were some 7/4’s [seventh scale degrees lowered by about a third of a half-step]. Harmonically the music was pretty static, the orchestra forming a background texture for the soloist’s improvisatory quasi-Indian style lines.” This is all true, and I indeed hear some intentionally flat seventh scale degrees at the beginning. Overall, however, except for some quasi-Indian sliding around by the solo violinist Tracy Silverman, the unconventional tunings don’t seem to come off. It is a lovely piece, though – I find it probably the most attractive Adams piece I’ve heard since the 1980s.