Violin

Tracy Silverman brings an electric violin to the CSO for “The Dharma at Big Sur”

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Martin Cherry

Tracy Silverman

Tracy Silverman’s nonconforming approach to her music is an integral part of her psyche. He rejected a career as a classical violinist, switched to electric violin and stopped listening to his two greatest exemplars, Stéphane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty – turning to rock and soul giants Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane , Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin for inspiration. .

Silverman will make his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut this weekend playing Dharma in Big Sur, a work which, he says, “never ceases to affect me”. Although this is their first performance here, the CSO played Dharma 10 years ago with composer John Adams on the podium and soloist Leila Josefowicz. But Josefowicz was an acoustic violinist adapting to an electric instrument. Silverman perfected the sound of the electric violin for over two decades when Dharma made its debut.

When Silverman broke with his classical violin representative, he thought his days as a concert hall performer were over. But in 2002, Adams heard Silverman play at a jazz club in Oakland, California. At the time, Adams was writing a concerto for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (designed by Frank Gehry); Silverman’s game inspired what became Dharmawhich premiered in 2003 with Silverman as soloist, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

A relentless explorer of sound innovation and synthesis, Silverman introduced the electric violin to virtually every genre of music; he also designed pioneering instruments and techniques that are standard for today’s electric violinists. His long discography presents him as a soloist, guest artist, composer, arranger or producer.

After 35 years with the electric violin, Silverman understands why the instrument might still be a tough sell.

“I spent many years in rock bands and it’s easy for people to think that’s something flashy,” he says, speaking from his home in Nashville. “But my goal is serious and maybe more boring, but that’s what I’m trying to do.”

What Silverman plays is not an acoustic violin with a pickup. He designed his first violin – a six-string solid-body model resembling a mini-Fender Stratocaster in the early ’80s – while working with fellow violinist Mark Wood, whom Silverman calls “a true visionary.” (Wood Violins just celebrated its 25th anniversary.)

Each Silverman instrument is designed for the widest range of sounds and he provides vivid justification in his artist statement: “My demands on the instrument range from the whining distortion of Jimi Hendrix to the intimate jazz of Miles Davis, from the style emotional Malinese vocals from Salif Keita to Brazilian samba, grooves, classic Indian inflections and ‘right’ (or ‘pure’) intonation.

Although this statement was written in 2017, it demonstrates a commitment spanning three decades that has led to Dharma and a comeback.

Silverman was part of an ensemble led by minimalist composer Terry Riley when John Adams first heard him. “Tracy’s unique style was a marvel of expressiveness,” he wrote in the liner notes for the 2003 recording on Incomparable. “When I listened to Tracy play, it reminded me that in almost every culture other than European classical culture, the true meaning of music is between the notes.”

To describe DharmaSilverman pays homage to Adams’ penchant for risk-taking, not only musically, but also on Silverman himself.

“He could have had someone much more famous to play him and he took a chance on me, a virtual unknown,” Silverman said. “But he was true to his artistic vision. He wanted a California synthesis that wasn’t afraid to mix all those musical elements and didn’t care about names.

Dharma was inspired by Adams’ first encounter with the spectacular California coastal site and his friendship with West Coast composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Adams creates a brilliant fusion of Eastern and Western musical forms using electric violin meditations and ecstatic dance phrases.

Silverman points out that Adams also took a risk with the orchestra, originally writing the piece for “just” tuning, meaning different intervals between notes tuned differently than conventionally. This proved too difficult for an entire orchestra, so adjustments were made for later performances.

“Synthesizers and two harps will play in ‘just’ tune, and as much as possible, so will I,” Silverman says. “It gives me the kind of resonance you hear in Indian music.”

The first part titled “A New Day” begins with a low hum as the violin emerges in the style of alap, an improvisation that introduces a melody into a raga.

“That opening arc to me is like a Rumi poem, with incredible strength, power, and simplicity,” Silverman says. “And simplicity makes it deeper.”

The momentum picks up in the second movement, “Sri Moonshine”, with more danceable and pulsating rhythms. The passages of the solo violin are like the descents of a seagull over the ocean and, as the intensity rises, the orchestra rises to an ecstatic crescendo.

The CSO performances will be accompanied by a video created by Adam Larsen.

“Her work is breathtakingly beautiful and wonderfully supports that feeling of being alone with nature,” says Silverman.

Dharma remains evergreen for Silverman. “I’ve heard it thousands of times and practiced tens of thousands of hours and it still affects me. The textures of the score are simply exciting”

“It’s very personal,” he continues, “there’s this feeling of being in touch with your deepest relationship with the universe and how connected we are.”

Silverman has several other depictions of Dharma throughout the fall. He is delighted that the work is now considered standard repertoire and he is even happier that there are more musicians performing it.

“I was the only guy doing it and now I’m not!” he said laughing. “If I’ve accomplished anything, I hope it’s to open up this field for future generations. There are so many things it can do that an acoustic violin can’t.


Violinist Tracy Silverman plays Dharma in Big Sur with the CSO Oct. 5 and 6 at the Music Hall. Tickets: cincinnatisymphony.org.