Tracy Silverman Brings Electric Violin to the CSO for ‘The Dharma at Big Sur’

Tracy Silverman rejected a career as a classical violinist, but paved his own playing electric violin.

Oct 1, 2018 at 5:31 pm
click to enlarge Tracy Silverman - Martin Cherry
Martin Cherry
Tracy Silverman

Tracy Silverman’s nonconforming approach to his music is an integral part of his psyche. He rejected a career as a classical violinist, switched to the electric violin and stopped listening to its two biggest 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 performing The Dharma at Big Sur, a work that he says, “never ceases to affect me.” Although it’s his first performance here, the CSO performed 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 on electric violin for over two decades when Dharma debuted.

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

A ceaseless explorer of sonic innovation and synthesis, Silverman has brought the electric violin into virtually every genre of music; he’s also designed instruments and pioneered techniques that are standard for today’s electric violinists. His lengthy discography features him as soloist, guest artist, composer, arranger or producer. 

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

“I spent a lot of years in Rock bands and it’s easy for people to think this is 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, who Silverman calls “a true visionary.” (Wood Violins just celebrated its 25th anniversary.) 

Every Silverman instrument is designed for the widest palette of sounds and he provides a vivid rationale in his artist statement: “My demands on the instrument range from Jimi Hendrix’s wailing distortion to Miles Davis’ intimate jazz, Salif Keita’s emotional Malinese vocal style to Brazilian samba grooves, Indian classical inflections and ‘just’ (or ‘pure’) intonation.”

Although this statement was written in 2017, it speaks to a commitment spanning three decades that led to Dharma and a return to the concert stage.

Silverman was part of an ensemble led by the 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 to the 2003 recording on Nonesuch. “When I listened to Tracy play I was reminded that in almost all cultures other than the European classical one, the real meaning of the music is in between the notes.”

Describing Dharma, Silverman gives a shout-out to Adams’ penchant for taking risks, not only musically, but also on Silverman himself. 

“He could have had anyone much more famous to play it and he took a chance on me, a virtual unknown,” Silverman says. “But he was true to his artistic vision. He wanted a California synthesis of that’s unafraid to blend all these musical elements and doesn’t care about names.”

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

Silverman points out that Adams also took a risk with the orchestra, originally writing the piece for ‘just’ tuning, meaning different intervals between the notes differently tuned than in the conventional manner. This proved too difficult for an entire orchestra, so adjustments were made for subsequent performances.

“Synthesizers and two harps will play in ‘just’ tuning, 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 entitled “A New Day” begins with a low drone as the violin emerges in the style of the alap, an improvisation that introduces a melody in a raga. 

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

The momentum picks up in the second movement, “Sri Moonshine,” with more dance-like, pulsing rhythms. The solo violin passages are like a seagull’s swoops over the ocean and, as the intensity builds, the orchestra builds to an ecstatic crescendo.

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

“His work is breathtakingly beautiful and wonderfully supports this sense of being alone with nature,” Silverman says.

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

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

Silverman has several more performances of Dharma throughout the fall.  He’s delighted that the work is now considered standard repertoire and he’s even happier that there are more musicians who perform it.

“I used to be the only guy doing it and now I’m not!” he says with a laugh. “If I’ve accomplished anything, I hope it’s to open up this area to future generations. There are so many things it can do that an acoustic violin can’t.”

Violinist Tracy Silverman performs The Dharma at Big Sur with the CSO Oct. 5 and 6 at Music Hall. Tickets: