John Luther Adams Melds Music, Open Air Milieu For ‘Sila’

John Luther Adams' 'Sila' had its premiere in Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center.  (Photos by Kevin Yatarola/Lincoln Center)
John Luther Adams’ ‘Sila’ had its premiere in Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival.
(Photos by Kevin Yatarola for Lincoln Center)
By Gail Wein

NEW YORK – Through the ages, composers have connected musical sounds with the natural world in various ways: Handel dropped musicians onto a barge for Water Music, and Charles Ives envisioned his Universe Symphony with orchestras on hilltops and valleys.  Such is also the case with Sila: The Breath of the World, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, which is intended for outdoor performance.

John Luther Adams applauds the performers after the premiere.
John Luther Adams applauds the performers after the premiere.

Adams’ inspiration – and name – for this work comes from the Inuit concept of the spirit that gives life to everything in the world. (It’s not surprising that Adams would connect with Inuit philosophy: He has lived in Alaska for most of his life.) As Adams describes it in his program notes, “Sila” is not only the forces of nature, it is also our own consciousness and our awareness of the world around us.

Sila: The Breath of the World was commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival and for Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The world premiere on July 25 and 26 was the kick-off event for this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Eighty musicians were disbursed in points around Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza, with the audience free to move around them. Sila uses five groups of instruments sorted into winds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices. On a perfectly clear summer evening, the spectacular weather was as much a part of the experience as the sight and sounds of the performers during the hour-long piece.

A crowd attended the premiere of Adams' 'Silja' at Hearst Plaza.
A crowd attended the premiere of Adams’ ‘Sila’ at Hearst Plaza.

The outdoor space is ringed by buildings, with the large Paul Milstein Pool in the center and the dramatic green slant of the Illumination Lawn on its northern edge. Wind and brass players were lined up on the sharply sloped lawn, with string players situated across the reflecting pool amid a row of trees on the opposite side of the space. Percussionists rimmed the perimeter of the pool, and the 16 vocalists were positioned in the foot-high water of the pool, each armed with a megaphone to help project the acoustic sound.

In this performance, members of a long list of notable contemporary ensembles took part, an unprecedented gathering of established new-music performers, including Asphalt OrchestraCadillac Moon Ensemble, Contemporaneous, The Crossing, eighth blackbird, Face the MusicGrand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, and Hotel Elefant.

Wind players performed on the Illumination Lawn in the plaza.
Wind players performed on the Illumination Lawn in Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center.

The musicians follow a score of specific pitches based on a harmonic sequence (rather than the customary just-intonation), each individual performing a unique part at his or her own pace, with no conductor. Each pitch is a long tone, beginning and ending softly and crescendoing to a peak in its middle. The duration of each note is as long as a single breath, not a fixed number of beats, and the resulting variation of individually-determined lengths of long tones creates undulating layers of sounds.

I am generally the least spiritual person in the room, and I like my music loud and fast. So I wondered if the ethereal nature, languid expression, and slowly-drawn-out execution of Sila would be lost on me. But, just as with my experience hearing Adams’ Become Ocean (the work for which he won the Pulitzer this year), during which I felt myself drift along with the undulating waves, I was conscious of my own breathing in sync with the slowly moving pulse of the music. It was hard  not to get sucked into this music by the lungful.

String players, percussion and vocalists were arrayed around Heart Plaza.
String players, percussion, and vocalists (in the pool) were arrayed throughout Heart Plaza.

In this “site-determined” work, Adams’ music takes on aspects of the specific performance environment. “When I say this music is a vehicle for exploration,” Adams told me in a Skype interview, “it’s not only the acoustic properties of the performance site, it’s also the never-ending music of the site. So there’s this counterpoint between the music of Sila and the never-ending music of the place in which it’s performed.”

At the performance on July 25, just as Adams described, other sounds around the plaza became part of the sonic fabric. The wail of a police siren on a nearby street, the chatter of diners and the clink of their cutlery on the restaurant terrace, the soft roar of airplanes overhead all became part of this performance of Sila. I was amazed to notice the siren blend right in, its mechanical breath rising and falling with the conventional musicians.

Walking around the performance site provided a markedly different perspective depending on where you stood. Moving to a spot behind the strings, these instruments came into aural focus, as did the vocalists. A different spot gave the winds more prominence. It was sometimes hard to distinguish which instrument I was hearing, as the timbres blended together: Was that a voice, a bow on a vibraphone, a trumpet, or some combination thereof? As the piece progressed, I found myself focusing on the effect. I began visibly to notice other people in the audience breathing, their chests rising and lowering as they took in the composition.

John Luther Adams, shown near his home in Alaska, reflects the environment in his music.
John Luther Adams, shown near his home in Alaska, conjures nature in his music.

Adams is no stranger to this format of composition. An earlier work, his Inuksuit for 9 to 99 percussionists, is similarly geared for an outdoor space, intended for the audience to walk around and among the performers.

With Inuksuit and now Sila, Adams seems to be embracing a signature style of environmental composition. You won’t walk away from a performance of Sila humming a melody, but you may come out with a renewed awareness and appreciation of your own body rhythms and the ambient sounds around you. “I hope that someone may leave a performance of Sila and hear the campus of Lincoln Center, hear the Hearst Plaza, with fresh ears,” said Adams in our interview.

Though I’m not sure I’ll hear Lincoln Center differently in the future, the impact of Adams’ new work was mightily effective and lasting. One might argue: Is it music, or is it an experience? But then again, hearing any live performance of music is an experience.

Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist, media consultant, and recovering bassoonist. She is a contributor to Playbill, NPR, and The Washington Post among others. Her bassoon resume includes the St. Louis Philharmonic, Boone County Bassoon Band, and Glickman-Popkin Bassoon Camp.