Sila: the breath of the world by John Luther Adams is a work that heightens one's awareness of nature and the complex relationship between nature and mankind. It is an environment as much as a piece of music, an immersive world that is part sound sculpture, part linear experience.
Sila is to be played in an outdoor setting. I attended a recent performance on the lawn adjacent to Northwestern University's new Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. This particular location sits along the shore of Lake Michigan and features striking views of the water and the distant Chicago skyline. It is the type of landscape that uniquely illuminates the human impact on nature. The "land" upon which the Ryan Center sits was once part of Lake Michigan. Northwestern created the 74-acre lakefill in the early 1960s. The shoreline of Chicago itself is a dramatic collision between the seemingly ocean-sized lake and the nearly 30-mile long city that extends to its edge.
In a related sense, Sila superimposes or incorporates a man made sonic environment (the notated piece) within one that includes the ever-present sounds of nature and humanity. Wind, waves crashing against the seawall, bird calls, airplanes, passersby on the lakefront trail, these were among the site-specific sounds featured in the Northwestern performance. The "performed" sonic component of Sila features a variably-sized ensemble ranging from 16 to 80 musicians (the Northwestern Performance included 80 players) executing long tones taken from the B-flat overtone series. The musicians are grouped into choirs of strings, woodwinds, voices, and percussion that are dispersed in a large circle.
Adams generates a pacing and formal shape that echoes nature's slow yet methodical rhythms. At the phrase level, there is a distinct lack of pulsation and a high level of variability as far as moment-to-moment activity. The composer writes, "Each musician is a soloist who plays or sings at her or his own pace, following the breath. The sequence of musical events is composed, but the length of each event is flexible." The resulting lack of a steady pulse manipulates one's sense of time, making 30 minutes feel more like 20 (the piece's total duration is around 60 minutes).
At a more global level, the flexible musical events coalesce into a clear formal shape that is defined in part by pitch. The instruments begin with lower partials and slowly proceed higher and higher. The ending is particularly beautiful as noise sounds are introduced before gradually dissipating, leaving only the sounds of the surrounding environment. In the Northwestern performance, nature amplified the piece's formal shape via the setting sun. Shadows slowly crept across the lawn over the course of the performance.
As much as the performance site provides its own sonic contributions, Adams also explores spatial possibilities. Audience members are encouraged to freely move about the performance area. Doing so creates a kind of sonic mobile. Each new vantage point alters the balances between instrumental groupings as well as environmental sounds vs. instrumental sounds.
Mobility also creates an acute awareness of one's fellow audience members. You witness their movements, reactions, and overall engagement. A palpable sense of community arises over the course of the piece. Unlike in traditional concert settings, the Sila audience is not a singular entity separated from the performers.
I began by remarking that Sila is more an environment than what we might think of as a traditional piece of music. This observation stems from the fact that the composed elements serve as a mechanism for framing the surroundings, inverting the typical relationship between music and the space in which it is performed. In addition, the heightened awareness of the surroundings diverts attention away from the composer and, to some extent, the performers. This relates directly to Adams' own explanation of the word "sila":
In Inuit tradition, the spirit that animates all things is sila, the breath of the world. Sila is the wind and weather, the forces of nature. But it's also something more. Sila is intelligence. It's consciousness. It's our awareness of us.
In the end, I think Adams succeeds in creating a work that embodies the spirit of its title.
(Click play below to see a brief video clip of the September 25th performance of Sila: the breath of the world)