MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Sila: New Music from John Luther Adams

The composer John Luther Adams has been very much on my mind since I conducted a lengthy interview with him shortly after Seattle Symphony brought his Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean to Carnegie Hall in May.
(Stay tuned for my feature devoted to that commission and the world of JLA in the upcoming fall issue of Listen magazine.)

I couldn’t make it to the recent world premiere of JLA’s site-determined piece Sila: The Breath of the World co-presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, but I’m eager to encounter it next spring when it will be performed in my old hometown by co-commissioner Washington Performing Arts.

Here’s a vicarious take on Sila from a roundup of reviews I’ve seen:

In “Sila,” as in many such happenings, music is less a finished product than an activity; it both interacts with and creates a space. In the limpid air of a New York summer, it was a sound garden, embracing a multiplicity of narratives as people variously sat in the dappled shade of a stand of trees, or sipped drinks under cafe umbrellas, or talked quietly, or played with their kids, or paced the plaza looking for new viewpoints and that elusive orchestral balance.

–Anne Midgette in The Washington Post

The composer translates the Inuit title of the piece this way: “Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us.” Even with the buzz of Manhattan so close, Adams and his musicians created a work of music, and of theater, that encouraged listeners to look both deeply inward and out into an imaginary expanse far beyond Hearst Plaza.

–Anastasia Tsioulcas for NPR

[A]s the music evolved, it gained in body and density, though not exactly volume. Choirs of reedy woodwinds and delicate, sometimes scratchy string sounds permeated the space. At times “Sila” was like music depicting continental drift. Halfway through, melodic fragments seemed to emerge, though these were often just instruments rising up the harmonic series.

–Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times

In endeavoring to have the music become part of nature, and vice versa, Mr Adams encourages an open-minded and thoughtful kind of listening. The listeners sat on the ground between and in front of the musicians and, farther back, underneath a grove of trees. A garbage truck growled in the distance; birds chirruped nearby. These unscheduled sounds mingled with Mr Adams’ clouds of sound as they gradually merged and evaporated and grew, letting some motifs imprint themselves and fossilize in our minds.

–Rebecca Lentjes for Bachtrack

JLA’s focus on the note B-flat and its overtones is a fascinating choice. Apparently B-flat has the honor of representing “the lowest note in the universe”, according to the astronomer Andrew Fabian at the Institute for Astronomy at Cambridge University in England in this 2003 report from Dennis Overbye:

Astronomers say they have heard the sound of a black hole singing. And what it is singing, and perhaps has been singing for more than two billion years, they say, is B-flat — a B-flat 57 octaves lower than middle C.

Filed under: American music, commissions, John Luther Adams


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