John Luther Adams (b.1953)
Sila: the Breath of the World
Musicians of The University of Michigan Department of Chamber Music
University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble
rec. 2021, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor; Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
CANTALOUPE CA21177 
It is hard enough to persuade people to set aside prejudices and give contemporary classical music a try without what I regard as one of the genuine masterpieces written so far in the twenty first century languishing unrecorded since its premiere in 2014. It was with a mighty hooray that I greeted the news of this present release. The only question for me was whether it does justice to this profound work. Happily the answer is a triumphant yes without reservations of any kind.
Sila, an Inuit word roughly translated in the work’s subtitle as the breath of the world, is built on deceptively simple material. It is, in effect, the stretching out over the space of almost an hour of the ascending overtone series of the very low B-flat with which the work commenced. If that sounds a little dry and musicological then it might be worth pointing that the entirety of Western tonal musical derives from just such an overtone series. Or a little more poetically, think of how the whole of the Ring cycle emerges out of that famous low E-flat. Whilst John Luther Adams certainly lacks Wagner’s ego, his works are conceived on the grandest scale and Sila seems to me his finest to date.
No two performances of Sila are identical since JLA builds a large amount of indeterminacy into the score. Performers are given a time frame in which to traverse from one note to another but how they do so is up to them so long as they have managed to get from A to B, so to speak, by a fixed time point. As I mentioned earlier, this means that the music very slowly ascends upwards in terms of pitch before eventually disappearing leaving only the sounds of breath from the singers. It is scored for a mixed ensemble of singers and instruments including the use of various shakers and megaphones. At its premiere at the Lincoln Centre in New York (which can be seen on YouTube) much play was made of how audience and performers were positioned around the outdoor plaza (with performers apparently knee deep in the ponds of the Lincoln Centre). Audience members were encouraged to walk through and around the performers in order to get what the composer light heartedly referred to as different ‘mixes’.
On paper, this may all sound a little like the triumph of an idea over actual music, if not a recipe for a noisy shambles. In practice, it is rooted in the most foundational of musical experiences. I recently reviewed JLA’s album, Houses of the Wind, which uses as its base material field recordings of an aeolian harp in the winds of the North American arctic. Commenting on those pieces, JLA has remarked on how much those field recordings influenced his subsequent work and Sila is most definitely the offspring of that project. Which is to say that the slow, inexorable unfolding of Sila across the B flat overtone series feels organic and the opposite of contrived.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Sila enacts a drama inherent in that overtone series just as Haydn and Mozart built the system of classical harmony out of other similar dramatic potentials of such overtone series. In the case of Sila, the piece begins in the slow dark lower register sparsely populated with notes. As it ascends the numbers of notes in the series available to the performers grows and the texture becomes more tense and more dissonant. As a result, tension rises considerably and the music becomes more complex. JLA remains patient and requires similar patience from both performers and audience. Gradually as the music moves upwards the textures thin out as the numbers of notes available in the overtone series decrease. The music becomes bright and shimmering and the sense of release from the dark clouds of previous dissonances immense. More than that, my own personal experience was of a deep connection with the essential roots of music, and hence of humanity.
One of the astonishing aspects of this recording is the obstacles the performers had to overcome to make it due to Covid. You would never know from listening that it was made with the performers doing their work at different times in different locations so natural and spontaneous sounding are the results.
I hope that anyone reading this review comes away with an impression of a profoundly spiritual and rewarding musical experience rather than an exercise in technical cleverness. Sila is a work of the deepest humanity and the kind of simplicity of method only achieved by masters of their art. If you are going to listen to just one piece of contemporary music make it this one.
Published: October 31, 2022