Sila: The Breath of the World


This past Sunday afternoon was sunstruck and gorgeous as I made my way up Franklin Street toward McCorkle Place. I was deliberately late for the beginning of UNC Music Department’s performance of John Luther Adams’ Sila: The Breath of the World. Deliberately late (by only a few minutes) because I wanted to experience the shift from the sonic environment of Franklin Street with its bustling crowds and revving motors to the sound of woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion and human voices throwing long tones across the lawn. As I went up the steps by the Methodist Church, I caught sight of the 70 or so musicians spread around the green, but their sound did not quite reach my ears. The first swells of the piece were not audible until I was nearly right up on them.

This composition is a site-determined work meaning that the natural environment in which it is performed is as instrumental to the piece as any other instrument. “This is music as re-engagement with the mystery and the magic of the world that we inhabit,” Adams explained. “And so the vegetation, topography, the local birds, the human presence, all these elements shape each individual performance of Sila in fundamental ways.” Adams has composed several site-determined works including a percussion work entitled Inuksuit.

The UNC orchestral ensemble was organized in pods of strings, brass, woodwinds and vocalists with percussionists on the periphery and in the middle of the green space. The presentational style of the musical text allows the audience to co-create the performance by walking around and through the musicians as they play. In this way, each participant both players and audience have their own unique sonic experience as this minimally structured work unfolds. This is so apropos of the Inuit God Sila, the muse of the piece, who is felt as mana or ether, the primary component of everything that exists. Sila is a deity of the sky, the wind, and of weather – and also the substance of which souls are made.

Sila: The Breath of the World, as described by composer Adams is “A series of 16 harmonic clouds that slowly elide one into the next and the next and the next, over the course of 70 minutes, and they’re always rising. The fundamentals of the clouds are derived from the first 16 harmonics of the first cloud. Everything is grounded in a low B flat.” The performers are instructed to play each tone or set of intervals the length of an exhale. So the beginning of the piece is the B flat note moving into the initial harmonic tones that are heard as B flat major.

The beginnings of the B flat major chord greeted me as I moved toward the group of vocalists singing through megaphones. Continuing on into the midst of the musicians I next heard the woodwinds swell into the mix. Then a tuba sounded right next to me, so I stopped and stayed for a time to enjoy that broad, low tone. Moving across the middle of the “playing” field, I noticed cellos and violins tucked back in the corner. The players moved their bows across strings, but I could not hear a whisper of what they played.  I walked toward them, still not catching their sound till I was right in the middle of the ensemble. I stood amongst the strings for a long time to hear their playing, but they seemed tentative and self-conscious, so I moved on.

My approach to listening to Sila was to move around the space from different directions, occasionally stopping to slowly pan my head from left to right and back again. Sweeping the ears in this way illustrated clearly what Adams referred to in an interview as  “nature singing, what we hear when the wind blows, if we listen closely.” At one point I stood at the outer edge of the musicians with one ear toward Franklin Street and the other toward the orchestra, giving my brain a shot of aural cognitive dissonance. Adams again: “[with Sila] its difficult to say exactly where the music of the piece begins and ends, as distinct from the music of the place in which it’s performed. My hope is that the boundaries get blurred, and that through listening intently to the music, we come to hear more vividly the never-ending music of the place in which the music is being performed.” In this respect, the UNC Ensemble captured the essence of Adams intent most beautifully. I felt their tentativeness gave a delicacy to the work that allowed the sights and sounds of the afternoon much greater presence.

In the end, I found myself among the brass and noticed the performers had stopped playing tones, and were now softly blowing into their instruments. Soon megaphones appeared in the hands of many of the players as they whispered the sound of vocalized air, swishing and hissing across the campus. After a time, this too faded away. And for several minutes, spectators and players stood together in rapt attention to this moment and this place. There was a reverant calm wrapped around the unspoken “what next?” “is it over?” “is it time to clap?” as we all looked around at each other like babes in a new world. Then one man put his hands together and we all followed suit, then quietly moved on into what remained of our days.