“Sila: The Breath of the World” by 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams premiered at Lincoln Center July 25, 2014.
“Sila” is an Inupiaq word similar to Yup’ik “Cella” or “Ella,” meaning the universe expressed as a conscious personality.
“Anastasia Tsioulcas describes ‘the quiet, deeply contemplative nature of Adams’ elegantly wrought and mesmerizing work’ in the following report.
“Sila is a piece intended to be played by 16 to 80 or more musicians grouped into five separate ensemble choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voices, who may perform the work in any combination, either simultaneously or successively. There is no conductor, and each musician chooses his or her own pacing through the score, as long as each sustained tone or rising phrase “lasts the length of one full exhalation,” according to Adams’ notes.
The piece is set within 16 “harmonic clouds” grounded on the first sixteen overtones of a low B-flat… The music shimmers and shifts in magical and beautiful ways. And Sila is as much performance piece as sonic work. The long, luxurious phrases were underscored by choreographer Mark DeChiazza, who had the performers make slow, sweeping tai chi-like gestures that seemed to halt time.
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.
Sila ends with performers blowing through megaphones — no notes sounding, just long exhalations of breath you had to lean in closely to hear. Just as Saturday’s performance was drawing to its close, a breeze visited, creating new waves of ripples in the pool.”
Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams has made nature the subject of his compositions for nearly four decades. Become Ocean was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and immerses the audience in an organic and constantly evolving sound world that reflects the natural environment with an orchestral technique that is deeply original and unique to Adams. Adams explains: “My music has led me beyond landscape painting with tones into the larger territory of ‘sonic geography’ – a region that lies somewhere between place and culture, between human imagination and the world around us. My music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place.” The score includes a message from the composer, which reads, “Life on this earth emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” Regarding the world premiere of Adams’ work, The New Yorker wrote, “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.”
The Place Where You Go To Listen
“Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.
When the words that we need shoot up of themselves, we have a new song.”
— Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder
“They say that she heard things…
At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness. The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.
She listened. And she heard. But she rarely spoke of these things. She did not question them. This is the way it is for one who listens.
She spent many days and nights alone, poised with the deep patience of the hunter, her ears and her body attuned to everything around her. Before the wind and the great sea, she took for herself this discipline: always to listen.
She listened for the sound, like drums, of the earth stirring in ancient sleep. She listened for the sound, like stone rain, as rivers of caribou flooded the great plain. She listened, in autumn, for the echo of the call of the last white swan.
She understood the languages of birds. In time, she learned the quiet words of the plants. Closing her eyes, she heard small voices whispering:
“I am uqpik. I am river willow. I am here.”
“I am asiaq. I am blueberry. I am here.”
The wind brought to her the voices of her ancestors, the old ones, who taught that true wisdom lives far from humankind, deep in the great loneliness.
As she traveled, she listened to the voices of the land, voices speaking the name of each place, carrying the memories of those who live here now and those who have gone.
As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place — how the snow falls here, how the ice melts–how, when everything is still — the air breathes. The drums of her ears throbbed with the heartbeat of this place, a particular rhythm that can be heard in no other place.
Often, she remembered the teaching of an old shaman, who spoke of silam inua — the inhabiting spirit, the voice of the universe. Silam inua speaks not through ordinary words, but through fire and ice, sunshine and calm seas, the howling of wolves, and the innocence of children, who understand nothing.
In her mind, she heard the words of the shaman, who said of silam inua: “All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid”.
The heart of winter: She is listening.
Darkness envelopes her — heavy, luminous with aurora. The mountains, in silhouette, stand silent. There is no wind.
The frozen air is transparent, smooth and brittle; it rings like a knifeblade against bone. The sound of her breath, as it freezes, is a soft murmuring, like cloth on cloth.
The muffled wingbeats of a snowy owl rise and fall, reverberating down long corridors of dream, deep into the earth.
She stands, motionless, listening to the resonant stillness. Then, slowly, she draws a new breath. In a voice not her own, yet somehow strangely familiar, she begins to sing…”
Alex Ross in the New Yorker regarding John Luther Adam’s 2013 premiere of ‘Become Ocean’,
“The title comes from lines that John Cage wrote in tribute to the music of his colleague Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.” There are also environmental implications, as Adams indicates in a brief, bleak note in the score: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
Adams asks the question in the above video, activism or art? – a question that is fleshed out in the explorations of The Dark Mountain Project – A collection of activists, artists, poets, writers, scientists, and others who are trying to discover a new narrative to carry society forward into an unknown future.
Jeppe Graugaard in his latest post on the Dark Mountain blog begins with this quote
‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small.’
Graugaard interviews Bernie Krause, author of ‘The Great Animal Orchestra‘ whose work he says
“is an intriguing exploration of biophonies as a wellspring of human culture and a potential source for redefining our relationship with the natural world. Krause believes that ‘biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challenged planet’, and that listening to what is going on in habitats across the planet can help us map out a viable course into an uncertain future.”
Krause believes we are culturally illiterate, in the sense that we are illiterate of the so-called natural world.
“Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, posits that as we lose access to wild habitats and thus our connection to the natural world, we become impaired with what he has identified as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a type of infirmity that introduces debilitating kinds of physical and emotional tension into our lives. I, too, have found that in my life, especially with the incredible rate of loss of wild soundscapes. As we hear them we’re endowed with a sense of place – the true story of the world in which we live. With their loss the health of every contiguous biome as well as our own sense of well-being is affected in complex ways since it implies a conditional change for almost all the living organisms that inhabit it whether human or Other.
It also occurs to me that the loss isn’t happening in a time frame that we’ve learned to accept. It unfurls way too slowly for us to get it. And we’re challenged when it comes to a sense of overview – seeing the whole picture – sometimes referred to as seeing the forest for the trees. You know, in the common media we are dealing with four frame cuts – the minimum instant in which most of us are capable of getting any information from sonic or visual cues. The problem is further exacerbated because we’re distracted by so many other things. So these cultures, languages, soundscapes disappear before our eyes but our minds can’t comprehend the staggering loss because we’re asynchronous with the timing of life itself. We’re further impeded because we live in such a state of disbelief and denial. Therein lies the core of our illiteracy.”
Krause goes on to explain how economic and corporate ‘progress’ has sped up the debilitating loss of the natural habitat of so much of the planet. With the disappearance of the interwoven sound that emerges from the layers of communication that build upon different species – from insect to amphibian to mammal – the music that the world expresses is forever lost. The quality of life diminishes and the only way it can be experienced is through an artificial and ersatz expression of wilderness.
Here is an exercise. Listen to the audio samples on the Wild Sanctuary website and pay attention to how it makes you feel. This is an example of the music we have lost and are losing.
In the Ted Talk below, Bernie Krause’s account of what happened in Lincoln Meadow, reveals what happens to the complexity of an environment if even seeming small changes occur. As Krause says, “A sense of place is the true story of the world we live in.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of Coyote who is so in tune with its surroundings that it dances to everything, from the rustling of the grasses to the rotating wagon wheels. The others think it drunk and crazy but Coyote is aware, awake, listening, feeling, dancing, living to the sounds of life.
Alfonso Cuaron in talking about his latest film, Gravity, said that there is no sound in space other than the sound the astronauts hear inside their suits from the vibration of their movements. His challenge to Steven Price, the composer of the sound track, that while using no percussive instruments he was to immerse the viewer in the environment of the astronauts, in every experience they faced. Here is an example of one scene that is done to great effect. If you have seen this film, this audio track can transport you back into this particular moment (headphones are great here)
The sound design team’s construction of this film is designed to place the viewer in this filmic space. They literally and with some irony (to me) ungrounded the sound so that any object creating a vibration or sound is traveling all around the viewer. Quite an amazing experience!
Back on earth, when listening to and experiencing the work of John Luther Adams, a contemporary composer, you can also find yourself immersed in a landscape (or seascape) that can be overwhelming, delightful, frightening, calming, awe-inducing, peaceful, evoking dread.
He explained in a recent interview,
“If we’re listening deeply, if we’re listening carefully, if we’re listening with our broadest awareness, both noise and silence lead us to the same understanding, which is that the whole world is music.
…everything we human animals do — everything we think, everything we speak, everything we are — derives from the world in which we live, and the deepest, most inexhaustible source for my work is the world in which I live. And yet, I’m not trying to reproduce anything that I hear or experience in the world. I’m more interested in the resonances that a bird song or a peel of thunder or the dance of the aurora borealis or the noise of the traffic on Central Park West might evoke in me. That meeting of my listening, my consciousness, my awareness: that’s the music that’s happening around us all the time.
I can’t separate my music from my life. Music is not what I do; music is how I understand the world. I hope that if I find myself in a singular place: wilderness, urban, indoors, outdoors, real, imaginary—doesn’t matter—if I find myself in a real place, a true place, and I am paying attention, then maybe I hear something that becomes music. If that happens, then I hope the music floats away, takes on a life of its own, and becomes something else to you when you hear it.”
Molly Sheridan, who conducted this interview for New Music Box says,
“Adams has a careful, considered way of speaking which, by all indications, is quite similar to the way he works in the solitude of the small cabin he calls his composition studio in Alaska. In a pre-concert discussion before Inuksuit was performed, Adams noted that it wasn’t a site-specific work, but rather a site-determined piece. Listeners are invited to find the music in the space, wherever that may ultimately be. This takes his work beyond the idea that it is music that is about place and makes it music that is place. As an audience, we are invited to listen with him, hearing the world through his ears and also our own.”
As Adams continues, how he frames his life’s work, as an introverted creative person, certainly resonates with me.
His music is his muse, and he allows the process of discovery to take him where it will.
“My primary relationship with the work is still very much an introspective, lonely, solitary experience. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve always had this kind of bipolar life, but it’s a matter of keeping the internal and the external lives in balance. I can’t get enough of these wonderful performances by these incredible musicians, and it’s nice to occasionally get paid now for doing my work. It’s lovely that some people are taking note and writing about it. But I think as far as the rhythm of my life goes, the balance needs to be very much sort of 80/20, you know, solitary versus extroverted.”
“No one ever told me that I could have a career as a composer. No one ever told me I couldn’t. I just didn’t think in those terms, and I made all the wrong choices every step of the way. I made all the wrong career choices and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think the music knew where it wanted me to go. By a series of happy accidents, and a few conscious choices and maybe the peculiarities of my own psyche, I kept making all the wrong choices, and that’s turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened for the music and for the composer. If I’d come to New York as a kid and had been that hotshot young composer, I think that would have been a bad thing for me.”
“I retreated into the woods, and I started listening to birds. I listened for six months, learning the strange syllables one by one before I began writing things down. That for me was the beginning of the life’s work that’s continued ever since. That would have been 1974; I was 21.
As I’m teaching at Harvard now, and I’ve been teaching at Northwestern, I’m starting to understand how unconventional a path it’s been. I wasn’t aware of that because it’s just my life. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I hope I never do. When I find that I know what I’m doing, I’ll know I’m doing the wrong thing. For me, it’s this continuing process of discovery and exploration and taking on new things, following the curiosity, the fascination, and occasionally the wonder of creative work. I don’t think that’s something you understand while you’re doing it.”
More about his latest work and what the implications of what the music is saying through him, in Part 2.