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A Breath Of Inspiration: John Luther Adams' New 'Sila'

Composer John Luther Adams has been enjoying enormous success. He won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his expansive, unsettling and darkly beautiful orchestral piece Become Ocean, which will be released in the fall in a recording by the Seattle Symphony. His monumental 2009 percussion piece Inuksuit has been recorded and staged several times now across the country and abroad, from Tennessee to Portugal — a success almost unthinkable in the age of one-and-done premieres.

The ideas that have long compelled Adams have found a new home and expression in his outdoor work Sila: The Breath of the World, which was premiered at Lincoln Center Friday evening, with a repeat performance the following night. (I attended both the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal and the second concert.) The twin hallmarks of Adams' work — a deep concern with the interactions between humans and the environment, an undeniable though wholly nonsectarian mysticism — are fused through masterly command of musical texture and pacing.

Jointly commissioned by two of Lincoln Center's signature summer series, the Mostly Mozart Festival and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the premiere of Sila fulfilled goals of both: to engender the creation of new works and to use the organization's outdoor space more creatively, a welcome recent development for concertgoers familiar with the campus only through entering and exiting its temples of culture. Arrayed around what is broadly called the Hearst Plaza, the 81 performers in Sila were dotted across a grass lawn, among a grove of trees and even in a pool of water.

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. Does that sound anarchic, or overly academic? Hardly. 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.

As in other Adams works, and most famously in his Inuksuit, audience members also participate in shaping their own experiences. Where a listener chooses to sit, stand or meander alters the sonic experience, and each person's experience is different. I chose to rotate my listening spots every 10 or 15 minutes.

String players were stationed along the edge of a small grove of trees, by a post under the overhang of the Lincoln Center Theater. The winds, brass and timpani players standing on a grassy hill that descends from the entrance to The Juilliard School might as well have been sounding in a far-off field, though they were only a few dozen feet away. At the southeast corner of the space, the metallic hum of bowed cymbals dominated for a while; at the northeast, it was the clink of glasses and clatter of plates at a restaurant's outdoor tables. And in the middle of a pool at the heart of the performance space, singers stood knee-deep in water.

Led by musical director Doug Perkins, some of the country's foremost new music specialists played the premiere. They were culled from flocks of Adams devotees from across the country — members of Chicago's eighth blackbird, Philadelphia's The Crossing choir and Michigan's Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble among them. They performed alongside such New York denizens as the JACK Quartet, TILT Brass and Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra and many of the city's notable freelancers (including John Altieri, the conductor/tuba player from NPR Music's recent 100+ BPM project.) Their gathering for Sila was a testament to the enthusiasm Adams' music has generated among performers.

At the first full performance, audience members were not allowed to walk along the main pathway on the long side of the pool, between the string players and a line of percussionists, though many sat there (as I did, briefly, during the dress rehearsal). By Saturday night, Adams had given his benediction for listeners to walk through there, and this major artery was soon clogged up. About 30 minutes into the piece, the experience was half meditation labyrinth, half the familiar slog of navigating an uptown 1 train during rush hour.

But something else transpired as well. Absent a stage, the traditional walls between musicians and listeners dissipated absolutely. That intimacy created a marvelous cocoon of shared experience and silky, ethereal layers of sound. The physical closeness did create its own perils: On Saturday, I saw a couple of people in alarming proximity to the musicians and their instruments snapping selfies mid-performance.

Yet even those interruptions couldn't permeate the quiet, deeply contemplative nature of Adams' elegantly wrought and mesmerizing work. 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.

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