John Luther Adams on “Sila: The Breath of the World”

Besant Hill JLA
John Luther Adams at the 2013 performance of ‘Strange and Sacred Noise’ at Besant Hill School.

Composer John Luther Adams is no stranger to Ojai, with performances of his works in 2012 and 2013, including the ‘Inuksuit‘, featuring musicians placed throughout Libbey Park. Adams returns to Ojai this year for the West Coast Premiere of his new work ‘Sila: The Breath of the World’. Here he discusses the genesis of the piece and the significant differences in pieces written to be performed and heard outdoors.

“Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let
themselves be moved by a great force…”
– Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder

In Inuit tradition the spirit that animates all things is sila, the breath of
the world. 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

Over the past four decades most of my music has been inspired by the
outdoors, but heard indoors. With Inuksuit – for nine to ninety-nine
percussionists – I finally composed music intended from the start to be
performed and heard outdoors. In Sila: The Breath of the World, I
continue this exploration with a full orchestral palette.

Listening to music indoors, we usually try to ignore the outside world,
focusing our listening on a limited range of sounds. Listening outdoors
we’re challenged to expand our attention to encompass a multiplicity
of sounds. We’re invited to receive messages not only from the
composer and the performers, but also from the larger world around

In Sila the musicians are dispersed widely throughout a large
performance space. Listeners, too, are free to move around and
discover their own individual listening points. Listening carefully to the
counterpoint between the composed music of Sila and the never-ending
music of the performance site, we transform seemingly empty
space into more fully experienced place.

Sila is intended for performance outdoors by 16 to 80 musicians, or
more. The performance materials include scores and parts for five
different ensembles of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and
voices. These five ensembles may perform Sila in any combination,
successively or simultaneously, in the same space or separate spaces.
At Ojai, for the West Coast premiere, we present the full orchestral
version of the piece.

Sila comes out of the earth and rises to the sky. The piece traverses
sixteen harmonic clouds, grounded on the first sixteen harmonics of a
low B-flat. All the other tones in the music fall “between the cracks” of
the piano keyboard – off the grid of twelve-tone equal temperament.
Like the tuning, the flow of musical time in Sila is also off the grid.
There is no conductor. Each musician is a soloist who plays or sings a
unique part at her or his own pace. The sequence of musical events is
composed, but the length of each event is flexible. The music

A performance of Sila lasts approximately 70 minutes. There is no
clearly demarcated ending. As the music of the performance gradually
dissolves into the larger sonic landscape, the musicians join the
audience in listening to the continuing music of the place.

John Luther Adams

Join us for the West Coast Premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World
Thursday, June 11 | 3:30-4:45pm – Libbey Park
Free Community Event

Hear John Luther Adams’ Become River at the Saturday Late Night Concert
Saturday, June 13 | 10:30pm – Libbey Bowl
Free – Tickets required