John Luther Adams makes classical music for people who are not that into classical music. His pieces use classical instruments and voice to create drones, textures, and colors that combine to produce something that goes beyond the constraints of the sonata, symphony, or string quartet. His inspirations are often natural or environmental, and the resulting music explores vast expanses of desert, tundra, or ocean.
Sila: The Breath of the World is based on an Inuit notion of Gaia-like intelligence undergirding all of nature. It is not a composition per se, but rather a meta-composition – a set of rules from which conductor-less compositions can be derived. These rules incorporate the use of physical space as a variable. This is best described in the liner notes:
Sila is scored for five ensembles of 16 musicians —woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices— who may perform the music in any combination, successively or simultaneously, outdoors, or in a large indoor space. The musicians are dispersed widely, surrounding the listeners, who are free to move around and discover their own individual listening points.
This recording is a single track spanning 55 minutes, and represents just one possible representation of Sila. Each of the ensembles produces drones, chords, and long-held notes that ebb and flow at a tectonic pace. The percussionists contribute dense rumblings that move in and out of the foreground, as well as more punctuated appearances of cymbals and gongs. Slightly prior to the one-third mark, the vocalists become more prominent with slow chants that partially blend with the woodwinds and strings. The result is a set of shimmering and modulating sound walls that are trancelike but without obvious repetition.
To appreciate Sila, it needs to be heard at a high volume, preferably in a large room. But even if experienced through headphones, this latest addition to Adams’ oeuvre is an unconventional and compelling effort that can be enjoyed passively for its cinematic aspects or more actively in an attempt to unravel its many overlapping themes.
The album will come out on September 23 from Cantaloupe Music.