EVANSTON, Ill. --- The 80 musicians arranged in U formation on the south lawn of the stunning new glass-encased Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts at Northwestern University exceeded expectations last weekend with their haunting performance of “Sila: the Breath of the World.”
As part of the center’s dedication, the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music musicians performed the Midwest premiere of the full orchestral version of the latest outdoor work of John Luther Adams, winner of the University’s 2010 Nemmers Prize in Music and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The instrumental ensembles (woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, choral singers through megaphones) responded to pitch cues piped through earpieces to create slowly evolving clouds of sound generated by the breath of each performer.
In this case, the mystical music of the outdoors that Adams is well known for blended with the wind off of Lake Michigan on a chilly fall evening and the hushed sounds of audience members who wandered among the musicians or sat on the green in the middle of them, many looking completely absorbed in the experience.
The moody sky, the rough waters of Lake Michigan, tossing a sailboat here and there, and the foggy views of Chicago’s skyline 13 miles away, formed a huge meditative canvas, allowing the Inuit-inspired sounds of the concert to take full advantage of nature and the idyllic Northwestern location.
"In Inuit tradition, the spirit that animates all things is sila, the breath of the world,” said Adams, who until recently lived in Alaska, for nearly 40 years. “Sila is the wind and weather, the forces of nature.”
Adams currently lives in New York City but continues to be inspired by the overwhelming presence of Alaska’s topography and culture.
“Most of what I do is influenced by the spiritual geography of the North,” he said.
“Sila” is based on the first 16 tones of the harmonic series -- which provides the broadest possible harmonic territory, something Adams refers to as “organic, natural sound.”
“For quite a while at the beginning, we are in a B-flat major world,” he said in a previous interview. “By the end of the piece, we are getting these gorgeous elisions of the harmonic series, superimposed on itself, by a semitone, semitones of different sizes...so it gets more and more dissonant, but in a very organic and, I think, beautiful way.”
Adams joined Bienen School students for the first week of classes to prepare the piece for performance.
“Sila” launched a yearlong series of public events to celebrate the new Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. The free Friday and Saturday (Sept. 25 and 26) early evening concerts attracted several hundred Northwestern faculty and staff members, students and North Shore residents of all ages.
“Audience members experience the work surrounded by the musicians -- they may sit, stand or wander -- creating their own evolving environment for the work, which is a beautiful meditation on the natural world and our place in it,” said Bienen School conducting faculty member Donald Nally. “It’s a different way of thinking about music, and I thought this was the perfect piece to consecrate the new music building.”
The concerts were presented under the musical directorship of Nally and Bienen School conducting faculty member Benjamin Bolter and percussionist Doug Perkins of eighth blackbird, a multiple Grammy Award-winning contemporary music sextet based in Chicago.
The hourlong work, performed without a conductor, premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center last summer and is designed to gradually dissolve into the larger sonic landscape of its location.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, the Bienen School student musicians marched out to their designated spots on the lawn marked by dozens of spinning metallic pinwheels.
“We needed a way to designate where the musicians would be when they arrived on the lawn, so that people would know to leave that space free until the musicians were in place,” Nally said. “It had to be something that touched on breath (wind) and could be put in and out of the ground several times for rehearsal and performance, and also easy for the ushers to explain.”
The concert began with what sounded like a distant foghorn, followed by sounds reminiscent to seagull calls -- both achieved vocally and instrumentally. Adams, with head down and hands in his pockets, slowly wandered in and around the five sections of musicians, listening intently to the “shimmering and shifting” sounds of the student ensembles.
“Sila” is a “site-determined” work that was inspired by an Inuit tradition, Adams said. It is comprised of five different ensembles of woods, brass, percussion, strings and voices -- set up in almost pie-like triangular sections -- that may perform the work in any combination -- successively or simultaneously. Each note is the length of one breath.
“We had three rehearsals together on the grass this week, and then we broke up into small groups,” said clarinetist DaJuan Brooks, a second-year master’s student who was positioned in the woodwind section. “It was great learning how to put it all together without a conductor.”
After the concert concluded with a round of enthusiastic applause, one young woman in the audience turned to her companion and said, “What a wonderful way to end the work week.” Others commented on how they felt Adams’ work had been a “spiritual” and “moving experience.”
The event marked just the ninth time “Sila” had ever been performed in public. It was performed twice at Lincoln Center last year; three times in Washington, D.C., with the United States Air Force Band; twice in California at the Ojai Festival at Berkeley; and once in Brisbane, Australia.
In an interview after the first Northwestern concert, Adams said that one of the three, full-symphonic versions of “Sila” performed in Washington had to be moved indoors because of a severe weather prediction of violent thunderstorms.
“It was awful,” Adams noted. “There was way too much sound (indoors), but that experience was useful for me. It confirmed for me that “Sila” is an outdoor piece.”
That certainly was re-confirmed for him during the Northwestern “Sila” performances.
“The Northwestern student musicians were great not only in terms of skill, but also in their engagement,” Adams said. “They took it [the ‘Sila’ performance] very seriously. These outdoor pieces are pure joy for me. When my work is performed indoors I just sit there worrying. When they are performed outdoors, I’m just another kid enjoying it.”
- Pat Vaughan Tremmel contributed to this article