Festival on the Hill: John Luther Adams's Sila: The Breath of the World
UNC's McCorkle Place, Chapel Hill
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Standing in the middle of eighty or so musicians on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at how soft they all sounded. It was 3:15 p.m., and I was in UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for a performance of John Luther Adams
’s Sila: The Breath of the World
, the centerpiece of this year’s Festival on the Hill
. Written in 2013, Sila
is the latest in a series of works by Adams that are performed outdoors and meant to bring the outside world into the music. (Coincidentally, a performance of his similar Inuksuit
happened almost simultaneously at the Big Ears Festival
feels more like musical mist than a composed piece. The sound just hangs in place, subtly changing as time passes, with different densities and textures depending on where you stand or where you look. There were musicians—members of UNC's orchestra and wind ensemble and the Carolina Chamber Singers, too—everywhere, leading to the odd sights of a bassoonist standing in a sunny spot on the grass, a cellist seated behind a tree. The audience milled about, walking among and around the musicians, trying to find their perfect spot.
At one point, I stood with a group of string players behind me, a small army of brass in front of me, woodwinds in the distance, and some percussionists scattered around. The sound, an enveloping chord built on the overtone series, delivered a strangely diffuse mix, like no instrument I’ve ever heard.
In another corner of the field, a circle of vocalists sang through old-fashioned megaphones borrowed from the UNC cheerleading squad, gradually rotating as they offered rising arpeggios. The whole piece was wonderfully spatial and subjective, so that no two people wandering around the field would have the same experience. Everywhere I went offered a different grit and grain, often, but not always, provided by ever-shifting percussion. The percussionists' sounds colored the musical clouds in unpredictable ways. At one point, they were creating waves with maracas. Later, they were rubbing together stones or gently beating triangles. Still, it never seemed loud, even when I was standing between a crowd of trumpets and trombones.
At the end, pitch fell away, and all the players started exhaling through their megaphones, invoking the wind. Right on cue, a bus drove by on Franklin Street, the whirr of its diesel engine and the sigh of its pneumatic breaks harmonious with the vocal whoosh.
At Big Ears, conductor and percussionist Steven Schick has described Adams’s music
: “At first your music was about a place. Then it was about place
. Then it was
a place.” I would take it a step further to say that it transforms a place. When the musicians stopped completely, the traffic on Franklin Street—along with the birds, the wind, and a lone trumpeter practicing in the music building—kept the performance going.
As far as I know, they still are.