EXCLUSIVE: John Luther Adams on ‘Sila: The Breath of the World' La Jolla Symphony Performance

By Louise Burton on Sep 24, 2015 05:23 PM EDT

"I'm in New York City right now, but my home is Alaska, and I have lived up there for almost 40 years," John Luther Adams said during a recent phone interview. "And so everything I do, everything I am as a creative artist, in some way is influenced by the overwhelming presence of that physical and cultural geography."

Adams said this by way of an introduction to his recent outdoor work, Sila: The Breath of the World, which was inspired by an Inuit tradition that recognizes the spirit that animates all things.

As Adams explains, "Sila is the wind, it is the weather, it is--more than that though. It's the intelligence of the world, it's our awareness of the world that we inhabit, and it's the world's awareness of us."

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus will perform this site-determined work in San Diego on September 27. The free concert will take place at 3:00 p.m. in Balboa Park, during which visitors will have the freedom to wander throughout the area listening to musicians grouped in various parts of the Japanese Friendship Garden. This unique arrangement will allow every listener to have a shared yet individual sensory experience throughout the 70-minute piece.

La Jolla Symphony, directed by Steven Schick, is the largest community orchestra in San Diego. Executive Director Diane Salisbury said that the outdoor work will be an adventure for both musicians and audience members. "The La Jolla Symphony is privileged to have the opportunity to perform this breathtaking piece by John Luther Adams at the Japanese Friendship Garden this September, on behalf of the park's 100th year celebration," she said in a statement released by the orchestra. "...We are excited to see how the public will receive such a unique and rare orchestral performance."

Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014, has written other site-determined works including Inuksuit, his often-performed work for percussion ensemble, and a recent piece for French horns called Across the Distance. Performances of these outdoor works vary depending on the landscapes in which they are performed.

"This is music as re-engagement with the mystery and the magic of the world that we inhabit," Adams explained. "And so the vegetation, topography, the local birds, the human presence, all these elements shape each individual performance of Sila and the other outdoor works, in fundamental ways."

Sila received its premiere last summer at Lincoln Center in New York. Adams said he looked for a long time before settling on the area around a pool of water at Lincoln Center for the premiere performance, captured on video below. He recommends listening with high-quality headphones to catch the nuances of sound in this particular space:

"In Sila and Inuksuit, certainly, it's difficult to say exactly where the music of the piece begins and ends, as distinct from the music of the place in which it's performed," Adams said. "My hope is that the boundaries get blurred, and that through listening intently to the music, we come to hear more vividly the never-ending music of the place in which the music is being performed.

"So there's a profound relationship between the music...and the site in which the performance occurs," he concluded.

Adams also noted that the music of Sila is grounded in the harmonic series: "It's the font of all musical tone. It's nature singing, what we hear when the wind blows, if we're listening carefully. We hear arpeggiations of the harmonic series."

He described the work as "A series of 16 harmonic clouds that slowly elide one into the next and the next and the next, over the course of 70 minutes, and they're always rising. The fundamentals of the clouds are derived from the first 16 harmonics of the first cloud. Everything is grounded in a low B flat.

"As it rises, as happens with the harmonic series, the intervals get smaller and smaller. For quite a while at the beginning, we are in a B flat major world. 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."

Regarding the key of B flat, he observed "You know, there are all of these popular science attempts to explain music, or explain the universe in terms of music, and the current thinking is that the fundamental tone of the universe is B flat.

"That's not why I chose it, though," he said, laughing. "I chose it because, given the range of the orchestral instruments, it gives us the broadest possible harmonic territory.

"But I do like that apparently, according to current popular science, B flat is the home tone of the universe."

More information about La Jolla Symphony's performance of Sila: Breath of the World at Balboa Park is available at

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TagsJohn Luther Adams, Sila: The Breath of the World, La Jolla Symphony, Balboa Park, San Diego, Steven Schick, Inuksuit, Sila, EXCLUSIVE

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