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Sila: The Breath of the World

March 6, 2016

John Luther Adams
Sila: The Breath of the World
Performed by Wellington Orchestra
Civic Square, 5pm, March 5th, 2016

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Imagine if you were commissioned to write a work for orchestra that had to be:

  • about an hour long,
  • performed outdoors in a public space, without a conductor,
  • be immune to random city noise, people wandering around and talking, and
  • could grab the interest of people who just happen to be passing through, regardless of when they arrive.

Maybe these requirements would lead you inevitably to composing this exact piece?

The score for each musican (as could be easily verified while wandering around – more about that later) consisted of a single page with around 16 phrases to be repeated for a precise length of time before moving onto the next one. These phrases were generally single notes, or three note arpeggios, or (for the percussion) rolls or other sustained sounds. Each phrase is supposed to last for the length of one exhalation, and the gap between repeats of the phrase seemed to be arbitrary.

The evolution of the piece mainly consisted in slow movement between a small number of basic chords (the first was F major). There was also variety added by things like the clarinets switching to bass clarinets, or the percussionists going from snare rolls to shakers. There were also singers wandering the square with paper cones to sing into. At the end the music gradually faded to nothing but the sound of blowing through instruments or cones, then finally to nothing at all.

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Strictly as music, it’s very simple, minimalist in the true sense, as opposed to minimalist meaning relentless rhythmic pulsations and rapid playing. But the interactions this whole setup created between the audience, the city, and nature were really quite fun.

Firstly you could walk around the square, examining different instruments and watching the musicians. I saw a guy get a selfie with the oboes, and other people looking fascinated by the sight of a bowed vibraphone. I think my favourites were watching the trumpet players up on a balcony horsing around and trying to hear the very subtle sounds of a gong rubbed with what looked like a slightly giant chupa-chup. This is immediately a totally different experience to the typical concert where you are miles from the players!

The length of the piece and its mostly static nature helped with this exploration, because you got the sense that nothing dramatic was going to occur that you might miss by going on a wander. And the randomly overlapping and reinforcing playing of all the different instruments meant that it wasn’t static in actual sound or attack, just in that it was all one very long chord.

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For me, after a while I kind of felt like I’d seen it all and wanted to simply sit down and listen for a while. After a couple of cycles of wandering and listening I sat down with some friends and we chatted a bit, as the piece continued on. But ever so gradually musicians started to drop out and get quieter and quieter, and as this happened the general noise of the crowd also faded to zero. Since there was still whoosing sounds of breath being blown through the instruments and paper cones it was clearly not the end of the piece, but by this point all you could really hear was the sound of the city – the general hum of air conditioners and traffic, seagulls, wind, and, perfectly timed at more or less the conclusion, the ferry foghorn blasting over the harbour.

In a way this was like a much more accessible 4’33”. Not that 4’33” is inaccessible exactly but I think that piece is best in a concert hall situation where it subverts the rules of a classical performance. This piece just invits anyone walking by to be drawn in and finally to really listen to the world around them. Who knew the ‘avant-garde’ could be such fun for the family!

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