This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Musical Composition was awarded to my longtime friend and colleague, John Luther Adams. The award was specifically for a spacious new orchestral work of his, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Become Ocean. But the prize for Adams, as is the case with others so honored, also reflects upon the Alaska master’s record of unique achievement over the decades. The composer has long, at least up until recently, suffered having his name in the shadow of San Francisco-based composer, John Adams, with John Luther Adams often being called “the OTHER John Adams.” I’ve long referred to JLA as “the REAL John Adams.”
Become Ocean was first performed in Seattle in 2013. The Seattle Symphony gave the work its New York City premiere on May 6th, 2014. WQXR Radio in New York has archived the sound file of that performance at their web site. It is a powerful, spacey and ultimately gripping wall of sounds.
In midsummer, Adams had a new work, commissioned by Lincoln Center for their Out of Doors Festival, receive its first full airing in the center’s Hearst Plaza, between the Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School of Music. The new composition, Sila: Breath of the World, is a new look at an idea he hit upon fully in the earlier outdoor masterpiece, Inuksuit.
Both Inuksuit and Sila are aleatoric, in that no two performances of either work will closely resemble any others. A lot is left up to chance and to the environmental ambience of the outdoor performance space.
Anne Midgette, writing of Sila‘s premiere for the Washington Post, described the performance:
Brass players stood like sentinels along the edge of an upthrust triangle of grass against the backdrop of a New York cityscape gilded by the late sun. Below them, women in black gowns moved through a reflecting pool, barely rippling, like chips broken off the Henry Moore sculpture thrusting out of the water behind them. From the hum of the city emerged a barely audible rumbling of drums, growing louder. Then winds, and then the brass, began to unsheathe arpeggios, rising patterns of notes, growing gradually louder, like encroaching waves on sand, and the women in the pool raised megaphones and began to sing.
The world premiere of John Luther Adams’s “Sila: The Breath of the World” Friday night at New York’s Lincoln Center had the visual aesthetic of a music video, the vibe of a cultural Happening — some 2,500 people congregated on Hearst Plaza, between the Metropolitan Opera and 65th Street, to watch — and the sound of Richard Wagner as channeled by John Cage.
Upon watching a video of that performance, I wrote: